Eight Ways Leaders Make Themselves Vulnerable to Spiritual Attack

By Chuck Lawless

New Testament writers warn us again and again about the reality of spiritual attack. The apostle Paul, a leader extraordinaire, challenged believers to wear the full armor of God (Eph. 6:11), being ever aware of the enemy’s schemes (2 Cor. 2:11). The leader of the church at Jerusalem, James, called followers of Christ to resist the devil (Jms. 4:7). Peter, the leader among Jesus’ apostles, warned against the adversary who seeks someone to devour like a roaring lion (1 Pet. 5:8). It is no wonder, then, Paul reminded the church to choose leaders who are not set up for the devil’s traps (1 Tim. 3:6-7).

Based on years of my studying spiritual warfare, here are eight ways I’ve seen leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable to the enemy’s arrows:

1. We focus on others, often to the neglect of ourselves. We are caregivers, rightly recognizing our responsibility to watch over the souls of others (Heb. 13:17). As pastors or lay leaders, we want to love people who re hurting, guide young believers, challenge older believers, and influence our community. Ministry, after all, is about others. When we neglect our own spiritual and physical well being in the process, though, we make ourselves susceptible to the enemy.

2. We replace spiritual disciplines with ministry activity. Church leaders can always find something else to do. There are always others to reach and many to train. Hospitalized church members beckon. Broken marriages need counseling. So many are the ministry hours we put in that we’re tempted to remind others of our sacrifice. Too little time is left for personal spiritual disciplines—and the enemy’s target is on our back.

3. We do ministry in our own power. Sometimes we go through the motions of ministry. We’ve been trained. We’ve read the books. Perhaps we have years of experience. We know how to do ministry, so we just do it with little praying and less dependence—and few people recognize we lack the power of God. In this case, we’re not only vulnerable to attack; we’re already losing the battle.

4. We think failure will never happen to us. I know few leaders who readily admit their susceptibility to falling. After all, leaders don’t become leaders by being weak. They are focused on the vision. They are committed. Their conviction inspires others. As leaders, we should indeed strive for these characteristics. When our confidence overshadows our recognition of the enemy’s schemes, though, we may be in trouble.

5. We ignore our “little” sins. I realize, of course, that no sin is inconsequential. Sometimes, however, we give ourselves “professional permission” to cross the line into sin.

“That joke really isn’t that bad.”
“It’s not possible to find a movie without some immorality.”
“It’s no big deal if I tell a white lie.”

When we, in the paraphrased words of Charles Spurgeon, venture into sin where we think the stream is shallow, we soon find ourselves drowning in the enemy’s waters.

6. We see people as the enemy. To be honest, church people are often problematic. In fact, they’re not unlike believers in the New Testament. They want the best seats in the kingdom. They argue over who has the greatest gifts. Church folks are at times cliquish and divisive. Sometimes, they ignore leaders God has given them. When we see “flesh and blood” as the enemy, though, we open ourselves to the principalities and powers who are the real enemy (Eph. 6:12).

7. We minister in the secret places of others’ lives. Ministry is often confessional and personal—intimate, actually. The counseling room is especially private, where sins are admitted and secrets are revealed. Vulnerability abounds there, including ours. We are the representatives of God, often deeply respected and sometimes admired by those to whom we minister. The setting is ripe for the enemy’s arrows of pride, immorality, and even more hiddenness.

8. We have few real friends. Leaders of God’s church intellectually know the significance of the Body of Christ, but we too seldom build strong friendships within that Body. Unspoken jealousies among leaders hinder personal connections. Fear of embarrassment keeps us from being honest about our own struggles. We become loners even while we preach relationships and unity – and we thus fight spiritual battles alone. That kind of vulnerability can lead to disaster.

If you are a church leader, I challenge you to take this step: forward this blogpost to five believers, and ask them to pray for you. Get real about the enemy, and close the door to his victories.

Lifeway_Blog_Ad[1]Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary.

You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.


  1. mark cox says

    I have been in full time pastoral ministry 22 years now, 20 years in my current pastorate, and I have discovered that to build and maintain strong friendships within the church cannot be done. In my experience, I am able to build relationships with my people, but I wouldn’t say they are strong, especially not in the best friend definition. When I have allowed myself vulnerable enough to try, I have been burned or betrayed every single time. So I built two strong friendships with pastors in my denomination. Good article!

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Thanks, Mark. I agree it’s hard to develop real friendships within a church, but not impossible. Glad you found some friends among pastors.

    • Ken says

      Yes, it is possible to form some real friendships in the church. I’m fortunate to have some very solid and dependable deacons who have become some of my closest friends. However, I realize not all pastors have this blessing. When I was a pastor in Missouri, my closest friends were other pastors. Whether you’re close friends are in the church or outside, I agree such friendships are vital for survival in the ministry.

  2. Allen Calkins says

    A very good list. My biggest vulnerabilities are 2,3 & 5. I really do not believe 4 is a problem for anyone who has been in the ministry very long. I KNOW failure will happen…my problem sometimes is believing success can happen…and then there is the whole ‘define success’ debate. We tend to focus on what is measurable on earth and rewarded my peers. Not sure, but I do not believe those are God’s criteria for ministry success. But I find it hard for mine to be very different for very long.

  3. Scott Cassel says

    Dr. Lawless:

    I think you must be exceptionally well-connected to actual ministry and the work in the local perish, to so profoundly identify the issues. Friendship is a really difficult one. In my faith community pastors move reasonably frequently, which adds even more complexity in building and maintaining friendships. In-church friendships are highly problematic (in my experience), and out of church…what’s that? Outside interests might be a great place to begin, but the interests, hobbies, etc that I had entering ministry have largely fallen away to ministry and family.
    Thanks for giving words to the real-life ministry condition.



  4. Bryan Manary says

    An excellent list, especially #8. I would preach that one all day long! But I am not sure that I agree with #6 fully. While it is true generally, it has been my sad experience that the spiritual condition of many local churches has so fallen that they are vulnerable to bad people coming in and becoming powers in the church. I have seen at least once in my 25+ years of ministry where a person has actually been an enemy. They had given so given themselves over to evil that they had made themselves that way. I know such situations are rare, but they do exist. And I fear they are increasing.

    • James Matlock says

      Bryan, I too, know what it’s like to experience bad people coming in and becoming powers in the church and became a hardened enemy toward me. Last year I found myself a new seminary graduate in my first church and I wanted to make a successful start at my first church out of seminary. It was a church with a troubled past. So I knew I needed to walk humbly and loving toward the people of that church. I don’t have room here to give every detail. But I tried to unify them and bring reconciliation to the broken relationships within the church. But, there were some members who simply had no desire to walk together in unity. Instead, they wanted power and control at the expense of running off members and pastors, including me. My efforts to love them were responded to with resistance to my leadership, theft of some of my belongings, dishonesty with my finances, slander, and verbal abuse. My wife would often cry herself to sleep in the depths of depression at the expense of such harsh treatment. Even my daughter began to struggle at school, only to come home and tell me that a girl in her class was harassing her. This girl later confessed to my daughter that she was told to do so by a deacon in the church because he was trying to run me off. What do you do when you come to a church only to love them and to be treated with nothing but hatred in response? This experience deeply wounded me, creating much heartache toward me and my family that I finally just walked away from it. This situation is now a year behind me. But I am still dealing with some of the issues involved. Thankfully, though, by God’s grace, the wounds are not as fresh and painful now. I’m just now beginning to seek out opportunities to get back into another pastorate. Hopefully someday soon I’ll pastor a church again because this is what God has called me to do. Even if there is more pain and scars to come, I have no choice but to continue to walk humbly before God as a shepherd to His people.

      • Ken says

        Sorry you had to go through that, James. If people are going after a pastor’s family, I would advise that pastor to get out as soon as he can, as far away as he can, and don’t look back. People who do such things obviously have no sense of ethics, and when they’ll pay any price to get rid of you, there’s really not much you can do. You can’t win with people that refuse to let you win. Such persecution can cause your children to turn against God and the church, and that’s a price I’m not willing to pay.

        • James says

          You’re exactly right, Ken. This is one of the reasons I left that situation. I love my wife and children and there is nothing worth causing them to want to turn away from the Lord. I hope my next ministry position isn’t like this one. I know there is no perfect church, nor is there a perfect pastor. But I often hear and see examples of good relationships between churches and their pastors. I hope this next time is one of those kinds of experiences for me.

  5. steve pryor says

    The “it can’t happen to me” is a big one. The enemy loves it when we don’t take steps to prevent or ward off an attack. We are just inviting an attack, when we see ourselves as being above the attack.

  6. Jonathan Lemaster says

    Very timely article. Recently I’ve been struggling and feeling guilty for spending extra time on myself. Thank you for the encouragement and reminder in point 1. Thank you and God bless!

  7. Adam says

    This was a great read thanks Thom. I am currently pursuing the ministry and these are important issues that I will keep in my mind, and by Gods grace ward off the evil one.

  8. Ken says

    #7 is one of my pet peeves. We pastors want to help people, but some things are off-limits for discussion, even in the privacy of a counseling session. If a person is having sexual difficulties, for instance, you can usually get the gist of the problem without them sharing any of the sordid details. If not, then for heaven’s sake, send them to a professional counselor (preferably a Christian) who has more expertise in the area and doesn’t have to deal with the people on an ongoing basis. When you allow people to share too many intimate details with you, you’re just opening the door to the devil and inviting him in. DON’T DO IT!!!

  9. says

    Numbers 1 and 8 stick out to me…I sometimes don’t take care of myself well…and am beginning to work with a spiritual director for some help in this area…and finding closer friends in your ministry is hard – either because the conversation always ends up leaning toward “work”, or because you are afraid to share the innermost things…

  10. Scott Shaver says

    The encouragement and advice offered up in this article seems good and reasonable. Why is it not working?

    I’m not surprised that almost every comment without exception alludes to either the difficulty or impossibility of pastors being able to develop real friendships inside the church outside fellowship with other pastors. One comment even reveals an impression that measured success on earth and favorable evaluation by peers is a constant pressure.

    In recent decades, and not without denominational encouragement, the public image and perception of pastors seems to have shifted from that of a humble, spiritual servant and confidant to that of CEO. Once the pastor becomes CEO and the local church another business model, is there any question as to why the CEO has trouble building strong interpersonal relationships with those in the company?

    The Pastor/CEO model fails to consider that strong, successful leaders in the business world generally make it a RULE not to get to close to their employees. Insulation is absolutely necessary. Makes it easier to stay focused on company or stock holder objectives and in situations where, for the good of the company, folks have to be terminated, laid off or demoted.

    If I’ve heard one I’ve heard half a dozen sermons by pastors over the last year hammering church members about our needs as Christian people to be more intentional in building interpersonal relationships with others in the fellowship.

    The message rings hollow, because I know after 20 years of serving as a pastor myself within the SBC, most of my peers in ministry confessed the “impossibility” of building (or even trying to build) close personal relationships within their congregations. I’ve noticed also that the frequency of appeals from the pulpit for stronger interpersonal relationships among church members seem to intensify when there is an internal church problem or a multi-million dollar building project in the works.

    Somewhere along the way we’ve corrupted the biblical job description as well as the temporal expectations of pastors in the eyes of their congregants. Is there any wonder WHY they’re having relationship issues within a spiritual vocation that should be predisposed to building them?

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Thanks, Scott. I obviously agree this is a problem, but I’m also deeply grateful for the friends I’ve had in churches I’ve pastored. They’ve not been numerous, but they’ve been lifelong.

      • Scott Shaver says

        Likewise myself Chuck. There were people in every congregation I pastored who loved “Scott” and couldn’t have cared less about the inadequacies of “Dr. Shaver”. They were genuine blessings.

  11. says

    Thank you for this article. Christianity needs more teaching on this subject. So many ministers get burned out and/or find themselves in compromising positions that we need to take a closer look at our ministry models and church formats. In grace, and with your permission, I would like to add another:

    9. Ministers referring to themselves as Leaders.

    We actually have one Leader, our Lord Jesus (Matthew 23:8-12). After that every real believer is equal, though some obviously have more spiritual maturity than others. And based on this, any number of lateral spiritual relationships is possible, so long as each possesses the one necessary vertical relationship with the Lord.

    The early Church had a somewhat different model, in that the work was spread out among all, there were few spectators, and local Christian communities were of a manageable size and had several elders with different gifts working under the Lord’s authority. This greatly lightened the work load of each, and allowed for greater spiritual development and discipleship among new saints.

    Keep up the good work.

  12. Julie says

    I am not a pastor rather a Children’s church director. I taught at a private Christian school for fifteen years. I had always been passionate about others especially children. I was a risk taker and my prayer time each day was Lord I am your. Dont let me not to ever get in the way of your will for my life is not my own. I am very much aware of spiritual warfare. I have been married to a wonderful Christian man for thirty three years. We have three kids ( who are all adults now). Our youngest was adopted at age four. We found out at age eleven that he has autistic problems. He is now twenty years old but has the mentality of an elevev year old. After 25 years our Christian school unexpectedly closed and we had to put him in public school. That was the beginning of a downward spiral in my life. I say all this all to give insight of who I am or should I say who I was. My dad is a pastor since ny junior year in high school. The past two years I have been shook to the very core of not evening knowing who I am. Here is where I am today….I am still the children’s church director and have approached my pastor three times about the need of accountability to someone for those in leasdership in our church. I have been seeing an awesome Christian therapist for two years. I have contemplated suicide several times. I have been in a phyic hospital and of course I have a psychiatrists and on some meds. I KNOW and BELIEVE God’s is true. He never leaves us or forsake us but somewhere along my journey I have gotten lost. I cry out to God and I beg for forgiveness for whatever I have done to get to this place. I do not hear his voice and silence is the loudest sound there is. I still walk it out and teach the truth of his word. I try to put one foot in front of the other and I wait………until some day for this to end while praying I can on. My question….is why…..what must I do…..what have I done?

    • Allen Calkins says

      I am so sorry for the burden you are carrying. Obviously, reading your remark cannot begin to allow me to fully understand your problem. But I would like to say two things to you that I hope will be helpful:
      1) The bad circumstances that have come upon you are not your fault. It is not God punishing because you have done something wrong. God may continue to choose not to lift as much of your burden as you would like. But He is still there and He is still to only hope you have for hope and help that lasts.
      2) Talk to your therapist more. I do not know how frequently you have counseling. If it is less than once a week it needs to increase to at least that to give you an outlet until you feel things are more manageable. If you are already getting this level of counseling and it is not helping perhaps you need to seek a new counselor.
      Your post reveals a lot of pain and desperation. Don’t let it get any worse without seeking additional help. I am certain things can and will get better for you even if your circumstance stay relatively unchanged. But you need additional help to get there.

    • Ruth Boyce says

      Hello Julie: my name is Ruth Boyce. I am a Chaplain, a mother of 3 beautiful grown children, and a wife of 29 years to my lovely husband. I have worked in the church for about 30 years now but I have not always been this way.
      I wanted to write you because I have a story very similar to yours and when I read your story I knew I had to write you and see if my story might in any way empower you in the Lord and help draw you out of yours. I went through so many very bad things in my life. I almost lost my daughter to spinal meningitis but for the grace of God she lived. My son was 20 minutes from dieing when he had his appendix rupture and we were out of state and away from a hospital. My husband developed Addison’s disease and was dieing in the hospital but the doctors hours before he passed figured what they could do to help him and all this while I had heart failure, kidney trouble and Liver failure. I could go on and on with so many more things that happened to us as a family but that is not my point. I lost my way through all this. My ministry is a prophet and knowledge of spiritual things was a strong point for me. From an early age I was called by God and given gifts of healing and other things to help in the church. Many lives were touched through my ministry and then it all came to an end.
      I could not hear God’s voice any more. The calling I had on my life was seriously dry. I couldn’t seem to make a difference anywhere that I went. I prayed continuously but I too thought I had done something to fall out of favor with the Lord. I couldn’t figure it out and many years had passed. I hated what I was inside. I couldn’t stand not hearing from God.
      Through all this I continued to believe and minister where I could and I cried out to the Lord everyday for answers but to no avail. Or at least that was what I thought. One of the things I do and have done for the last several years is I get up and pray at 5:30 am every morning. I continued to do this even though I was hearing absolutely nothing. One morning I realized something….. There is no condemnation in Christ. And if the son has set you free you are free indeed so all this going on was not of God. I realized that the Holy Spirit is a comforter he is not a condemner. So one thing I would like to say is if you are feeling condemned about where you are and it sounds like you are if you are asking yourself “what have I done wrong” you NEED to understand that this is not your father in heaven this is the enemy, satan. He is the condemner. God is more interested in us getting up every day and standing in the power (authority in the Greek) of his name and forgetting about what happened the day before of the week before or the year before and standing as the great army of God that we are because he has already done the work. You don’t have to. Just stand and claim your promises in scripture.
      EVERY WORD of God in the Bible is powerful and FULL of blessings. I had to start believing it regardless of my situation all around me. We walk by faith and not by sight. I rose up every morning and claimed my promises in Jesus name and just literally put behind me my feelings that God was angry with me or that I must have done something wrong and I just STOPPED TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT and stood on the truth of scripture. In that there is life. I rejected every accusation from the enemy and wouldn’t even listen to them any more. I shut my thinking off to it. You see God just wants you to realize that you are already free so you can get up every day and be an instrument for him.
      Once I stopped listening to the voice of the enemy in the discouragement and stopped trying to figure out where I went wrong I put myself in a place where I could hear God. You see, God has not stopped talking with you. You just cannot hear him amidst all the confusion of your situation. If I could encourage you to do a couple things. One: do the above and don’t listen to the discouragement any more. Just decide its over and your not going to worry about it any more. Two: listen to your CONSCIENCE this is where the Holy Spirit will speak to you. Remember that still small voice that you need to tune in. Follow him by listening to your conscience it is what God gave you to keep yourself in check with him. Then three: Read your Bible and PRAISE him. Please just praise him. Don’t look for an experience just praise. Give him the glory for ever and ever and ever. Build yourself up in the knowledge of him by studying his word and you will climb out of this. It’s a choice that is all. You can make it. Just decide that God’s promises in his word are real and I am not going to believe that I have done anything wrong because believe me that is just the devil. I don’t know if my story was able to help you but I think it will if you just follow it. If you want to look me up on facebook I can answer any further questions that you might have. God Bless you Julie. Put satan back under your feet where he belongs.

  13. Donna Crotty says

    This is very helpful especially when you have been asking the Lord questions and the answer comes in a particular way. Number 6 and 8 grabbed at me. I love how God is revealing himself with His wisdom and grace to help when we need to change and make adjustments. I am realizing that i need to be open once again to friends, actually close friends. All I can say is i am thankful for what you said in the article……

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