The Isolated Pastor

I recently read an article about a pastor who took his own life. He suffered from depression, and sadly separation from the body of Christ… his own church. The article reflected on this separation, this heartache. The loneliness of being a pastor. The isolation.

I have been there, I recall looking at my computer screen, with tears in my eyes, as the pressure of ministry, major illness in a loved one, and the failure to meet personal expectations mounted. Simply wanting it to all end. Knowing or feeling there was no way out.

Fortunately for me, I am blessed with a church that understands. It wasn’t always this way at Emmanuel where I serve as lead pastor. It has taken time to lead her to a place where the pastor is a person too. Where we are a place of grace and mercy, not only for the person coming in off the street who needs Jesus; but also for the pastor and leader and member who is struggling.

I do believe that there is a necessary distinction between a pastor and the congregation.  This distinction is there because God has called him to lead. The problem has arisen that in too many minds, distinction necessitates separation

Sadly it may be that this separation is intentional on the part of the pastor. There seems to have been a generation that built a wall between themselves and the congregation. They have been taught or have seen the example of the need to require a respect that looks a lot like fear. Having spoken to pastors of this persuasion, I have found that it comes from the feeling of the need to be something more, that every leader needs to be feared, at least a little, in order to lead the church.

The difficulty doesn’t lay with the pastor alone. There are church members who simply seem to have forgotten that the man is just that, a man. I see none of this teaching in the Scriptures. It is my conviction that we must teach both churches and pastors the desperate need for openness and grace toward one another. I have personally witnessed pastors that have forgotten their place as the under-shepherds of Christ, who have become judge, jury, and executioner of the membership. As pastors, we need to extend mercy and grace to our congregations as they grow into the fullness of Christ instead of deriding them. We need to consider how Jesus led his disciples. Think about the Garden of Gethsemane, of Jesus’ openness with His inner circle. We need to learn from Paul as well. He was gentle but firm. Paul wrote Romans 7 where we see an amazing dissertation of transparency. He wrote Titus where he admitted to being the chief of sinners, redeemed by the Lord, as an example to all, that if God could save him, he could save anyone. In 1 & 2 Corinthians he spoke of the inner battle with fear and discouragement. I have heard so many pastors, and have read so many articles, where the pastor could not, or would not be transparent with his church. So, why are these pastors isolated? For the reasons above; self-inflicted loneliness, the insecurity that seems to be inherent in preaching a perfect word, knowing your own imperfection, unable to share that truth with the congregation. The perceived need to set oneself up as the perfect example of what a perfect Christian should be. While we do this we forget that the perfect example of what a Christian should be doesn’t lie in our own righteousness, but in our reliance upon HIS righteousness.

There are other reasons as well. Reasons that do not lie exclusively with the pastor, but with the churches themselves. Just as pastors need to extend grace and mercy to their churches, the church needs to return the sentiment. As I mentioned above pastors are often placed unwisely on pedestals… this can be the natural result of teaching and preaching a book that is alive, powerful, and life giving or changing. It may be the result of western Christianity’s insane need for celebrity. Either way it needs to stop. The church must learn to have respect and an abundance of love for its ruling elder (1 Thes. 5) without idolizing him. The stories of pastor’s kids that walk away from the faith seem innumerable. Why? Inconsistency between home and church? Sure. Unreasonable expectations on the pastor and his family? Most likely. There are standards written in 1 Timothy and Titus as well as 1 Peter that outline for us what we should be looking for in a pastor. NONE of them say that he must be PERFECT. Mature? Yes. Perfect? No.

Finally what shall we do? We need to study how Jesus led. How Paul led. How Peter led. We need to adopt a humility and sincerity and preach with grace and mercy. We need to teach the church grace and mercy first. Our churches should be taught healthy, Biblical expectations for their leaders. Pastors, we need to pull back the veil a little at a time and risk losing respect or admiration. Without this transparency, the isolation will continue. We need to do this without sounding like whiners, and without leading from a place of sympathy. I firmly believe that a pastor SHOULD be a member of a small group, one where he isn’t the leader of it, where he can let his hair down and just be himself. In his church. Among his family.

To the church, I would like to encourage you to avoid comparing your pastor to the cult of celebrity. Our western form of Christianity is insanely obsessed with celebrity preachers. Every week a pastor faces a review. He stands up to accomplish part of his life’s calling and knows or feels that there are some and maybe many, seated in the sanctuary, who will not listen, who will be comparing him to those celebrities, who will have little mercy for his errant comments, who expect him and his family to live up to impossible standards that even the Bible doesn’t expect…. and he will keep doing it. For he has been called. Pastor, learn to lean on the one who called you. He is faithful who called you, who will also do it. Ignore the comparisons. Trust the Lord and His Word.

The conclusion? Grace. Love. Transparency. To and for both church and pastor. I lead such a church. We aren’t prefect. I thank God for Emmanuel Baptist Church, though we still have wrinkles. I thank God that when my family and I faced a terrible crisis that those in lay-leadership acknowledged its severity and offered me a sabbatical. I hope for every church to be this way.

Bless God, Bless Others, Be the Blessing