When Pastors Go Wrong
March 23, 2011
I’ve decided to blog about this because it’s timely. The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from a note I sent a sister regarding the scandal of a church we both faithfully attended for a brief time in our lives. I’ve chosen not to identify the church because as a congregation, they are making significant progress in recovery from something that went very wrong. I recently visited them and if I lived there now, would most likely join the congregation again. The pastor in question, now no longer part of this congregation, was much gifted in teaching, and members of the congregation were apt to say things like, “Well, the pastor says this or that,” as if because he said it, it had to be true. He also attempted to engage in sexual activity with young men in his congregation–the trigger of the scandal that left the smoking gun.
In this affair, for me, the real venom is the abuse of the ministry, the taking advantage of authority and power and quite possibly money. This happens far more often than it seems and it’s association with homosexuality is comparatively rare. Just like the vast majority of pedophiles are abusers of the opposite gender, the church leaders who abuse their authority and use it as a sexual hook usually are going after partners of the opposite gender. We as a church and as a society seem to prefer to publicize the salacious media appeal of homosexuality–makes it a real scandal. My point here is not to justify homosexuality but to focus our attention on the real evil and that is the pride that man uses to raise himself up above others, a pride that eventually leads to manipulation and control, often sexual, used to maintaining the status of power, not merely to get sexual partners, which is more likely a fringe benefit, I suppose. Sometimes it is used as a tool of control.
Do we not see that the problem is the one that is attributed to Satan at his fall? We were aware of the pastor adoration when we were there at that church but it seemed the natural response toward someone who was so apparently gifted by God in the teaching of God’s word. This pastor adoration stuff is so pervasive in dynamic churches is a kind of temptation that unfortunately many ministers do not resist. Often at first, they give in because they think they are serving their congregations. People in congregations like to rely on the Pastor for his apparent strength and wisdom. They struggle with the question, “How can I display my weakness when so many are counting on my strength?” I found myself in that situation in New York and that is why I took a sabbatical that ultimately lasted twenty years. You see, once a minister starts hiding his weakness, it becomes hypocrisy and things snowball after that. I thought it better not to let it get out of hand when I knew I was far from the perfect example of Christian piety.
In the ministry, I’ve continually struggled with people looking up to me, thinking I had the answers when they did not, asking me what they should or should not believe, do or say. Whenever I speak, write, lead, teach or facilitate, I try to remind myself that I am a servant of the people who are listening, reading or participating. We’ve talked about homosexuality at length and I want you to understand that I engage in that conversation, not because I want to justify myself or anyone else but because of the need for the conversation in the church. Whether we agree or not at this point is not the issue. Whether we can love one another the way He first loved us certainly is point. As a Christian, I am perfectly comfortable being considered one of the least of his, as long as the “of his” is there. Sure I like it when people tell me that they appreciate the things I say, do, or whatever and I must remind my self that it is only by his anointing that any of it is meaningful at all and that his purpose in that anointing is the service of them, not in the establishment of me. One of the most humbling and the most freeing things I’ve ever said to a congregation was, “I don’t know.”
No one, save the devil himself, is served by pride and arrogance and our ministers, elders, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes and deacons would do well to remember that. I am a child of God by his grace not by my merit. Yes, I am his son as you are his daughter and that position is very valuable and important but it is the grace that is highlighted. Now, to forget my son-ship would besmirch and belittle that grace; to use my son-ship to feed my ego, power and control is an act of pride rivaling that of the now fallen Lucifer. Unfortunately, like an impressionist painting, the abuse of pastoral authority when viewed up close is a confusing jumble of brush strokes without definition. Mistakes are made. Which ones count? But when we back away just a bit, the picture becomes clear. We look back with hindsight and ask why didn’t we see it and stop it?
My encouragement for you, my reader, is to not expect or attribute great things of or to the person standing behind the pulpit. Don’t rely on your pastor no matter how wonderful or great s/he is. The pastor is human. The pastor falls, sometimes has unchristian thoughts, and frankly sins quite possibly as often or more than you do. We all walk with God and to place a person between us and God verges on idolatry and worse is unfair to them.
In thinking back on my time at that church, I don’t know if it would have been different for this particular pastor if we in the congregation and kept things in perspective. Surely he is responsible for his actions but we share in the conditions of that guilt by allowing him to assume and abuse the power.
In the end, each of us is responsible for the lives we lead. Each of us will be called to account. We as Christians believe that the guilt worthy of punishment was nailed to the cross and for that we are greatful. But the consequences of our actions in this life are ours to contend with. If I rob a bank, I may spend the next twenty years in jail regardless of the grace and forgiveness of God. This is the true service of a pastor: To help us learn to live the ways of God in this life, for this life, not merely the one to come.