Beware of the Pastoral Pedestal

Recently, we’ve seen the headlines of yet another high-profile pastor resigning due to sin that rendered him unable to continue leading a church. When this happens, we wonder what went wrong. What was the path that eventually led to his downfall and how can that be avoided?

We also think of the fallout and aftermath of a pastor resigning under those circumstances. He and his family are hurting; the church he once pastored is now left wondering what happened. Was his doctrine sound that he preached from the pulpit? If he can’t remain faithful in his marriage, then how can I? Was he being a hypocrite – preaching one thing and living another? How does that reflect on our church? On our faith? On God?

Mature believers realize that just because a leader sinned that doesn’t necessarily mean his doctrine or preaching wasn’t sound. It means he didn’t live it out and he sinned.  However, what about new Christians or those just starting to consider making a decision to follow Christ? How do the actions and failures of church leaders impact them?

Somewhere along the way, the church fell into the trap of our culture that puts leaders on pedestals they can’t sustain. We expect our pastors to be perfect. To never get angry; never lose hope; never make bad decisions. The Bible lays out high expectations for church leaders, but it also reveals the struggles early church leaders faced. 1 Timothy 3:1 that, “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.” The next twelve verses list the qualifications required for someone who desires that position of leadership in the church. Being an elder, deacon, pastor, or other senior leadership role within a church isn’t a position to be given or accepted lightly. You will be observed by people genuinely wanting to see how you live out your faith and by those who are waiting for you to fall so they can point out your failure and discredit your faith.

How do we face the reality of how our culture views church leaders while combating the consequences of that reality? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are a few ideas:

For church members and attendees:

Pastors are human too

They experience stress, frustration, heartache, and loneliness just like everyone else. They’re also carrying the confidential burdens of the church and often have few, if any options, to release them. Yes, they may be able to cope with those issues better than most because of their maturity in the faith. However, they still struggle and need our prayers.

Repentance is necessary and healthy

When they sin, they need to repent just like we would in that situation. And, just as we would want, they need our compassion and forgiveness. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be consequences to their actions. Sometimes that may mean losing their position; other times it may mean something much less drastic is sufficient.

Don’t expect your pastor and leaders to be on-call 24/7

They need time off to rest, enjoy their families, and recharge. I’d like to see church boards require their pastor to take two days off per week, two weeks (or more) vacation per year, and possibly even an occasional sabbatical. Sometimes you have to protect a leader from himself – especially those with hard-driving personalities. Help them stay in ministry for the long haul instead of burning out early.

They are not your Savior and cannot live up to that kind of expectation

It’s perfectly reasonable to respect and honor a pastor (I highly encourage it). However, don’t confuse respect with reverence. It’s not fair to your pastor to put those expectations on him, it’s not healthy for you, and I think it dishonors God since He is the only one worthy of such reverence.

Your pastor may let you down at some point

If that happens, remember that the only perfect, sinless one is Christ. He alone is the One we can always count on no matter what. He promised to never leave us nor forsake us – and He always keeps His promises.

To Pastors and church leaders:

Please rest!

For the sake of your spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health – please rest! God can keep the world spinning just fine without your help while you take time off. I love working with pastors who are passionate about reaching the lost and making disciples. However, it breaks my heart to see them exhausted and ineffective due to driving themselves too hard on a regular basis. It’s often when we’re tired that we’re the most vulnerable to temptation. Don’t give satan a foothold by refusing to rest.

If you have a family, your first responsibility is to them – not the church

1 Timothy 3:4-5 lays that out pretty clearly. Also, we’ve all heard (or even seen ourselves) PKs who resent God and the church because their dad sacrificed his family for ministry. Don’t add to that statistic.

Don’t try to do this alone

Depending on your situation, get help from your denomination, a church planting organization, develop relationships with other pastors, and/or build a team of strong leaders who can help carry the load.

Put safeguards in-place

Please put safeguards in-place to protect yourself, your family, and your reputation. A simple practice such as not meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex (including car rides) can keep your reputation intact and guard against temptation.

Be open about your struggles

I realize this is a tough line to walk as a leader. However, if you only tell about your triumphs and never share your challenging moments you’re not telling the full story. I need to hear that my pastor has struggled with doubt or fear or depression and what he did (or what he continues to do) to overcome. We need to know that there’s no such thing as a believer who never has a rough day and is never tempted to sin. Yes, we know that logically but it helps to hear real-life stories from people we respect on what you’ve dealt with and how you fight back.

Pastors are under a microscope, especially as their churches grow and they get asked to write books or speak at conferences. That pressure to perform along with the associated prestige or power can be a leader’s downfall.

Believers, please don’t put your faith in your pastor. Put your faith in God. Yes, honor the leaders He puts in your life. However, don’t expect them to be perfect and don’t put unnecessary burdens on them with that expectation.

Pastors, please don’t feed the lie that you have to “have it all together” all the time.   Rest, enjoy your family, and get help when needed.

It’s heartbreaking to hear of another pastor whose actions cost him the credibility to lead. We need to break the cycle of putting human beings on a pedestal that only God can handle. My prayer is that we all, pastor or parishioner, focus our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.