Alone in A Crowd: An Open Letter to Pastors
It was 2:00am. I couldn’t sleep. I decided to grab my phone and catch up on the current events from the day before, so I typed cnn.com into my browser. Just below the main headline about the continued search for the Malaysian airlines flight was a heading that read:
“Mega church pastor admits affair, quits”.
Once again, a man who had set out to join with God in the restoration of all things had become all wrapped up in the brokenness before him, shaking the foundation of the lives of the people he loves and the foundation of a ministry he built from the ground up. And it was that simple. A man who was revered as a god-fearing visionary, leader, and shepherd by thousands one day before, was reduced to a headline. He just admitted his affair and walked away as the world caught on fire behind him. Unfortunately, for those who have grown up in this particular subculture, this is an all too familiar storyline. Astonishingly, 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month due to moral failure, burnout, or church conflict.
So this is a blog written to pastors from the perspective of a pastor. I don’t know much. But I really do care about you and I hope that these words can bring some encouragement and challenge.
And this is a blog written out in the open, in the hope that the non-pastors that read it might help pastors overcome the odds lined up squarely against them.
The statistics are staggering. 77% of pastors say they have a bad marriage. Close to 90% of pastors spouses say the worst thing that ever happened to their marriage was their decision to enter full time ministry. 57% of pastors say they would leave the job if they had a stable job to go to in the secular workspace. Three out of every four say they only read the bible when they are preparing for messages, and only 27% say they feel spiritually enriched/fed. 3-4 of every 10 pastors has had an extra-marital affair. 70% say they constantly fight depression. And most statistics say that 60%-80% of those who enter the ministry will not still be in it 10 years later. Only a few will stay in it as a lifetime career. The situation couldn’t be much worse. We are a part of a fragile and devastated community of the called. But things don’t have to be this way.
I know your profession can inadvertently exclude you from participating in the body of Christ. The people you lead sometimes expect you to be more like Jesus than they are and sometimes ignore the truth that you are just like everyone else. You are not the head of your church, Jesus is, so you don’t have to feel the pressure of being everything the body needs. In fact, you need the rest of the body in order to fully embrace your identity as a child of God and in order to become more like Jesus. You’ve been given a very important and specific role in the body of Christ, but you are just a small part of that body. You aren’t more important than any other member of the body. You are not Jesus. You’ve never been Jesus. And you’ll never be Jesus. So, you cannot meet all the needs of the body; nor is it your job to try.
Do whatever it takes to surround yourself with a community of people that will embrace you as the broken person you are and meet your struggles with grace.
I know why you’re afraid to share your struggles and life with the people you lead. Vulnerability is risky from a professional standpoint. So you confess and struggle with the acceptable sins in public: pride, gossip, and gluttony. And the sins you struggle with in private become secret and taboo and even more seductive. And they grow. And grow. And grow. I know you never thought you’d end up here, you didn’t plan on it. You didn’t wake up one day and decide to have an affair or steal thousands of dollars or become an alcoholic or a verbally abusive parent and spouse. But it’s plain to see how you got here. You spent years and years without a close friend, confidant, or mentor. You let appearances reign supreme. You stood by unflinchingly when they built the pedestal for you and allowed them to place you at the seat of honor. And from that moment on, any appearance of weakness would be your downfall. Pedestals have a fatal flaw; that is, they cannot support the weight of humans. They will inevitably come crashing to the ground when given enough time. They are breeding grounds for isolation and corruption. Pedestals are hand written invitations to a masquerade. The problem is, once you’re sitting on one, it’s pretty difficult to come down without falling off.
Just like everyone else, you need to experience the freedom of sharing your human desires before they grow into lust and ultimately into death (James 1:14-15).
Don’t let your intimacy with God go.
I know you never set out to become a politician. Yet the pressure to ‘always be on’ has turned your sense of authenticity off. I know Sunday never stops coming. There is always someone in the hospital. There are always leaders to invest in. There are always groups to lead. There are always crises. All of this comes together to stir up a tornadic wind that puts your fire out. You’ll end up having to put on a mask for the good of the church despite feeling empty, dry, and lost. And in the process, you will have lost the only thing that actually matters. Someone once told me to be sure I lead from the center. Make sure you don’t get caught up completing all the tasks on the fringes at the expense of the center. If you accomplish nothing through your ministry other than giving people a fantastic picture of what it means to live intimately with God, you’ve done well.
Take seriously your role as discipler of your family.
I beg you to stop believing that lie that what is good for your church might be bad for your family. It is impossible to simultaneously endanger the health of your family and promote the health of your church. It honestly doesn’t matter how “successful” “your” church is if your family is falling apart. Mark Batterson once said that he wants the people who know him the best to respect him the most. If ever you find yourself in a place where you are concerned most about what the people who don’t really know you think of you, you are headed to a bad place. The pastoral profession has become synonymous with failing families, unhappy spouses, rebellious children, and extra-marital affairs. Yet we are called to be husbands and wives, mothers and father, sisters and brothers, and sons and daughters first – every other ministry we could fulfill is secondary to this.
And don’t forget how awesome this is.
You’ve been given the incredible privilege of combining vocation and occupation. This is serious work that should not be taken lightly. Don’t let this become a job. Don’t get so caught up in trying to make things organized that you forget that the church is an organism. Don’t stop seeking direction from the Holy Spirit.
Don’t stop learning. Don’t forget whose church this is. And don’t overlook the profound work of God around you.
For a better future,