In recent years, seven of my friends lost their leadership positions because of personal or moral failure. All of them were pastors.
How can this be?
Most of these pastors were also known and celebrated beyond their local ministries. From the outside, it seemed they were at their peak. How could it be otherwise? Their books sold well, they had speaking engagements galore, and adoring congregations devoured their words like honey. Surrounded by such acclaim, the one thing they couldn’t possibly be…was lonely.
The pulpit can often be the loneliest space in the room. In their private lives, these seven pastors were isolated relationally. Somewhere along the way, they substituted friendship with counterfeit versions of community (likes, followers, and fans). But followers are a poor substitute for healthy, accountable, encouraging, loyal friends. Pastoral failure was a symptom. Isolation was the underlying disease.
The Perils of Isolating
“It is not good,” the Lord God said, “for man to be alone.”
If this was true in Paradise, then it must be even truer in our current, fallen world.
For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has kept me from similar collapse. Knowing my own frailty, sometimes I marvel at how this can be true. Why them and not me? I am no better than they. As the hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…”
Being a human is hard. But being a pastor is exceptionally hard.
When I was in seminary, a young man’s suicide note was published in the local newspaper. He was the pastor of a large, influential church. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, his will to claw through another day was gone. In his darkest hour, he decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.
As details became public, it was clear that this pastor was not only depressed, but isolated. This was especially true in his own church, where he had plenty of adoring congregants but no actual friends.
In his suicide note, he said that he felt trapped. He felt he couldn’t tell anyone about his depression because it would ruin his ministry. He believed that pastors weren’t allowed to be weak, nor could they be human like everybody else. Human weakness was an occasion for grace for everyone except pastors. A shepherd, he came to believe, wasn’t allowed to also be a sheep.
The Power in Our Weakness
Like this pastor, I too have experienced anxiety and depression. Early on, I decided to be more open with my congregants about my weakness and am glad that I did. Why? Because our people respect me more when I do this, not less. “When you told us about your affliction,” one church member said, “that was the day you became my pastor.”
Sometimes it is good for us pastors to put our worst foot forward. It is good to be exposed before our people, but not rejected by them. It is good to be known and loved by them.
Because grace applies to me as well as them, and because the shepherds are also among the sheep, our people see me not through the eyes of perfectionism or platform or pedestal, but through the eyes of Christ, who will one day complete the good work he has already begun in me.
Sometimes I wonder if, in the end, it will be my weakness and not my preaching or writing or leading or vision that God ends up using to advance his Kingdom. We pastors should be less concerned about building an image and accumulating followers, fans, and “likes,” and instead put our energy into a few healthy, transparent, accountable, loyal friendships. Jesus had his twelve, and also his three.
Lowering Our Risk
If Jesus needed close friends, how can we assume that we don’t?
I know that many pastors say it’s impossible to let your guard down with the members of your church. “It’s too risky,” they say. But the idealist in me—or perhaps the realist—refuses to believe this. Considering the collapse of my seven famously isolated friends, I would rather risk transparency than risk the alternative.
Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen is a resource for anyone who sins, suffers, or feels afraid. It is also (and especially) a resource for caregivers, including pastors and ministry leaders, therapists and mental health advocates, addiction counselors and sponsors, spiritual directors, healthcare and social workers, embattled parents, and friends who keep showing up. As Tim Keller has said, this is “a deeply pastoral book.”