The Most Risky Profession (3)

From Christianity Today:

The inadvertent effect of all this is that most pastors have become heads of personality cults. Churches become identified more with the pastor—this is Such-and-Such’s church—than with anything larger. When that pastor leaves, or is forced to leave, it’s devastating. It feels a like a divorce, or a death in the family, so symbiotic is today’s relationship between pastor and people.

No wonder pastors complain about how lonely and isolated they feel. The success andhealth of a very demanding institution have been put squarely on their shoulders. They love the adrenaline rush of success—who doesn’t? But they also live in dread that they may fail. Wise pastors recognize that unique temptations will assault them, and some set up accountability structures to guard their moral and spiritual lives. They try to have people around them who can speak truth to their power. But in reality, since this is an accountability structure that they have set up and whose membership they determine, in the end it can only have limited effectiveness.

And so we have a system in which pride and hypocrisy are inevitable. The situation for the pastor is impossible. He retains his biblical vision, but the system he finds himself in makes him waver between humility and arrogance, hope and cynicism, patience and anger, love and hate. The pastor has to increasingly downplay these tensions or any serious shortcomings, moral or administrative, to play the part that is expected of him. He must learn to doubt his moral instincts, so he starts believing that efficiently running a large, bureaucratic institution is “ministry” or “service” rather than what it often is: mostly managing and controlling people. He and his congregation justify his heavy-handed leadership and his lack of time for individuals—the very antithesis of his title, pastor or shepherd. His sermons are increasingly peppered with himself as much as the gospel, and even his self-deprecating humor turns against him. Now people praise him for his humility, which only goes to his head, as it does for any human being.

The morally serious pastor will be aware of much of this—even if he can’t admit it to anyone—and he will strive to keep himself in check. But he will find that his left hand always—always—knows what his right hand is doing. He has become incapable of carrying out his ministry in simple freedom and trust in God’s grace. He began running the race of ministry with holy ambition, but he now finds himself on a treadmill of “various expressions of pride.”

Every profession has its secret sins and habitual vices—believe me, we have plenty in journalism. We all need prayer in our callings. And no more so than pastors, whose spiritual leadership makes them most vulnerable to the sins that Jesus most severely condemned: hypocrisy and pride.

Is there hope? Of course. Pastors aren’t the only people who find themselves trapped in a social milieu where it is impossible not to succumb to sin. It is for habitual and trapped sinners—like pastors, like us—that Jesus died. The hope is not that we can find a perfect church environment in which we can eradicate pastoral pride. The hope is that Jesus loves and uses repentant sinners despite our pride.

This does not mean Jesus doesn’t want us to change the way we do church. I sometimes wonder if he’s allowing us to reap the fruit of our churchly ambitions—with many pastors burning out or becoming cynical, or resigning in one form of “disgrace” or another—so we will discover anew why the word pastor or shepherdis the name he gives to the church’s leaders. That very name suggests that perhaps the church should not be about growth and efficiency, but care and concern, not so much an organization but a community, not something that mimics our high-tech culture but something that incarnates a high-touch fellowship. By God’s grace, there is a remnant of such churches alive and well today, with leaders who really are pastors.

In the meantime, do not condemn your pastor when he succumbs to pride and hypocrisy. He’s stuck in a religious system from which few escape unscathed. Pray for him. And remind him that grace covers a multitude of sins, and that neither life nor death, nor angels nor principalities, nor the contemporary North American church can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the church.

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