Daniel Harrell on John Ortberg and the Pitfalls of Pastoral Discernment

Image: Courtesy of Menlo Church and Google Maps

Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.


John Ortberg’s resignation statement as senior pastor of Menlo Church, given all that transpired, provoked more sadness than surprise. I never knew Ortberg personally. Professionally, I appreciated his contributions as a writer and thinker and ministry leader. Many pastors aspire to the kind of reach Ortberg enjoyed, though few of us ever achieve it. This is perhaps its own blessing.

The cause behind Ortberg’s resignation was disconcertingly public. Ortberg allowed his son, who admitted being attracted to children, to serve as a volunteer with children. Social media furiously fluttered, drew hard lines, and lobbed rocks. Some cited 1 Timothy 3 expectations for leaders. The story has it all—family conflict, high profile missteps and miscalculation, obfuscation, and blind loyalties. As Menlo’s motto on its homepage reads, “Nobody’s perfect. Anything’s possible.”

The fierce reactions found fuel from the combustibility of call-out and cancel culture. It’s been painful to read. As a pastor for 35 years with my own laundry list of mistakes, I recall Jesus’ words. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). Nevertheless, actions have consequences. Pastors are sinners to be sure, but when we consent to our calling we assent to a high standard—public obedience atop pedestals and in fishbowls—on display not for show (Matt. 6:1), but as examples to imitate, like it or not (1 Cor. 4:16, 2 Thess. 3:9, Heb. 13:7). High, public standards mean certain failure, an opportunity in itself to exhibit the high calling of humble repentance and recommitment. We do not lower standards for the sake of preserving and performing a fake righteousness. As sinners, we embrace grace as pardon and as incentive. To recall Jesus’ words against stone-throwing, one must likewise recall his words to the sinner caught but no longer condemned: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV). In doing so, we aspire to “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

The path to such fullness depends on honest self-suspicion and truth both spoken in love and heeded. Christianity teaches that even our best motives come tinged with self-interest (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:15). Called to be shepherds, we choose to lead by going first and somehow showing the path as possible, in both its hardships and joys.

Ortberg acknowledged, “I want to express again my regret for not having served our church with better judgement.” In his final sermon on Sunday, Ortberg confessed his was a “broken story.” It was hard for him and hard to watch but also hard not to imagine church lawyers had a hand in it. In his statement, he wrote, “… I did not balance my responsibilities as a father with my responsibilities as a leader.” I wondered whether the concern should have been more about boundaries than balance. As shepherds of congregations, pastors’ primary responsibility is care for their flock, watching over, serving with love, being an example (1 Pet. 5:2–3). A congregation’s safety and well-being is paramount. Whenever the real strain of ministry on families emerges, it must be focused on and addressed rather than balanced, which sometimes may mean handing over responsibility and leadership to trusted others for a season. This models faithfulness and love.

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Source: Christianity Today