In 2001 I attended a church which lost its pastor. The pastor had an affair and, according to the less than credible grape vine, he had even brought a gun into the church office at one point. It was a surreal turn of events in the church. He was an excellent speaker, a hard worker & an encouraging man. I looked up to him as a spiritual parent. Our church which was 1,200 people and growing, which had just bought some land to build a new facility, soon dwindled down to nothing. I went to college & now I don’t know anyone from that time who still attends. I can’t say we saw it coming, but lately I wonder if all the warning signs were in front of us. After all, my story is the typical story for so many churches. The pastor is a success and then he falls, and with him soon follows the church.
Now, we all know the typical answers to this typical story. The pastor needs to guard himself. He needs to take the necessary precautions. Churches should be more careful of who they hire. Churches shouldn’t be built around a man, but Jesus. But now I am a pastor. I have been a pastor of a church that fell apart and a church now that is growing. And despite all the things my pastor did wrong, I cannot help but feel sympathy for him and wonder whether everything was his fault?
In our American society we value rugged individualism, which in my life has meant we criticize everyone who is successful and let everyone who fails burn. The only unity we experience is when we have a common enemy, not when we’re for a common cause. We experience this “unity” in politics. So long as a man is against our enemy, he is useful to our party. The moment he strays from the path we expect from him, he is out like yesterday’s news.
In the church pastors experience this same “unity.” A pastor is only good to us so long as he does not fail, does not compromise and does not disagree with the majority of his congregation. The moment he does any and all of these things (and all pastors can and will) he and his family are without financial support and a church. Never mind the fact the pastor has to accept this behavior from the congregation. The congregation gets a different standard. The pastor has to “suck it up and deal with it” while the church member can live without such accountability. The member can quit “paying the preacher” or even go to another church where the pastor (at that time) “agrees more with them.” The pastor is a commodity one picks out of luxury, not a brother.
The pastor cannot share his weaknesses with the church, at least not any major ones. The church allows for simple sins in a pastor like “working too much” or gossiping. But if a pastor struggles with pornography or anger or divorce he is without a job. I am sure many church members are glad their companies don’t treat them as they treat their ministers.
Church members expect their ministers to listen to “their” concerns. By “their” concerns I mean the sins of the people they don’t like. “The pastor needs to know Mike sinned.” “The pastor needs to know about Betty’s bad attitude.” But the pastor is not allowed to voice his concerns for the spiritual well-being of those who complain to him. He is to be seen, but not heard.
All of what I mentioned is a part of the job for pastors. No one should go into the ministry without expecting to encounter these problems. If you aren’t willing to minister in spite of these things then you aren’t ready to serve. The enemy is as much in the body of Christ as outside of it. Pastors also must take the necessary precautions to avoid temptation and strive to develop their personal character. We are not masters of our trade but students of THE Master. At the same time, though, is it any wonder less people are going into the ministry and staying in the ministry? After all, with work like this who would want to? The church under pays, under values and under “loves” those who serve it.
And with this considered, I wonder whether pastors who fail are really to blame? Granted everyone is responsible for their sins. The devil can’t make us do anything; he can only use the footholds we provide him. We will all be judged for what we’ve done and each be punished for what we’re responsible for. But have we considered who we’re responsible for? Obviously the pastor is responsible for the flock, but who is responsible for the pastor? Might it be a reason so many in church leadership fail is because the church forgets its responsibility to him, not the other way around?
Perhaps the pastor does not share his sin because there is no one safe to confide in and in turn his sin consumes him to the point he can no longer lead. Maybe he is afraid to speak the truth because his family is held financially hostage by the church and those threatening to leave. Maybe he is depressed having put so much thought and prayer into his words and having them fall on deaf ears. Maybe he is depressed because he puts so much work into people only to be forgotten on the anniversary of his arrival, birthday or Pastor Appreciation Month. Or maybe he is tired and stressed from trying to satisfy his family and church expectations feeling obligated to God to take care of them both. Maybe he is afraid to ask for help because he has been taught through experience there is no help for him?
Are pastors struggling because they’re alone, never considering anyone a friend out of fear of rejection? Are pastors having affairs because they have no companionship or because they want to have control over something in their life? Are they quitting the ministry because of the guilt they feel for neglecting their family or because of the guilt they feel for falling short of what is expected of them in churches?
Perhaps the most important question we should consider is what are we going to do about it? Will we make the church safe for pastors? Will we be aware of their spiritual health and heal their wounds? Will we be united to our pastors as a family of Christ? Or will we remain disposable?
P.S. I read this article to my wife and she is concerned about who will read this. But should an article like this cause her anxiety or hope? It is up to the church to decide.