In the aftermath of another high profile Christian leader stepping down to a moral failure there are the usual comments about accountability, moral failure and the difficulties of pastoral leadership. Last winter my annual seasonal mood issues began but unlike other years they did not recede with the end of winter. I relieved myself of any ministry and community obligations that I felt too heavy to bear. Since May I’ve felt significantly better, but I’m still very tentative and wary of taking on more burden than I can handle. It has been great, letting myself off the hook. It took until my summer vacation, where I finally go to the point where I felt blissfully bored. No immediate anxieties, no urgent projects, and nothing but my role as a father, husband and friend. The time has given me some perspective.
I think a lot of people in church leadership turn to a vice like booze, drugs or sex because of a conflict between their subconscious and conscious selves. The primary driver is not the “temptation.” The sinful activity is an escape channel. At one level there is the commitments to position, colleagues and church community. There are the self-assigned burdens and expectations. These are prioritized above personal needs which results an ever depending mental and emotional health deficit. Inside this cocoon of pressure something has to give. Without even fully understanding it people make drastic choices masked under the impulse of vice. In the moment it is just a fling with the secretary but deep down underneath it is all is a desperate psyche that wants to be free. It happens to lots of people, not just pastors.
Sadly, most people who to travel this path are shamed and discarded despite the carefully crafted public announcements of ongoing encouragement and support. It seems odd, the very community or organisation that watched the leader spiral out of control thinks they can now navigate a delicate restoration process. What I’ve observed too many times is that Christian leaders are valued for what they bring to the life the organization. When they become a liability they become effectively worthless and are treated as such. Fortunately, this isn’t always the case. Some leaders have real friends who will value them regardless of their perceived or real failures. Some leaders don’t travel the path of moral failure they just burn out, and the long term disability insurance contract forces the organization to try to reintegrate them.
I’ve been part of and had friends in many Christian organizations. I’ve never observed the kind of support, community and acceptance I’ve experience in simple church ministry whether it be a small group or a house church. This winter and spring I leaned on a lot of people for support. I am thankful for the rich friendships that have been mutually cultivated inside and outside my core community. I have a web of relationships that helped me immensely. Without the pressure of position, I could step back without shame, and it was easy to turn to people to help.
Most of the purposed for solutions for pastoral burnout are ineffective or obviously too hard to follow. I think more than anything we need real community and solid relationships with people that you know will accept you in your failings. Sadly, in most ministry situations this notion is unrealistic.
I’m better. I feel tentative though. It is kind of like that point after you sprain your ankle, the pain is gone but you don’t want risk anything more than a slow sure walk until you know the healing is solid. I can’t say I’m eager to rush back in and try to change the world. In fact, I’m learning how my life’s desire, my life ethos to change the world has hurt me. That subject will have to wait for another post.