Pastors often struggle alone. While having breakfast with a pastor earlier this week, we talked about how leaders tend to feel trapped when they’re going through a difficult season. Questions like: “Who do I talk to when I’m hurting?” and “Who is safe to confide in?” were part of our conversation. A Barna study of 14,000 Protestant lead pastors in the United States, published in January 2017, revealed that 66% of pastors have no deep friendships. In some ways I understand. Some pastors have been stabbed in the back by people their church or colleagues they considered friends. And the resulting pain made them vow they would never put themselves in such a vulnerable position again. The problem is, we were wired by God for friendship. But the gravitational pull of ministry is toward isolation. Pastors tend to hide.
During my early years as a pastor, I often hid behind a persona of perfection. (Who did I think I was fooling?) Thoughts like this kept me isolated: “I’m a pastor. I can’t admit I have struggles. I can’t own up to the broken parts of my life still under repair. What will people think if they find out I’m not as mature as they think?” Hide-and-seek was a fun game as a kid. As a pastor, it was dangerous and unhealthy.
Pastoring a church is a not a better calling than any other; it’s just a unique calling. According to another Barna Group Study, church-goers expect their lead pastor to juggle an average of sixteen major tasks. Good luck with that. Sixteen years in pastoral ministry, and twenty years in the business world—I’ve yet to find a person competent at sixteen major tasks. The unrealistic expectations people have of pastors in terms of time, skill set, results, and character development put pressure on leaders to appear better than they really are, and the result can be a strong temptation to hide.
Here’s the truth: pastors are works-in-progress who lead and teach groups of people who are works-in-progress. Unfortunately, when faced with the reality of their own need for grace and growth, many pastors hide. Sometimes they cover up as a means of self-protection. Some camouflage because they fear accountability. Some because their predecessors modeled isolationism. Whatever the reason, the tendency to shroud one’s life in secrecy usually leads to trouble.
When a pastor goes through a tough stretch, he’s faced with a dilemma: “Do I share this or not? If I do—then with whom? How do I know they’re safe? What will they do with the info? The temptation to hide is difficult for a leader to resist because so much is at stake.
So what can a pastor or any ministry leader do about it? Let me give you a few ideas:
Learn appropriate transparency
The apostle Paul, one of the greatest Jesus-followers of all time, wrote to his friends in Rome: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” Wait…what? Did Paul just tell the entire world about his wrestling match with the flesh? Paul was a godly man. But he understood he hadn’t arrived. He didn’t go into graphic detail about his struggle. He didn’t air all of his dirty laundry. Nor did he make excuses. He simply acknowledged reality: “I’m still growing in grace. I haven’t figured it all out yet. But with the help of God I’m making progress.” Understanding and admitting we’re imperfect leaders in need of God’s grace, leading a group of imperfect people in need of the same grace, helps us move toward healthy transparency.
Admit you need pastoring
No pastors ever arrive at a place where they don’t need pastoring. If you’re leading a church or a ministry, do you have a mentor? A coach? A counselor? A true friend? Etc.? If not, why not? The excuses of no time or money for such pursuits ring hollow in most cases. Isn’t is funny how we tend to have time/money for what we find important? Admitting we need wise input from others on a lifelong basis, and making room in our calendars to chase these types of relationships, help us come out of hiding.
Intentionally seek out trusted confidants
It’s one thing to admit we need pastoring. It’s another thing to take action. Inviting trusted people into your life starts with a good vetting process. Here’s a few filters to run potential confidants through: A confidant is someone who isn’t overly impressed with you. He’s a straight shooter. He maintains confidentiality. A confidant loves you no matter what you tell him. And he isn’t full of himself. He understands he has room to grow too. Intentionally inserting accountable relationships into our world gets us out of hiding and can save our life.
The pastoral misery index—isolation, burnout, depression, and marital struggle—is troubling. I wonder: how much of it is due to hiding? Coming out of hiding gives us a starting point toward healthier, happier, and longer-lasting leadership.
Let’s stop playing hide-and-seek.
I’m rooting and praying for you!