Faith Today



Iwas shocked when a pastor I had admired for so long, flustered, with bulging veins on his head, shouted at the AV guy at church. There had been a minor glitch with the tech before the service and he lost it. I thought to myself, Isn’t he supposed to be holy? Why the unwarrante­d outburst of anger? believed, like most Christians and non-Christians, that pastors and priests are supposed to be good people. They are not supposed to swear, drink immoderate­ly or yell at cowering, pimply teenagers.

We think of ideal pastors as people who are integrated, lead discipline­d lives, pray and read the Bible. They are meant to be some combinatio­n of the cloying piety of Ned Flanders with the tired religiosit­y of the Rev. Lovejoy, perhaps without the faults.

The reality that pastors are not good people is all too apparent, and yet most of us cling to the notion they ought to be.

Pastors ought to be good people, and if they are not good deep down, they should at least put up a holy front. And holy is just the word we want to use to describe priests and pastors, isn’t it? Holiness is the ideal.

But what is holiness anyways? Is it competency in mastering your baser instincts? A tight control over what you say and do? Or is holiness something more

– something given by God?

Now, I am not saying pastors shouldn’t be held to some higher standard, or that they should not in fact behave well, in a way appropriat­e to their office. This is especially true in light of the sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and the seemingly endless wave of evangelica­l celebrity pastors whose moral failures often move into the realm of

harassment, such as Bill Hybels and James McDonald. These acts of abuse call for organizati­onal accountabi­lity, renewed commitment­s to live rightly and – ultimately – repentance.

Now, the problem is not that people expect pastors, like physicians or politician­s, to lead respectabl­e lives given their responsibi­lity. Since its inception the Church expected its leaders to be models of godliness. Paul, writing instructio­ns for the earliest bishops, who had a very pastoral role, suggested they be “above reproach.”

Paul wrote that a bishop must be “married only once, temperate, sensible, respectabl­e, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsom­e, and not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:4–6, NRSV). And in another letter he wrote that elders and bishops must be “blameless” (Titus 1:6–7, NRSV).

It took time in the Church for the various orders of bishop, priest and deacon to distinguis­h themselves, but even in the first years it was evident those tasked with being pastors, caregivers and servant leaders in the church were meant to be morally commendabl­e.

In one sense, however, the virtues required for pastoral ministry could be applied to any serious vocation. Not many people would see a physician known to be an unrespecta­ble drunkard. Not many would want their city mayor to be a violent lover of money.

Because the pastoral task, along with that of doctors and elected officials, is to care profession­ally for others with a degree of competence, it requires something more than punching a clock and showing up. That priests and pastors must be held to this high standard, or perhaps one even higher, is not the problem.

The problem is thinking pastors are somehow essentiall­y better people. I mean, folks expect not only that pastors would be diligent and above reproach in their moral lives, but that it would be inconceiva­ble for them to fail, slip up or have an angry outburst.

I’m not suggesting that to fail is to abuse another human being. By failure I mean occasional laziness, forgetfuln­ess or even meanness. Incidents like the Pope’s slapping someone’s wrist to free himself when she wouldn’t let go. I am referring to the ways all human beings at times fail to meet the expectatio­ns we have for ourselves.

The problem comes not when we expect ministry leaders to be competent and diligent, but when we believe they somehow no longer have the tendency to sinfulness, that they exude some kind of holiness from their own being.

The truth is pastors are just as bad as everyone else. We pastors have the same tendencies to self-destructio­n, the same struggles with mental and physical health, the same tendency to have bad days, to be thuggish or sulky.

It’s damaging when folks believe pastors are somehow removed from these human struggles. It damages a pastor’s ability to minister as a “wounded healer,” to borrow a term popularize­d by Henri Nouwen. But it also damages the conscience­s of those who are not pastors because they feel a deep sense of loss, almost like a child discoverin­g Santa Claus is not real, when they find out pastors are messed up too.

All of this is to say the pastorate isn’t a game for the devout, but a vocation for sinners.

Robert Farrar Capon, in his book The Foolishnes­s of Preaching: Proclaimin­g the Gospel Against the Wisdom of the World (Eerdmans, 1997), argues:

Unless we who speak the Word are willing to be utterly nothing – unless we’re willing to admit we’re sinners and welcome the annihilati­on of glittering images of moral success and clerical reputabili­ty – our words will be nothing more than the words of fakers, and we’ll never come within a million miles of that astonishme­nt at grace which alone can make those words come alive. We must not despise our sins, or fear them as evidence of condemnati­on; we must relish them as the most impressive testimonia­ls we have to our salvation.

Only when pastors recognize our own unrighteou­sness, and are forthright about our brokenness to those we serve, can the full force of the gospel be visible.

Not only is it damaging to pastors, priests and those who know them to get this wrong. No, it is not just a harmful misconcept­ion, but rather a recreation of Christiani­ty without any need for Christ.

The gospel that pastors are ordained to proclaim relies on just this reality, that all human beings are broken, wounded and have missed the mark. The good news isn’t that the Church has figured out a way to train people out of their brokenness. Rather the gospel is that God enters into this brokenness we all share because He loves us in spite of it – and moreover this God, in the person of Jesus, dies a broken man and is raised to new life so we might, through Him, enter into wholeness.

Any healing, when it comes, comes from God alone, not from pastors or ministry leaders. If pastors can exude sufficient holiness through their own regime of spiritual discipline, why did Jesus have to die?

Pastors are not supposed to be good people. They need to be competent for the task for which they’ve given their life. And they certainly shouldn’t be criminals. But they are not supposed to be good people. They are holy, only by the gift of God’s grace.

Only when pastors recognize our own unrighteou­sness, and are forthright about our brokenness to those we serve, can the full force of the gospel be visible.

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