Monday, February 12, 2007

Pastoral Pressure

According to one of the pastors that is part of Ted Haggard’s counseling team, the former mega-church pastor now says he is “completely heterosexual”. (That comment would seem to suggest that one could be only partially heterosexual, an idea with which I would think most evangelical Christians would disagree, but I digress.) Regardless of whether or not this is actually true, what else would Haggard say? He and all those in his social and professional circles believe that homosexuality is a horrible sin, and for him to come out and say that he is gay would mean being even more ostracized than he currently is.

Haggard’s sexuality, whatever it may be, whatever percentages he may have, is between him and his wife, and frankly is no one else’s business. But I do believe there is an element of Haggard’s tragic “fall from grace” that does concern all of us. We have to ask ourselves to what extent we are all responsible for what happened.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I’m not trying to absolve Haggard of responsibility for what he did. No one held a gun to his head and made him do drugs and cheat on his wife. But neither did he just wake up one day and decide to do it.

As the pastor of one of the country’s largest churches, Haggard became well known all over the country. As a pastor he felt the obligation to embody the values he preached, and as a public figure he felt the pressure to maintain a carefully crafted public persona.

The problem was that this public persona was incredibly unrealistic. He was expected not only to model basic Christian values, but also to never waver in his theological positions, never have doubts, and never experience temptations. In other words, Haggard was expected to live up to a standard of perfection that nobody can live up to. Haggard certainly participated in the cultivation of this public image and promoted these ridiculous expectations, but he was not alone. Others promoted these expectations because they, too, wanted to believe that their leaders were “perfect”.

In the eighteenth century John Wesley published a treatise called “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”. He wanted to correct the popular misunderstandings of his theological position on perfection. What Wesley meant by “perfection” was not that one never had doubts, never made mistakes, or never experienced temptation. The kind of perfection Wesley had in mind was a perfection of intention. This perfection required intense self examination and a thorough knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Somewhat ironically, the one who was most perfected, according to Wesley, was the one who was most aware of their need to constantly confess their sins.

Pastors are people, too. We have doubts, we have fears, we have desires and experience temptations. We get mad. We have good days and bad days. We even have days where we’re not too sure God even exists! But most of us are afraid to admit this, even to ourselves because we think people want to see us project an image of confidence, unwavering conviction, and complete sinlessness. If we admit to problems in our lives, it’s almost always in the past tense. We would never admit that we’re currently going through a rough patch.

The problem is that when we ignore these doubts, fears, and desires, they don’t simply go away. We bury them somewhere deep inside ourselves, and eventually they pile up and boil over. Sometimes people just burn out and leave the ministry. Sometimes they seek comfort through substance abuse. Others like Haggard act out sexually because they just can’t take it any more. Ted Haggard should not have done what he did, but just like all of us he played a part in setting up a system of expectations that ultimately wore him down and led him to act out in an extreme way.

When I admit to people that I struggle every day with clinical depression and anxiety I get a variety of reactions. Some people are comforted, some people are shocked, but all too often I hear surprise because people think that to be a pastor you’re supposed to have moved past struggles like that.

Let’s all collectively take a deep breath and admit that none of us are “perfect”. We all have our doubts and struggles, and we always will. The values we proclaim are ideals toward which we strive, not things we will ever fully embody. And that’s OK. Our leaders should feel safe enough to be vulnerable and admit that they don’t always know what to do. May God grant us the strength and courage to be real with one another.


Brother Marty said...

Thank you for the grounding. Too many peole fail to realize that pastors are people too.

John Wesley said...

Dear and Gentle Brother in Christ,,

Thank you for your stirring recommendation of my small tract. I am passionate about each and every one of the precepts and am much enthused at your passion for finding holiness of heart and life.

I would like to invite you to visit my humble journal, as I start my tenure upon the continent of the Americas. I have been elucidated by your musings and wish to remain in your prayers whilst in the Americas.

I am most curious about the manner in which clergy conduct themselves in the colonies, as I am a newly arrived pastor and do not wish to offend the faithful and the savages. So prithee hence to my journal and let us hold each other accountable in our mutual love of Christ.

I remain God's humble servant,
John Wesley

Thom Dawkins said...

You know your blog rocks when JW leaves a post. Wow.

Thanks for your honesty in this post. I've seen a lot of churches try to stay relevant, and not always with great success. Perhaps one of the most common failures for doing so is a lack of honesty. Now, I don't mean that pastors or attendees are hypocritical or liars or anything of the sort. It seems, though, that churches aren't always reaching the needs of the people in the pews.

When you get down to it, pastors probably don't have to look any further than their own heart.

Great post! Always enjoy your thoughts.