Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Cost Of Wearing The Pastoral Mask

photo from
Pastor Steve was on the brink of an emotional and physical breakdown. His health was not good and as he lay in a hospital bed after going through some tests, his mind traveled back to that first interview, fresh out of seminary, sitting nervously in a small church. Steve had heard that the church had been on a slow decline for the previous 5 years and had been searching for a pastor for over a year. He recalled how he sat wearing his best suit, displaying his super pastor image for a search committee of 7 elderly members, the remnant that held the church together. 

During the meeting, the committee had laid out their expectations: They wanted a man who could preach great sermons that would bring in lots of new converts. He was to lead the church in creating ministry opportunities, pastor the flock by visiting the sick and burying those who pass from this world. He was expected to bring in money to get the church out of debt. They counted on him to be a great teacher and administrator and of course, be above reproach and the example of what a true Christian should be and do. Steve convinced the church he was their man in that meeting and the church wanted to believe that this young man was God's choice and therefore would meet all of their expectations. 

For the past 7 years Steve had been wearing that same image. Looking back, he now wished he would never have put on the super pastor mask. He was worn out trying to live up to all of those expectations and felt foolish that he really believed he could do all of those things well.  He was ashamed and felt guilty of living a lie for the past 7 years as their pastor.  He felt like a failure in so many areas.

Steve was a good preacher and worked hard to please his members and to grow the church but it left him little time to handle the rest of his responsibilities.  Pastoring an elderly congregation, there always seemed to be a need to visit someone in the hospital or prepare for a funeral. He was a terrible administrator, he hated details but the church didn't have the budget to hire someone to handle the financial and business aspects of the church. 

Steve's family and marriage suffered because he just didn't have the time to give what they needed. He was working 6 days and 5 nights a week and there always seemed to be an emergency or meeting on his supposedly free nights. His spiritual life was running on fumes also. He knew things needed to change but what could he do? Admit that he was a failure, that he was a poser all this time as a pastor?
Coaching pastors, I find that Steve is not unique, unfortunately his situation is more of the norm. *This is the time most pastors begin to look for a way out, either leaving the pastorate all together or finding another church where they often begin the cycle all over again.  Steve was different. He broke down on a Sunday evening service and shared about his health and that he needed a break. He came clean about his feelings and guess what?  The congregation stepped up and agreed to take stuff off of his plate.  They seemed to understand and encouraged him to take a sabbatical in order to get healthy before returning.   
The problem is not all the fault of pastors. The American evangelical church has created the notion of super pastor that comes with unrealistic expectations and job descriptions. The truth is that most believers expect their pastor to have all five ministry giftings of the Holy Spirit; apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher. But very rarely does any one person have three of the five much less all of them.   Most pastors excel in one and they try to manage the rest as best as they can. But before long you'll begin to hear the chatter among members, "Our pastor is a great evangelist but he is such a lousy pastor." Or, "our pastor is such a great shepherd but I wish he could preach!"

So how do we address the problem? What could Steve have one differently from the start?  Here are seven ways that may help a pastor avoid Steve's problem.  I'd love to hear any other suggestions also.  
  1. Squelch the perception that the pastor is a super Christian. Two issues here are pride and expectations.  If a pastor never puts on the super pastor mask, he won't have to live up to it. There may be pressure to impress a church to get hired, but if you have to be "Jesus" to get the job, you don't want that job.  Be yourself from the start by being authentic and showing vulnerability. Talk about your strengths and your weaknesses, your struggles and failures. Remind the members over and over that you are not a "super Christian" but a human who sins and fails from time to time. I can only grow and succeed by the power, mercy and grace of Jesus. Stay grounded and resist the urge to be put on a pedestal.  
  2. Take the ministry seriously but don't take yourself too seriously.  Joke about yourself and the boneheaded mistakes you make. Help others identify with you.  
  3. Lead by casting a vision of unity and teamwork. Constantly remind the members that the church (members) should engage the world as a team.  The pastor usually plays the role of quarterback but unless everyone functions in unity doing their part, the church's goals and expectations will not be met.  
  4. Set firm boundaries with your time for your own devotion, your family and free time. Communicate up front with your leadership the importance of those boundaries. Call on your leadership to hold you accountable to keeping those boundaries. Stand firm!
  5. Work together with your leadership team to define your church's specific values.  Post those in a lot of places, preach about them, recognize and reward those who live out your values.     
  6. Delegate, delegate and then delegate some more.  Give as much ministry away so that you as pastor can focus on leading, casting vision, and using whatever ministry gift that God has given you.
  7. Don't isolate yourself.  Find a group of pastors from other churches that you can meet regularly with to play, pray and discuss your common problems. Make friends outside of your church that will allow you to get away from the business of your church.
*Average tenure for pastors at any one church is 5-7 years.
Here are other blog posts concerning this issue:

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