4 Things to Do and Don't Do When a Pastor Is in Trouble

People looked up to David and he liked it. In fact, he didn't know it but one of the reasons he was drawn to the ministry was to serve his big ego. He relished the complimentary remarks about his sermons. He loved the adulation and it really made him defensive when someone criticized something he said or the way he said it.

They didn't realize what they were doing, but some of David's parishioners were reinforcing a false image he had of himself. He was different – somehow above the ordinary guy.

This is why David had incredible guilt feelings about the way he would lose his temper and swear when no one could hear him. Sometimes he would feel lusts for the women who would come to his study with stories of inattentive and insensitive husbands. A preacher ought not to have such weaknesses, he thought.

At times, David would feel terribly anxious about himself. When things were going well at the church and home, he felt like he could fly. But when people seemed indifferent to him, when the kids were sick, when his wife was too busy to respond to him sexually, he would feel this profound compulsion to run – just get away. Everything was beginning to close in on him, until he was consumed with a sickening depression.

In solitude, he would weep and beat himself up for having such feelings. He even thought about self-destruction. [1]

There are thousands of pastors like David. Certainly they can find help if they really need it.

But more often than not, they don't find help because they have an unreal role image fostered in part by the churches they serve, and too often by the ministers themselves. Pastors are supposed to help, not be helped. They are supposed to counsel, not be counselled. If something goes wrong in the preacher's life, surely he knows what to do. Besides that's his job. [2] And so goes the thinking and unrealistic expectations that can ultimately lead to a breakdown – an emotional breakdown, a nervous breakdown, a mental breakdown, even a moral breakdown.

How can the church help? What should the church do when the pastor is in trouble?

First, put up an umbrella of protection over the pastor. Ministers live in a glass bubble. If the preacher stubs his toe on a rock, if he hits his finger with a hammer, if he makes a mistake in traffic, his actions are publicly scrutinized. If one of his children is having behavioral issues, everybody knows about it and his family life severely judged.

When trouble or failure comes to the preacher's life, people need to understand the pressure is significantly intensified because of his public standing. Moreover, it should be remembered that faithful ministry in itself creates enemies. There are always those who rejoice in a minister's fall because his proclamations of the Word have caused them some unintended offense.

Church leaders, elders, deacons, key laity, etc., should as much as possible seek to protect the pastor's privacy. As one counsellor who has served a number of fallen ministers stated to me, they should stand hand in hand around that bubble not facing inwardly with critical eyes, but facing outwardly repelling attacks that work against the redemption and well-being of their brother in Christ. They should throw up an umbrella that protects him from the acidic rains of unloving fallout.

Second, avoid demonization of the pastor. When a religious leader is struggling in some way or has failed morally, there are those who will immediately demonize. They will argue he never was a true Christian. He must be a hypocrite, etc.

Ted Haggard, the well-known evangelical pastor who founded New Life Church in Colorado Springs and was once the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, was the subject of a sad scandal. A masseur, Mike Jones, alleged Haggard had paid him for sex and purchased drugs from him. Haggard later admitted to some of the accusations and sought recovery and restoration. Haggard is back in ministry today.

Although I don't endorse every controversial thing Haggard has reportedly said or done since his disgrace, there is one statement he recently wrote on his blog with which I completely agree. He said:

"In the past we would try to argue that Evangelical leaders who fall were not sincere believers, or were unrepentant, or that they did not believe their Bibles, or were not adequately submitted. And in the midst of these arguments we know those ideas are, in some cases rationalizations. I can offer some guesses from personal experience as well as knowledge of others' stories that…Isaac Hunter frequently repented of the things in him that damaged his heart and marriage. I think Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Baker, and I know Ted Haggard, hated their sins, repented, prayed, fasted, memorized Scripture, and pleaded with God for personal holiness. I think there are few hypocrites in our pulpits or on church staffs. I believe most people in ministry are sincere followers of Christ. But when God's holiness is infused into our humanity – that sets us all up for some degree of struggle." [3]

It's true that pastors are rightly held to a higher standard; nevertheless, they are but human beings, sinners, who are apt to struggle and stumble. Just remember the Bible is a remarkably honest book and there is hardly a righteous person highlighted within its texts that at one time or another wasn't faulted for some character deficit.

Just because a pastor is in trouble doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't know the Lord, and that he isn't really trying to follow Christ. Demonizing a pastor who is caught in a web of defeat only exacerbates the pain for him, his family, and everyone concerned.

Third, shun the tendency to gossip about the pastor. Unfortunately, there is no news that travels so quickly as gossip. During World War II, a slogan said, "Loose Lips Sink Ships." Loose lips can also sink a ministry. This admonition could apply to a host of circumstances, but it's never more appropriately applied than when a minister is in trouble.

In 1752, a group of Methodist men, which included John Wesley, signed a covenant that provides an excellent model for us in this matter. The six articles of their solemn agreement read:

1. We will not listen or willingly inquire after ill concerning one another;
2. That, if we do hear of any ill of each other, we will not be forward to believe it;
3. That as soon as possible we will communicate what we hear by speaking or writing to the person concerned;
4. That until we have done this, we will not write or speak a syllable of it to any other person;
5. That neither will we mention it, after we have done this, to any other person:
6. That we will not make any other exception to any of these rules unless we think ourselves absolutely obliged in conference. [4]

We should avoid even the seemingly spiritual motives of the person who says, "Did you hear about the preacher? Let me tell you what happened so you can pray about it."

No matter how the dirt is thrown, it only means a loss of ground.

Fourth, don't treat the pastor like an employee. The church is not a business and the pastor is not a commodity. Instead, the church is an organism, a family. The pastor, which is the under shepherd, therefore, shouldn't be treated as something dispensable – someone to be simply hired and fired, something to be thrown out when broken.

This is critical. We don't run off a family member because they suffered an injury. We don't cast out a family member because they went astray. We seek to redeem and restore them.

Granted, there can be just cause to confront the pastor about a weakness or failure. And there are times when a minister disqualifies himself for ministry. But even when this is the case, it needs to be handled sensitively, quietly, privately, and in loving concern for the minister and the work of the Lord. Certainly whatever is done needs to be bathed in prayer and exercised with the greatest caution, lest the Lord himself, who knew all the man's faults before He called him to ministry, be offended.

The pastor is not simply an employee. He's a part of the family.

Lastly, let me tell you this personal story. Like David, in 1985 I experienced a severe bout with depression as a pastor. It was devastating – a living hell. In my case, there was no immorality or hidden sin, but I readily admit I was mentally ill and suffered a break down.

I remember distinctly the Deacon Board of the church coming to visit me at home. They sat in semi-circle in front of me in the living room. I expected they might be present to ask for my resignation. Instead, the Chairman, who spoke for the group said: "Mark, we're here today to speak on behalf of the church and tell you that we love you. We want you to understand that we believe in you. We want you to take time away, with pay, to get some help and find the treatment you need. Get well, come back, and continue as our pastor."

I can never tell that story without the tears welling-up. I would that every pastor could be so fortunate, because to save the pastor is not only to save the man, but to save an entire ministry to untold numbers of other people.

Dr. Mark Creech is executive director of the Raleigh-based Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He also serves as president of the American Council on Alcohol Problems.

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