By Bill Webb
The term "clergy failure" usually suggests moral failure, which in turn suggests sexual misconduct.
A lot of Baptists seem to have a preoccupation with sex and sexual misconduct. Mention of the word "adultery" or "fornication" in an otherwise dry sermon will immediately perk up the soundest sleeper. Even so, news of a minister's illicit affair is often met with little alarm. More than one member has spotted a silver lining in learning of a pastor's fall, noting with relief, "Well, at least it wasn't a homosexual affair!"
But clergy failure — indeed human failure — can manifest itself in ways that are legion.
Another high-profile failure
In recent days, it has manifested itself publicly in the life of a charismatic, well-connected, rising-star pastor in Florida. Steven Flockhart, 40, pastor of 10,000-member First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach until a few days ago, has been accused of stealing, lying and tax-evasion.
The former pastor has been accused of writing checks on a former church's bank account and running up charges on a church-provided credit card for his personal benefit. His alleged indiscretion was acknowledged only after he had moved on and his old Georgia congregation — Macedonia Baptist in Dawnville — discovered their former shepherd apparently had fleeced them of at least $162,799.
Tax and credit card judgments
In 1996, two years before he resigned from that church, the IRS filed a $8,617 lien against him for not paying taxes for three years. While he was in Dawnville, American Express Travel-Related Services slapped him with a $36,150 judgment, according to the Palm Beach Post. He ultimately paid both.
When the West Palm Beach church's executive pastor, Kevin Mahoney, confronted Flockhart with the judgments, he initially denied they existed. When shown the court documents, he acknowledged his financial problems but said they had been taken care of.
According to a lawsuit filed by Macedonia Baptist Church in 2000, Flockhart offered to repay at least a portion of the disputed funds. Instead, he persuaded church leaders to co-sign a loan for $142,638, then defaulted. That's when the bank came after the church, according to the suit.
According to the Post, Flockhart finally repaid the debt to the church last year.
News accounts suggest that neither Flockhart's next church, Crosspoint in Millington, Tenn., or the Florida church were aware of his problems in Georgia.
Flockhart's three-month ministry at West Palm Beach began to unravel when the Palm Beach Post reported on the megachurch pastor's financial problems in Georgia.
When confronted by West Palm Beach church leaders, he acknowledged to the congregation that he had been a poor steward and "made some mistakes, some blunders" but that he had learned from his mistakes. "I've paid everything that I was supposed to pay 10 or 12 years ago, and other things I've taken care of," he said.
Explanation satisfies church leaders
Mahoney said the matter had been thoroughly investigated and deemed to be inconsequential, according to the newspaper. The presentation to the church — made three weeks ago — seemed to satisfy the congregation.
But within two weeks, the Post printed another story, this one suggesting that the resume Flockhart had submitted to the West Palm Beach search committee was bogus, and that he had lied about his educational credentials. Mahoney said later that the church had already begun its investigation into the same matter. When he confronted Flockhart, the pastor admitted he had lied, Mahoney said.
Flockhart apologized, asked for forgiveness and resigned on Aug. 26, effective immediately, apparently at the urging of the congregation's personnel committee.
What is particularly disturbing about this story is the willingness of members of the churches in Georgia, Tennessee and even Florida to simply pass off their former pastor's indiscretions as mere errors in judgment, particularly the financial scandals.
Some of those who were interviewed suggested that he was somehow a victim, that everyone makes mistakes and should be entitled to a second chance or – in this case – perhaps more chances. One member of the West Palm Beach church defended Flockhart by suggesting that whether or not the pastor was educated didn't matter anyway.
Others suggested by their responses that Flockhart's preaching prowess, his ability to draw large numbers and his charismatic personality all outweighed shortcomings in his character, which included stealing, lying and tax-evasion.
Tragedy on several fronts
A story like this is tragic in a lot of ways:
The pastor lacked accountability. Ultimately, the minister is responsible for his own integrity. But wise congregations develop systems to assure accountability — for the benefit of the church and the pastor. The Georgia congregation did not deserve what the pastor did to it, but it could have been proactive in preventing massive theft.
At least two churches failed to do their homework before they called a pastor. Apparently, these congregations relied heavily on the testimony of a Southern Baptist pastor of a megachurch, but all appeared lax in doing the necessary legwork to assure they were calling a leader with character. It would have been easy to confirm the accuracy and honesty of information in the resume, for instance.
In the same vein, prospective pastors should be as thorough in learning about a prospective church as the church is in examining a pastoral candidate.
While most ministers and churches do not intentionally lie to each other during the search process, it is human nature that neither the person nor the church voluntarily reveals all their skeletons. No church or minister is perfect, but each should strive to be honest with the other.
Even after wrongdoing was discovered, at least two of the churches were reluctant to call it what it is. To many church people, sin is an outdated word. But the concept is anything but irrelevant. When it is downplayed — dismissed as an error of judgment or a simple mistake — instead of adequately confronted, everyone suffers.
In this case, a man with outstanding pastoral skills now has the reputation of using his abilities to his own advantage, manipulating people at every stop. What a waste of a calling and God-given abilities! And three churches have seen their reputations suffer in their own communities and well beyond.
The Christian witness has been damaged in all three situations. Much of what happened could have been avoided.