I know from experience that pedestals are dangerous. People come into the church with a powerful mixture of expectations and illusions about what an uber-spiritual person should be, and assume the pastor will embody that. This is a problem when we let them down—when they see how we fall short of the ideal that they created in their minds.
But maybe an even bigger problem is when they don’t see our flaws because they don’t want to see our flaws, and we get too good at hiding them. Most of the people in our churches want to see us in a good light, because this affirms their faith…the leader of their spiritual community can serve to validate the power of that faith.
In spite of whatever we might say about honesty and authenticity in relationships, this idealization creates an opportunity—and a motive—to appear holy. And because we are human, the only way to appear holy is by hiding parts of ourselves and becoming ever more isolated. It might seem to be a good thing…they get to have their faith encouraged by this example of a person who’s pretty “together,” and we receive higher esteem from others than we really deserve.
But this all comes at a price. When people who’ve idealized their spiritual leaders are forced to face their less-than-savory humanity, they are often disillusioned and angry. Somehow they expected us to “be better than that.” So reactions to perceived slights, and evidences of imperfections can often be magnified, because people cling to their hope that their leader will not be struggling with the things that other people are struggling with.
But even more dangerous is what the pedestal does to the soul of the leader. The leader who is dehumanized in this way is trapped by the expectations of other people. The leader must keep his or her personal struggles and foibles hidden. This creates unbearable tension and fear for many leaders. “What would happen if people in my church found out that I was struggling with ______________?”
So pastors don’t get help. They may try to live in denial, and minimize how serious their problems are. They live in isolation, and the shame and fear escalates.
The reverse side of the problem of pedestals is that for some pastors it tends to reinforce the tendencies of narcissism, pride, and judgementalism. The less in touch I am with my own faults, the more spiritually superior I feel. No one is really in a position to challenge most pastors about their behavior or attitudes, because they don’t let people close enough to them. They hide behind the cloak of spiritual authority, and thus stay stuck in blindness to their true condition. When you add the fact that hundreds or thousands of people are listening to the pastor speak God’s truth to them each week, you have a dangerous mix. As someone said, this is like “pouring Miracle Grow on one’s character flaws.”
What is the answer?
Humanity. Let the leader be human.
A meditation from the recovery book Today has this to say about pedestals:
Sometimes we expect far too much of the people around us, and because no one can ever live up to those expectations, we are almost always disappointed. But wouldn’t it be better if we just let go, and let people be who they are? Then we’d be able to see them as they are – with all their beauty and goodness in which we take joy, and with all their faults, which we can also see in ourselves.
When we have put someone up on a pedestal, sculpturing them to fit our needs and desires by smoothing out the rough edges and creating new curves here and there, we cannot see the real person underneath our work. All we see is the illusion we have created. That is denying the person’s real identity and is disrespectful. It’s much better for our friends and for ourselves if we drop our expectations and illusions, and accept them all just the way they are.1
I may not choose to tell the congregation everything about my struggles—especially my sexual struggles—but I must have some people with whom I am fully honest. I must guard against the pedestal syndrome. It only serves to isolate us further.
Getting off the pedestal
I served as a pastor for 15 years, working as a church planter and senior pastor of two churches. I tried to establish these churches as safe communities—places where people could be honest about their struggles. The sad irony is that all the time I was working to create a safe place for others, I was unable to be honest about my own struggles with pornography. When I initially sought help for my struggles, I was absolutely paranoid that someone from my church might find out about it.
I made a secret bargain with God. I promised God that I would work on my “lust problem,” and asked for His help to heal me…as long as we could just keep it between us. I wanted God to fix me, but I didn’t want the struggle—or the process of being fixed—to impact my ministry.
Over the years, the disconnect between the message I was preaching and the way I was living got harder to deal with. I remember it coming to a head when a young woman asked for prayer after a church service, because she had just discovered her husband’s stash of pornography. Later that week, the three of us met to talk about this. Here I was, trying to help them deal with his pornography problem, when I was struggling to deal with it myself. I wanted to talk about my own experience, and share the things I was learning and struggling with. Instead, I kept a safe pastoral distance and gave them the usual lines about accountability and praying for victory. When they left I hated myself for being such a hypocrite.
Around that same time, things came to a head in my marriage, as my wife got more in touch with her anger and unwillingness to put up with a husband who was not staying sexually “sober.” I wound up taking a leave of absence after telling people in the church that I was struggling with pornography. Because things were going so well in the church, and we were moving into a big building project, it was the absolute worst time to take a leave of absence. I felt I needed to give some explanation for why I needed the leave. If I didn’t, there would be wild speculation. And I didn’t want to lie about it and cover up the treatment I was seeking for addiction.
It was a huge step to take, and it fundamentally altered the course of my life and ministry. When I came back from my leave of absence, it was clear that it would not work for me to continue as the senior pastor in the church. I left my role, and eventually found my way into a ministry that works with sexual addiction. Now I am teaching, writing, and coaching people in this area as my full-time ministry.
If I had to make the decision all over again, I would do the very same thing. I would go public, take the leave of absence, and deal with whatever fallout there would be. At the same time, I also firmly believe that most pastors who want to recover from sexual struggles do not need to go public like I did, and in fact probably should not go public. Going public creates challenges that make recovery harder.
The exception to this principle is the pastor who tries to recover without people in his church knowing, but keeps on struggling. If you are genuinely and diligently working a plan of recovery while in the ministry, and you can’t stay sober, you may need to do something more drastic. Your ministry role might be part of the problem.
We like the pedestal too much
For most pastors, what makes ministry such an obstacle to recovery is this issue of being on the pedestal. Many of us like it too much. Many of us get so attached to having people look up to us that we have a hard time facing ourselves honestly. And if there’s one thing we need to do in recovery, it is to face ourselves honestly. We have to get honest about our resentments. We have to get honest about what we are looking for, and what we are actually doing with our sexual behaviors. We have to get honest about how deceitful we have been. We have to get honest about how unsatisfied we are in our marriage. And we have to get honest about how lonely we are.
If that’s not enough, we also have to be vulnerable. We have to get off the pedestal. Being on a pedestal creates a mindset where we are reaching down to help all those poor, needy people around us. But sometimes we are one of those needy people that need help from other people. As pastors we are good at helping others, and we are awful at letting others help us.
After my problem with pornography became public in our church, a number of people did things to reach out to my wife and me. They wrote letters, made calls, and some even brought meals to my wife when I was away at a workshop. I had conversations with guys in the church who would earnestly ask me, “How are you doing?” I was the one who was supposed to be asking them that question! On one hand it was great to get this kind of support, but on the other, it was really uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to be on the receiving end of people’s care.
Support groups have been an important part of my recovery. I have struggled with the same dynamic in these groups: it’s easy for me to take the lead and help other people, but sometimes I am the messed up one who needs help. For a long time I would censor myself when I would speak up in our group meetings. I wouldn’t say what I was really feeling if I thought it was too disjointed, or might seem selfish or petty. I had to face the fact that I was censoring myself because I was still trying to be on that pedestal. I wanted the guys in my group to like me and respect me, and I was afraid they wouldn’t if they knew how messed up and small-hearted I am.
Now I see things differently. I realize that both things can be true of me: I can be helpful and I can also be needy. I can be funny and happy, but I can also be pathetic and self-absorbed. I can be all those things and still be loved. Instead of having people look up to me, I can have them walk beside me. Instead of people I reach out to—from the vantage point of how “together” I am—I now have fellow-strugglers with whom I share the journey.
1Emotions Anonymous, Today (Hazelden Publishing, 1989).