The minefield of ministry: a conversation with harold kim in response to joshua harris
Harold Kim and David Nam | AUGUST 21, 2019 | 5 MIN READ
An Introduction from SOLA: Joshua Harris’ announcement that he was no longer a Christian reverberated throughout the Christian world. (Note: Harris was one of the speakers for SOLA Conference 2017.) Harris, who was most famous for his I Kissed Dating Goodbye book that typified purity culture, announced on Instagram in July that he and his wife were getting a divorce. About a week later, he said on another post, ”By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
Some in the Christian world bid him farewell, while others prayed for him and urged others to do the same.
How should we view Joshua Harris’ deconversion? What should we make of this trend of influential leaders renouncing their beliefs? Is there a way we can ensure that our pastors will not fall away? What should we do if we feel betrayed?
To help us answer those questions, we are sharing a conversation between David Nam and Harold Kim, president of the SOLA Council and senior pastor of Christ Central of Southern California (Disclosure: David is a member of Christ Central of Southern California).
David interviewed Pastor Harold to explore some of the broader issues raised by Harris’ life and actions. The aim of this interview was not to dissect Harris’s announcement or to respond directly to Harris’s personal situation. Instead, they talked about how Christians should view influential leaders and how being a pastor can be a difficult, lonely journey. Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
David Nam: This news about Joshua Harris touches on so many different issues, and one of them is how we select our leaders in the church and the question of how we can choose leaders who will persevere in their ministry.
I think it’s safe to say that the American church loves celebrity pastors, and on a smaller scale, we value leaders who are dynamic, inspirational, and “successful”—all good things, but these aren’t necessarily indicators of stability, perseverance, or longevity. How do you assess the strengths and weaknesses of our current leadership culture?
Harold Kim: That’s so huge. Let me try to talk about Joshua Harris’s story, as I know it, and then I’ll try to broaden the lens just a little bit. Joshua Harris, by his own admission, said that he was living the life of Benjamin Button, living his life backwards. He said that he felt untrained, unschooled in the traditional way before he became a pastor.
They [at Covenant Life Church] have their own pastors college, and I’m sure there are merits to that, but I think there is something to having a wider exposure outside of a local church. I think we can get too narrow, too in-house, and I think that does not prepare us well for the broader evangelical world, let alone the broader non-believing world.
Also, in saying that we are attracted to celebrity status or charisma more than character, in no way am I intending to say that Joshua Harris was picked more for his celebrity status than his character. I’m also not sure that the two are naturally opposed. I think it’s better to say that having celebrity status, fame, or a brand at such a young age is an enormous obstacle for developing character. I think it’s too big and too early of a temptation.
The statistics say that only one in ten pastors retire as pastors. Only ten percent. There’s a minefield of reasons why pastors don’t last and retire as pastors, and that list of reasons has become more vivid and more detailed to me, through my own experiences, in my own heart, and among my friends in ministry. I didn’t know how many different ways it could go wrong in your ministry.
DN: Joshua Harris comes out of one particular church and church setting, but if we look more broadly, we do have these accredited seminaries, many with nationally recognized names, but a lot of times the process of pastoral selection looks like any other job search.
Advancement in ministry often comes from things like fame or following or recognition. This kind of recognition reflects, to some degree, genuine gifting and accomplishments in ministry and leadership, but are there ways in which the system of selecting pastors needs to be balanced out? Are there one or two changes that would help the most?
HK: So one or two things that could be changed. Number one, a clear and stronger sense of personal calling. Calling is affinity, ability, and opportunity, the late Ed Clowney would say. The person needs a personal summons, a sense that their life has been called and taken over by Jesus as Lord.
Lacking a personal calling is very dangerous. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had to fall back to fall forward, in the sense that I look back to know that Jesus called me to do ministry. Without a calling from Jesus, you run out of reasons to stay in ministry, except for pure pragmatics: You know the job, and you have to keep the job because you have to provide for your family.
When we interview people going into ministry, instead of emphasizing gifts, effectiveness, or how many people follow them, we really need to hear their stories of grace. We need to hear a story of how they got called. I don’t think there’s any substitute for that. Because when their effectiveness or their following or anything external goes wrong, they need an internal conviction, a sense that Jesus has called them.
Second, it really is not just character, but holistic well-being. We have to do church differently, because this is not just about Joshua Harris. How do we proactively, preventatively keep pastors healthy? We’re not doing that. This weighs on me more than ever. So how do we promote that?
First, if married, how do we encourage and develop a healthy marriage and a healthy family life? They need ample time and space to do that. Second, how do we address isolation and shame?. Pastors often have no safe places where they can go to talk. They can’t necessarily just go to their own church elders or leaders. That might be the least safe place, because they could get judged or fired if they confess certain things.
So those two factors come to mind. How do we provide the venue to support a pastor’s holistic well-being? This is where SOLA and the Christ Central Network and other networks, including presbyteries, are so vital. For myself and for other pastors, we need these safe and healthy avenues for holistic well-being. I think it’s imperative. Whether it’s pastors getting fired or resigning, whether they burn out or flame out with a scandal—whatever it is, it’s no longer a question of if, but when. Spiritual warfare is for real.
DN: Yes, and when that happens, a lot of people are affected. The news about Joshua Harris has a significant impact on a lot of people who have personally encountered him as an author, a pastor, or a speaker.
For those who have personally experienced something similar with their own pastors and have struggled in their own faith as a result, what are some words of counsel or encouragement you might offer? How should Christians understand what is going on with their leaders and the wreckage it leaves in their own spiritual lives?
HK: [The book of] James teaches that Christian leaders are going to be held to stricter accountability or judgment. What’s sobering for all fellow pastors is that the things we teach, the things we espouse, the things we say we believe—all that can change. The Scriptures give some guardrails for how we interpret that change and what that change means. I believe that once saved, you’re always saved. I think a person will always come back in genuine repentance and restoration, if they have been gripped by the love of Jesus and the gospel. If not, 1 John 2:19 explains it was pretense, it was not real. None of us can infallibly judge or determine that on this side of heaven.
A word of comfort or counsel for those are disappointed or disillusioned, by Joshua Harris or any other pastor or leader who has stumbled: I would just say that there are too many biblical examples of leaders who have stumbled and have scandalized themselves. I say carefully that this is nothing new. Leaders and those who follow them alike, we have all been naïve. We’ve been naïve to think that leaders are super-human, super-spiritual, and different from the rest of us. We put them on a pedestal and idolize them.
This can foster great loneliness [in our leaders], because they can never break that mold of being on a pedestal. If they do, it might ruin their brand, their church, their fame, and their effectiveness.
This is toxic. We need a healthy dosage of the doctrine of sin for everyone, where every pastor and every leader is recognized as utterly frail and human. They get time with family and friends and safe places for counsel, fellowship and intimate prayers.
How should the rest of us handle this news? With much sobriety and prayer. Not just prayer for Joshua Harris. We really need to turn around and ask, do my leaders and pastors, do they have a safe haven? Are they healthy? Are they functioning as normal human beings or do we hold them to this other, almost impossible standard, where they can’t confess their sins and they can’t make mistakes? I think we’re setting up a pressure cooker that’s going to burst.
DN: Are there any final thoughts you want to share?
HK: I really appreciate the honesty with which Joshua Harris said [in his Instagram post], “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” While saddening and heart-wrenching, I appreciate his clarity that there are dividing lines. We cannot reconcile all beliefs and lifestyles... There are absolute laws put in place by a loving and living sovereign God. The only solution for is not by legalism or licentiousness — it’s not by me trying harder, trying to live up to the law or trying to make my own laws — it’s only through the gospel. Jesus Christ came down for us and lived out a life I could never live for myself.
Christian life is not just a belief that Jesus died for me and rose again for me; but by the power of His Spirit uniting himself with me, Jesus lives out the law in our very lives... I appreciate and respect that Joshua Harris, intentionally or not, spells out that not all theologies work, not all lifestyles are okay, not every ethic goes... whereas some have tried to smuggle in beliefs and lifestyles clearly outside the bounds of Christian life according to scripture.
My final thought would be on the minefield of ministry and the challenge of finishing and retiring well. I shudder to think about all the people who would be affected by my own failure, and that somehow they would cease to follow Christ because I stopped following Christ. I don’t know what that would feel like. A good friend of mine put it well when he wrote this passionate personal prayer to his fellow brothers, mostly pastors: I pray I would rather lose you to physical death than lose you as a brother in Christ.
Joshua Harris’s announcement made me think we’re doing something wrong. We’ve mentioned a lot of things: celebrity, isolation, character, being healthy. There is a minefield of ministry: one landmine is morality, another mine is financial, another mine is relational, another is pride, another is glory, another is conflict resolution. There is a minefield, and our leaders are targeted more than any others, sometimes inadvertently by congregation members who idolize them.
I hope churches will take proactive steps to allow their pastors to get the help and care they need to stay healthy in ministry.
Harold Kim is the senior and founding pastor of Christ Central of Southern California and serves on the Board for Christ Central Network (CCN). He received his Master of Divinity (M.Div.) from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and his Master of Theology (Th.M.) from Princeton Theological Seminary. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) in 2001 and is now a member of the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC). Harold is a happily married husband to SunHi, and devoted father to his two daughters, Taylor and Elizabeth. Harold serves as the President of SOLA Network.
David Nam is an itinerating missionary with Mission to the World, a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Korean American Presbyterian Church. David is also a member of Christ Central of Southern California.