by Dale O. Wolery and Dale S. Ryan
It doesn’t seem that complicated. He is drowning, arms flailing. Throw him a rope. If he grabs the rope, pull him out. Simple. Rescue complete. But in real life it seldom works that simply. There are complications. Lots of them.
This is especially true if the person flailing about in the waters of crisis and failure is your pastor. What then? What is he doing there? How did this happen? This is not supposed to happen. Isn’t he supposed to be a model to follow? Doesn’t the office of pastor have some higher standards? Shouldn’t he be above this kind of problem? These and a thousand other painful questions emerge in rapid succession when a pastor’s failures become public. The list of painful emotions which underlie these questions is a long one as well: disappointment, betrayal, hopelessness, anger, disbelief. Congregations may find themselves drowning in a sea of painful emotions. How can one throw the other a rope if both are drowning? We have seen it many times—the unnecessary, preventable drowning of gifted people and churches that otherwise could have contributed significantly to the work of God’s Kingdom.
Such drownings are not necessary. There are other possibilities!
Our hope in this article is to do three things. First, we want to explore some of the factors that put pastors and congregations at risk for a crisis of personal failure on the part of the pastor. As a part of that exploration, we want to identify ways to reduce these risk factors. Secondly, we want to offer hope to pastors and congregations who are in the midst of such a crisis. And, finally, we hope, briefly, to point in the direction of a more hope-full and grace-full future for pastors and congregations.
Let’s begin by asking this: what is it that leads to pastoral crisis and congregational trauma? It is important to recognize that the life of any individual, family system or church community exists somewhere on a continuum between shame and fear on the one hand and grace and love on the other. Where we are on this continuum—and in which direction we are headed—makes all the difference. The more our lives (as individuals, pastors, families or congregations) are rooted in fear and shame, the greater our risk for crisis. And, the more our lives are rooted in God’s unfailing love and grace, the greater the likelihood that our problems and failures will be brought into the light for healing before they become a crisis. Let’s look at some of the ways in which shame and fear put pastors and congregations at risk for crisis
THE PEDESTAL PARADIGM
When shame and fear impact a pastor or congregation the result will always be a distortion of God’s intentions. The dysfunctional system which results is caught in what we call The Pedestal Paradigm—a silent, systemic malignancy which impairs a church’s mission and poisons its ministry. The Pedestal Paradigm has two complementary components. First, churches, in ways that are often unconscious and unacknowledged, put themselves on a pedestal. They assume that they are somehow unusually blessed, uniquely “right,” better than the pack. Pedestal churches find something in their culture, doctrine, size, history, or facilities to focus on that reminds them of their special stature. Second, Pedestal Paradigm churches (and their pastors!) assume that their pastor is somehow more than merely human. Of course, no church or pastor would ever say this aloud—it is not part of a church’s formal doctrine. It is nevertheless a deeply seated, largely unconscious assumption about the pastor. He is the “spiritual leader” and somehow “above” other members of the congregation. He is, as is the church, the fount of truth. He doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) personally wrestle, relationally struggle or spiritually fail like ordinary people often do. He is the example of how things are supposed to be. The pastor’s wants and needs are not as acute as those of other people—or if they are as acute as those of others, they are more magically met by his/her close relationship with God. This set of beliefs when stated so directly sounds arrogant. And so it is. But arrogance is almost always a cover for unconscious, deep-seated shame and fear. Because of the ways the Pedestal Paradigm protects pastors and congregations from experiencing their shame and fear, it may seem like a seductive and attractive option. Let’s look more closely at four of it’s key features.
Pretense. Churches and pastors who are entangled with the Pedestal Paradigm find themselves working very hard to look good—not to be honest and open but to be without problems. There can be many reasons for this. For churches, the unspoken competition with the church around the corner sometimes pushes the congregation to be somehow more appealing in order to attract new members. This pressure to be appealing pushes a church towards the pedestal. Putting our best foot forward can easily mean putting our struggles out of sight. We may not want, for example, to invite visitors on Sunday and then find that the pastor has decided to talk about his struggles with depression during the sermon. Who, we think, will be attracted to our church if our pastor is depressed? If the pastor can’t be truly happy, who can be? If the pastor talks too much about the struggles in his relationships someone might get the idea that he isn’t as spiritual as he needs to be. Who would be attracted to a church with such a defective pastor? Models of honest vulnerability can easily get lost in this pressure to be attractive. The biblical model of ministering out of our weaknesses, as well as our strengths, is often discarded in the process.
Early in one of our ministries, one of us mentioned in a sermon that counseling had been personally helpful. A member of the church board, clearly full of anxiety, objected privately to this disclosure saying: “The next thing we know you might stand up there and tell us you are an alcoholic or something.” Just getting help implied more imperfection than this person could tolerate in a pastor. And the idea of sharing this imperfection in public was unthinkable. He believed both that a pastor shouldn’t need help—and that, if a pastor did need help, he certainly shouldn’t talk about it. The request was clear: “Please give us friendly smiles instead of painful personal struggles—no matter what the reality of your life.” Pretense had somehow become more important than reality.
Congregational members contribute to this pretense whenever they assume that a flawed pastor cannot be a good one. Why is there so much fear of a flawed pastor? We think the fear is this: if God hasn’t helped the pastor to solve his personal struggles and relationship issues, how can ordinary people like me hope for anything better? The fact that we want our pastors to be above or beyond such things suggests that we have allowed the pastor’s “success” to become our basis for hope. In reality, of course, pastors struggle just like all of us do. The Good News is that the basis for our hope lies in the love and grace of God—a much more stable foundation for hope than any pastor’s ability to perform.
We all know that pretense leads eventually to spiritual death—both for pastors and for congregations. Getting off the pedestal will mean abandoning pretense. And that means we will need to find ways to increase our tolerance for the truth—about ourselves, our families, our congregation, and our pastors. We need to do whatever we need to do to live in truth. For most of us, this will not be easy. It is not easy to face the truth about ourselves. It is not easy for us as congregations. But there is nothing but spiritual death down the path of pretense. We need to get off that path and headed down the road of truth—both as individuals and as congregations.
Perfectionism. Perfectionism is another dynamic of congregations and pastors trapped in the Pedestal Paradigm. Shame is the engine which drives perfectionism and makes it unbearably painful to acknowledge flaw, failure, or fault. The shame of imperfection is intensely painful because it connects directly to our sense of global badness, lack of holiness or core sinfulness. The slightest imperfection becomes a sign for us of a much larger problem. More importantly, any imperfection is like the dirty secret that cannot be disclosed. Rather than embracing grace, we focus on efforts to maintain “God-pleasing” performance. We tell ourselves that God “expects” us to be perfect—anything less becomes unwelcome. We see ourselves or our congregation as better than others because our shame-based self-concept will not allow us to see ourselves as anything less than perfect. This kind of shame leads relentlessly towards the Pedestal Paradigm. To get help—to move off the pedestal—would be to assume a deficiency. And that’s the one thing that Pedestal Paradigm pastors and congregations cannot do.
A pastor snared by the Pedestal Paradigm has almost always internalized the idealized hopes of a congregation. A congregation that idealizes it’s pastor—by, for example, assuming that he is above the common temptations faced by ordinary people—may think that it is just honoring God’s servant. But the price to be paid for this naivete can be very high. If a pastor internalizes the idealized hopes of a congregation it will lead directly to greater shame and to the defense of perfectionism. For example, fear and shame deep inside the pastor may be telling him “you are never going to be good enough to be loved and valued.” If the pastor is able to bring this fear and shame into the light of God’s love he will begin to discover more deeply that he is always, absolutely, unconditionally loved and valued by God. But when this fear and shame is pushed out of awareness and covered with the defense of perfectionism it will continue to be a deep wound that festers and sets the stage for a crisis. Under these circumstances the heady wine of idealized approval becomes a powerful drug. It feels good to be acknowledged as a good person, a righteous example, and an honorable leader. It feels very good. We know from personal experience that shame-based pastors will go to great lengths to ensure the regular supply of such powerful, mood-altering affirmations. We will work hard, we will try to earn what we receive, we will try to be really good—we will, in short, try to prove that the positive stuff we are getting is stuff we deserve to get. And we will do everything in our power to be so good, so righteous, so perfect—well, you get the point. We will try to be God. We will try to be as good as God. We will forget somehow in the process that we are God’s needy creatures. The instinct behind perfectionism is not new. We are reminded in 1 John that if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. The deceit of perfectionism doesn’t come to us all at once as a finished product—it is a slow and seductive process. What we really need is to give up on being good enough, on being competent enough, on being wise enough. We need to give up on all those illusions—even though our self-concept may have relied on them in the past. In their place, both pastors and congregations need big doses of grace. We need enough grace to make it possible for us to tolerate our imperfections—our failures, our defects of character. We know that this is really what the Good News is all about. Jesus did not come for the really good, honorable, competent, self-sufficient, religious folks. That is not the good news. Working hard to look like we don’t need a physician is not what the Gospel is about. Jesus came for sinners—people without an ice cube’s chance in Hades of being successful at perfectionism. The ministry in God’s Kingdom is done by broken people, for broken people, with broken people—empowered by the grace of God.
Being right. Some congregations are unwittingly seduced toward the Pedestal Paradigm by the “need” to be right. Exactly what we think it is important to be right about may vary from congregation to congregation. We may focus on being right about our doctrine, our interpretation of Scripture, our approach to life, our emphasis, our worship, our Bible teaching or our attitudes toward those who have it wrong. The dysfunction of this “us” and “them” approach is very reminiscent of the attitude of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. Jesus reserved his strongest confrontations for those religious leaders who were convinced that they had all the right answers to all the right questions. This need to be right is often rooted in a fear that God will punish those who “get it wrong.” Who would not be afraid of a God who is ready to punish all those who make mistakes? From that fear comes all kinds of dysfunction.
For more than a decade one of us served on the staff of a church that was very proud of its distinguished history and promoted its position among the great Bible teaching churches in America. Despite the fact that the history of this church was marked by career ending staff/board conflicts, consuming bitterness, staff/board misconduct, power plays and mistrust, we were comfortable assuming that we were “right” because of our history of great Bible teaching. We were able to discount our self-destructive behaviors because our teaching was legendary. The senior pastor of this congregation often punctuated personal conversations and staff meetings with the expression: “I know I am right.” His “being right” was a quality which the congregation and the staff assumed, enjoyed and encouraged—we needed to be “right” just as much as he did. Eventually, of course, all the efforts put into being “right” could not cover our fear and shame. When sexual wrongdoing forced the senior pastor’s resignation, this need to be right made it impossible for the congregation to get off its own pedestal and to get the help it needed. The congregation was as committed to the pedestal as was the errant pastor. Outsiders who were able to discern the church’s systemic dysfunction were not given a hearing because they were not biblical—not “right” enough. The devastation of the Pedestal Paradigm continued to mark the history of that church long after the senior pastor left. The church assumed that hiring the “right” pastor as a replacement was the solution. Their focus on the previous pastor’s moral failure allowed them to avoid congregational self-evaluation and created faulty filters in their new pastoral search process. The point is simple: congregations who live by the Pedestal Paradigm need systematic, comprehensive reconstruction, not just a change in personnel.
The antidote to the need to be right is not complicated—it is simple humility. Nothing will serve us better when struggling with the Pedestal Paradigm than a large dose of spiritual humility. It is not an easy quality to develop—it usually comes as the result of failure of one kind or another. But humility is an essential element in recovery. Humility is not, of course, that groveling, “I am such a worm” self-loathing that we may sometimes inappropriately associate with this virtue. It is rather the capacity to tolerate the truth about ourselves—both the good news and the bad. It is the ability to be who we are—deeply loved and deeply flawed humans. The way to get off the “being right” pedestal is through spiritual humility. Spiritual humility puts us on a path that can lead to true spiritual growth.
Isolation. Isolation is another characteristic of pastors and congregations who are stuck in the Pedestal Paradigm. The isolation of pastors can be so complete that they come to accept loneliness as an essential part of ministry. Rather than viewing isolation as a destructive problem, it comes to be viewed as desirable and inevitable. Many pastors have been taught in seminary that it is dangerous to have friendships within a congregation because of perceptions of favoritism and other concerns. Over time, members of the congregation may also learn to expect their pastors to live in isolation. People in most congregations cannot really imagine being best friends with their minister. Ministers are, as a result, usually profoundly friend-deficient. As is true for all of us, the deepest roots of isolation for pastors are found in their families of origin. Each pastor has a past with the same potential for exposure to trauma and abuse which every other child faces. If a pastor’s childhood left him inclined towards unhealthy isolation in close relationships, his church can quite easily become an extension of his dysfunctional family. If he does not seek help, he will relate in his parish just as he did at home. Relationships will be shallow, honest confrontation will be avoided and deep connections will be evaded. His God-designed need for intimate connection goes unacknowledged, creating progressively intense emotional pain.
A logical extension of isolation is the possibility for secrets. Isolated from personally meaningful relationships at church, disconnected from friends and distant from his spouse, a pastor is given lots of secret space in which to fail. Who has more discretionary time alone behind closed doors than the clergy?
Isolation also makes it extremely difficult to ask for help. The lonely pastor assumes “no one understands” or he comes to believe that no one is safe for such confidences. Instead he painfully concludes, “If they knew what I was doing they would not love me at all.”
This progressive downward cycle seldom ends without a crisis. The combination of shame and isolation has led many clergy persons into lethal addictions. The precise trail of tears a pastor chooses at this point is hard to predict. He may self-medicate with addictive substances or behaviors that are socially unacceptable (alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex). On the other hand, he may channel his addictive instincts into ministry addiction—ambitiously building a mega-church, progressively getting hooked on achievement and accolades as the most soothing salve for his wounds. Others may simply zone out with sports, TV, eating and other “socially acceptable” mood altering processes.
The antidote to isolation is, of course, community. The Bible is abundantly clear about this. God has always called his people to live in community— not in isolation. It is not good for us to be alone. God never intended for his people to function like self-made individualists. The biblical use of the metaphor of the “body” for God’s family makes this very clear. If we are to free ourselves from the slavery of shame and fear we will need to make our communities safe places in which the love and grace of God are allowed to flourish.
The Pedestal Paradigm In Crisis
Pretense, perfectionism, “being right” and isolation always lead to crisis— whether in the life of an individual or a congregation. When these outgrowths of fear and shame are not addressed they will damage lives and institutions. Some churches manage to adapt to increasing dysfunction and live for generations on the pedestal in a kind of chronic crisis. But other congregations are more fortunate. These congregations and pastors find a better way—often they find it in the middle of an acute crisis. Pastoral misconduct is the most common crisis. When the pedestal collapses, another path must be found. It is not, of course, an easy transition. Fear and shame will create many forms of resistance to change.
One form of resistance is the rejection of outside help. Pedestal Paradigm churches are ideologically closed systems. They become consumed with self-sufficiency and cut themselves off from outside help. Pastors, by lip and life, largely define the values and theology of congregations. The longer a pastor has been part of a congregation, the more likely the pastor will reproduce a church “after his kind.” People who are comfortable in such closed systems are attracted to these pastors. If, for example, a pastor rejects the idea of professional help, church members will resist such help as well—or cover it up when they seek it.
The more closed the system, the less likely it is that effective help will be embraced. For pastors to seek the help they have been disparaging is sometimes too big a pill to swallow. For congregations to do so means repudiating what they have been taught.
Another form of resistance to getting help is plain, old-fashioned denial. Institutional and personal denial are an inescapable part of every crisis. Denial is a God-given protective defense against an overwhelming emergency which automatically kicks in during a crisis. Helpful denial protects us from having to take in a trauma all at once. What is initially protective and helpful, however, can become deeply damaging. Hurtful denial leads to not dealing with reality at all. This kind of denial can be lethal when the pastor, board or church members do not take problems seriously enough to seek outside help.
When people are willing to break out of the closed system and push through the denial, long-term benefits are possible. When pastors and churches overcome their natural tendency to avoid outside help they begin the recovery journey. They find hope. They change their paradigm.
The Process of Parish Recovery
We are convinced that crises always come with an opportunity for growth and change. When a pastor’s dismissal, resignation or a foreboding leave-of-absence is announced we are naturally thrown emotionally. Sometimes the emotional impact is huge. But recovering congregations can attend to the pain, can reduce the blame and can use the crisis to encourage healthy growth.
The first key to finding opportunities for recovery in a crisis is attending to the pain. Ignored pain will lead to more shame and fear. Congregations must share their pain in order to move towards grace and love. The church which creates safe places for processing pain finds bonding and healing. The temptation will always be to move too quickly past the pain. But that will mean missing critical information and opportunities. For example, it is common in the middle of a crisis for a congregation to assume that the only change needed is to choose a better pastor next time around. This is fatally flawed reasoning. Churches whose pastors have been forced to resign because of moral failure are much more likely to hire another pastor who will also fail morally than are churches where such tragedy has not yet occurred. Churches gain valuable insights about themselves when they take the time to deal honestly with their pain.
Too often, after pastoral failure becomes public, the only clear instruction given to a congregation is that they should not talk about it. Biblical texts about gossip are often mentioned in this context. And gossip is, of course, a hurtful form of communication. But silence is not the solution to gossip. Healthy communication is the solution. Not talking at all means that the loss will not be healed. It is not easy to talk in healthy ways under such circumstances. Closed systems may need a trained outsider to serve as a facilitator for congregational conversations. This much is clear: attempts to ignore the pain of a crisis only result in covert rather than overt expressions of the pain. A sure sign that a congregation is still carrying unresolved pain is when it engages in blame. Assuming, for example, that the pastor is the only problem is evidence that a church is still on the Pedestal. It is, of course, not appropriate to blame a congregation for a pastor who chooses to be immoral or who burns out. But assigning blame is not the issue here. Little progress will be made in crisis situations by focussing on ‘who is to blame.’
In addition to addressing congregational pain, any underlying systemic dysfunction must be confronted. Crises are opportunities to help a church learn how to grow in honesty, grace and love. With skilled and intentional intervention the process of rooting out fear and shame can begin. One of us spoke recently with the members of a church board who were deeply concerned about their senior minister. Ever widening staff conflict was creating a church crisis. They thought their pastor was too demanding and authoritarian with some staff members—but they feared telling him so. They were also convinced that his preferential alliances with certain staff members fueled the conflict. They had not yet, however, shared their honest anxieties with the minister. They wanted him to be open to change and grow but they had consistently given him positive evaluations that did not include any mention of their concerns. Fear of speaking the truth was beginning to paralyze their effectiveness in leading the congregation. Though the board was probably right about many of their pastor’s problems, their fear blinded them to effective solutions. When they called our office they were hoping to solve the current crisis by reorganization and rewriting job descriptions! They were looking for a consultant who could guide this process so that this popular senior minister would not have to be confronted. They feared what he might do if he became too angry. The real issues, however, were systemic anxiety and polite but dishonest dialogue. No mere rewriting of job descriptions would fix this problem! Fear and even well-intentioned dishonesty always produce conflict. The board needed to face its own role in the dysfunction. Church boards and congregations who choose to courageously reexamine their systemic values are taking the first steps off the Pedestal. A congregation that has unwittingly encouraged dysfunctional behavior will need to develop a strategy for change. Outside help is often the only way to accomplish this. Such an endeavor requires asking and answering tough questions. Did we idealize, isolate or shame our pastor? Do we share our own struggles openly enough to guard against pretense? Are we as a church and board getting the help we need?
Any crisis is disorienting and painful but it is also an opportunity. Every church that responsibly addresses its pain and dysfunction will find a better path and a healthier paradigm. A church off the Pedestal may be confused and in pain—but it has a future and a hope!
The Process of Pastoral Recovery
In a crisis, a pastor is often left alone to choose the most healing and helpful solutions. But a drowning man seldom manages his own rescue. He needs help. Professional help. Unfortunately, the pastor often faces intense resistance to getting help. Resistance to getting help comes from the environment he has helped to shape, from his own internal process and from his unfamiliarity with getting help.
Every pastor exists in an environment that has developed rules about the acceptability of getting help. In far too many congregations, getting help is simply unacceptable. This prejudice against seeking professional help does not usually exist when the issues are physical problems. Physical problems are far more acceptable in our culture. It is okay to obtain the best available medical help for physical problems. Not so when the problems are emotional, mental or behavioral in nature. In many congregations getting counseling is seen as being almost as shameful as staying stuck in one’s pain or sin.
In addition to having to ask for help in a hostile environment, a drowning pastor may face many levels of internal resistance to getting help. We may fear that getting help will expose us to more criticism, potential rejection, and even cause followers to mistrust our judgment. We fear this exposure of weakness will erode the confidence necessary to lead the congregation. It may feel even like “giving in” to what a spouse has been trying to say for a long time.
Finally, resistance to getting help may be compounded because of the pastoral role as a giver of help. Pastors are regularly affirmed for giving help. They are not encouraged or affirmed when they get it or need it. Because of the many forms of resistance to getting help, it is a real temptation to settle for inadequate solutions. Confession of sin, for example, although it may be quite appropriate, seldom uproots addictive processes or long-standing secret behavior. Jimmy Swaggert’s now famous public confession and subsequent embarrassments instruct us to avoid thinking that such strategies are enough. Sincere public grief and deep shame are not enough to dismantle the Pedestal Paradigm. The same can be said of the assumption that accountability groups are the solution to pastoral misconduct. Such groups can be helpful but they are rarely a sufficient resource for a pastor caught engaging in destructive, secret behavior. Under these circumstances the pastor has already proven that accountability alone will not solve the problem. His accountability to the board and congregation were not enough to prevent the initial destructive behavior. More accountability may simply give him more people from whom he feels a need to hide!
Instead of resisting help and settling for inadequate solutions, pastors and congregations need to learn to create communities where there is no shame or fear in seeking professional help. How many forced resignations could we avoid if we decided to be sane about getting help? How many future disasters could we avoid by simply getting the help we need as we need it? Wouldn’t we honor our Lord more if we got help before our failures made their way to the front page of the local paper or on to our television screens in shows like Hard Copy?
We learned recently of a church where the senior pastor was forced to resign because of moral failure. His stance had been clear on psychological resources—even Christian resources. They were to be mistrusted. Yet during the years immediately prior to his dismissal, six of the eight senior staff members at his church were secretly seeing therapists. Three of those who were getting help had major sexual issues with which they struggled. And the senior pastor, who was unaware that his staff was getting help in secret, was himself involved in a long series of sexually inappropriate relationships with members of the congregation. This kind of insanity can only be sustained in a closed system where the Pedestal Paradigm reigns. The church ultimately was destroyed. How different the outcome might have been if the pastor had seen his need for help and sought it openly and courageously. How different it might have been if the church had been a safe place for strugglers to find hope.
From Pedestal to Recovery
Pastors and churches that are rooted in fear and shame often tenaciously cling to the Pedestal Paradigm. Fortunately, however, this is not the only paradigm available. Things do not have to be like this. There is a saner, more grace-full, more truth-full and more biblical path. We need not exist generation after generation stuck on that self-blinding and self-defeating pedestal. We can learn to live in grace and love. We can choose a better paradigm—a recovery paradigm. The Christian recovery model assumes that we are works in process—not finished products. We are flawed—not faultless. It assumes our Father delights in our journey toward his love and grace. As we mentioned earlier every individual, family and church exists on a continuum between shame and fear on the one hand—and grace and love on the other. Being a person in recovery, or being a recovering congregation, means that we are moving on that continuum away from fear and shame—towards love and grace. The process of transformation is, however, rarely smooth. There will be many times when it feels like two steps forward, one step back. A sustained focus on the goal is what we need—the goal of becoming a grace-full, loving congregation. What will move us in that direction? What might cause churches and pastors to move toward grace and love? We have room for only one example:
A large church phoned recently to seek help for their pastor. The pastor had been on the staff of the church for almost a decade. His role in building the congregation was significant. He was one of their stars. He had, however, been caught more than once using the Internet to view pornography. The church leadership felt they had no option but to find a nice way to get him and his family help and to remove him from the staff team. They wanted us to tell them what kind of help was available. As we talked, it became clear that the impending board meeting (that night) was a critical one. At this point in the conversations among the leadership all the focus was on the pastor and everything was headed in the direction of dismissal even though the pastor was very popular. One of us asked the chairman of the church board this question: “Is the pastor the only person in the congregation, or for that matter on the church board, who has this problem?”
It was not really a difficult question. He knew the answer. Of course not. The obvious follow-up question was this: “Is there a way to respond to the pastor’s problems in a way that might help some of the other people who struggle with this issue at the same time?” There was a long pause. This was an entirely new thought. The question needed to be asked several times in different ways in order for this new thought to find a place to grow. Gradually the focus of our conversation shifted. The issue had changed from how to get rid of a popular but “troubled” pastor to how to respond to a very common problem in the congregation—a problem shared by the pastor. This shift in focus was not easy. It was not a smooth transition. But it was a critical shift. An opportunity emerged for the whole church to deal honestly and graciously not only with the pastor but also with every person in the congregation who struggled with similar problems. Creative possibilities emerged. Maybe the board could grant a leave of absence, secure quality help for the pastor and his family, and then address these issues openly in the congregation. Maybe the healing pastor could eventually share his emerging story of healing. Maybe a support group could be started for people who struggle with this issue. Maybe, just maybe, if we let the pastor down off the pedestal and start to tell the truth—maybe this could all end in growth and healing for many people. By taking seriously the pastor’s need for recovery and by facing the fact that the pastor’s struggles were common to many in the congregation, they opened the door to a much more grace-full future for the congregation. If they had chosen to get rid of the pastor—instead of getting rid of the pedestal—the outcome would have been very different.
We do not mean to imply that it is always wise or possible to retain a pastor who has fallen. But it is never wise to terminate someone without at least fully pursuing restoration. Nothing can have a more positive impact on a body than healing one of its significant parts. This approach requires a church to slow down the process and to accept outside help. Quick terminations seldom bring quality growth and usually lead to repeated crises. Creativity, combined with a commitment to honesty and grace, can lead to lasting, long-term change. This story is an example of how one congregation began to step away from the Pedestal and towards the freedom of recovery. There are many ways a church might begin this journey—any step that moves us away from fear and shame and closer to grace and truth. We can be certain that, as we face and let go of our pretense, our perfectionism, our need to be “right” and our isolation, fresh creative options will begin to present themselves. We will find ways to actively practice honesty, compassion, humility and interdependence. And, as we commit ourselves to these new ways, we will gradually become more grace-full communities.
It is our prayer that many churches and pastors will be empowered by our gracious Father to step off the Pedestal and to discover the life-giving experience of sinking roots deeply into the soil of God’s unfailing love.
Dale Wolery is the executive director of the Clergy Recovery Network. Dale Ryan is the CEO of Christian Recovery International.