When pastors fail


I’m not new to stories of pastors who fail massively, publicly, sexually. Those of us who have been in the church long enough know the pain of watching a leader we love crash into the void of sexual failure.

Recently news reached me that another pastor, this time a childhood friend, had made a devastating mistake. Big failures always come with a link these days. I clicked on the link sent my way, and sure enough, there was my friend’s face plastered on the front page of his hometown newspaper. When I saw his face, a man I’ve admired for a long time, a person whose long-ago friendship was formative in my life, I stared at his eyes. There was such shame in them.

I immediately felt a gentle sorrow for him: how heavy the pain of this must be for him, how desperate he must have felt to make the choices he made. Seeing him brought me back to a place I’ve been before, more and more so recently. I was reminded again of how frail we are, the way our shame shadows our reality. The way addiction monsters itself within us and we become incapable of doing anything but submitting to the secrets we hold inside.

We are a people who are far too often controlled by shame. And it seems that nowhere is shame stronger than in the church, where, though we are quick to talk about confession and vulnerability, we are still trained to hide our darkest failures, especially when it comes to sex. No one wants their pastor confessing to having a porn addiction. We’d much rather hear that he or she is struggling with pride or impatience, something that feels controllable, something that doesn’t make us squirm.

Pastors know that. They know what we want from them–smiles and wisdom and faithful care. And, often, they can give us those things all while being so internally twisted that they can’t even admit to themselves what they do in their shadow hours.

It feels safer to insist on perfection from our pastors. It hurts less. It’s doesn’t challenge our faith. It doesn’t force us to live in the messiness of reality. We demand our pastors lead perfect lives because we want their lives to give us permission to trust in God’s ability to change us. We want to believe that what they teach is real, that God can restore us because our pastors have been restored. We don’t want to know about their inner failures. If they are broken then what does it say about us? About God?

The expectations we hold for pastors often demand their perfection and appearance of holiness, without making space for them to struggle, to live vulnerably, to get help. Why are we so afraid to talk about sexuality in the church, especially to allow our leadership to talk about it? Why can we not accept that people who have been changed by the gospel are still being changed? That we need each other? That our minds are dangerous places? That we are really good at lying to ourselves, especially when we are in leadership, especially when we have an image to protect?

And so a pastor’s addiction remains secret until someone finds out, or until its slippery slope leads to a steep crash off the cliff into public sexual misconduct.

I not saying we should keep our pastors in leadership when they make decisions that destroy trust and break sacred vows. What I’m saying is that a healthy pastor and a healthy congregation should be learning to recognize the symptoms before the crash. I’m saying that a pastor should feel safe enough in his or her church community to confess an addiction or a budding extra-marital relationship before it explodes into destruction.

I’m not insisting that a pastor confess his or her darkest secrets within congregational meetings. But a pastor should be allowed to minister in a safe enough environment where he is given permission to examine himself honestly, to be vulnerable with trustworthy friends, to seek help before his choices go the route of destruction.

I believe the church can create those safe spaces for confession and healing and renewal.

How do we do this? How do we create a deeper, more holistic understanding of sanctification within church culture? How do we create a community where we understand how Jesus saw the world and Paul saw himself and how the ancient leaders of the church saw humanity: as broken and in constant need of renewal, as beautiful and always being made holy?

I don’t have many answers, but I know that something has to change. We can learn to help protect our pastors instead of shaming them into sexual hiding. We can learn to create a culture within our churches where vulnerability is expected instead of avoided, a culture that recognizes how God is on the move within all of us, healing and restoring us, even as we admit that we are all messy and capable of great failure.

Until our leaders can be vulnerable with others they will not know how to be vulnerable with themselves.

This kind of change will probably not begin with our pastors. It will begin with us, the people they are leading. Because leadership should not be a power that is given to one sole person. Healthy leadership should be a gift the community creates and supports. We are our pastors’ community. Our job is to protect them.

Let’s work to create a culture where our leadership believes they are allowed to wrestle with their own shame and addictions, instead of packing their brokenness neatly away, where it festers and grows into something darker. Let’s hold up our pastors, believing that they long to faithfully serve God and their congregation, while still acknowledging that the work of a pastor is multifaceted and demanding, emotional and often anxiety-fueled. Pastors should never be asked to carry their pain and fear alone. Let’s hold their pain with them.

I’m tired of talking about “the church” as something I’m critiquing from the sidelines. I am the church. We are the church. We are the ones called to lead our churches, especially those of us who are not pastors. We set the tone for our leadership.

We must make the choice to encourage our pastors toward wholeness and away from performance, from the failure of aimless striving toward the messy and healing love of Jesus.

Last week, after I clicked on the link and saw the shame in my friend’s eyes, I emailed my pastors. I asked them what our church is doing to create a culture of vulnerability and honesty among our leaders.

And maybe that’s where we can all begin to bring health and wholeness to our churches. Maybe a vulnerable and honest community starts simply. Maybe it starts with a conversation. This phrase reflects the large range of subject areas that may be included, from genetics and genomics to pharmaceuticals and plant sciences