Pastoral character, responsibility, accountability, and confessionalism have weighed heavily on my mind and heart for the past several years. We must by now be tired of the proliferation of scandals about pastoral abuse even in Reformed churches. I realize that some of these instances hold less water than the accuser claims, but some certainly hold at least that much. For all the real cases, we must be weary of the misuse of pastoral authority, not in the sense that we are annoyed by hearing about them but in the sense that we must be at our lament’s full capacity to know that ministerial benchmarks are low in the areas of confessional standards and personal character. Over the last few months, I have written an unintentional miniseries about pastoral character, commitments, and posture in the essays “A Pastor’s Public Persona” and “We Are Not Professionals But Ought To Be True Confessionals.” In hindsight, I think their purpose was largely diagnostic—trying to work through what has gone wrong and identify the temptations to which I as a pastor might be particularly liable but which I want to mortify continually. Since this series of essays was related unintentionally, I am not sure when and whether it will continue. This piece, however, rounds out some of those reflections by considering the root causes of the misuse of pastoral authority.
On the flipside of overstepping pastoral authority, some pastors are drained and withered long before their natural time to finish might come. The mounting evidence of mental health issues among pastors alongside those who constantly feel worn thin combines to form a real fear for most of us about the potential for “burnout.” With the intention of trying to encourage, not convict, those bordering near burnout, there is a real sense in which the practices that produce it are possibly also a misuse of pastoral authority. In this case, the problem is not overstepping the bounds of authority to wield it over someone, but rather in not knowing where those bounds lie so that we are beaten down by greater burdens than we ought to carry.
This essay, therefore, argues that both abuse and burnout are potentially related to the same incorrect understanding of the pastoral remit. My case is that when a pastor thinks that his responsibility is to fix people, he will inevitably distort his calling’s remit and fall prey to the abusive temptation or to the tyranny of exhaustion.
As a caveat, this argument obviously does not cover every instance. There are wolves who dress like shepherds, entering ministry because of some ill-gotten love. This fact is a hard reality of living in the fallen world, especially in the entrepreneurial ecclesiological milieu of the modern West and America in particular. Big Eva’s brief alliance with Justin Bieber, which earned them enough to spend a fortune on sneakers in exchange for slightly theological TED Talks, is reminiscent of “shepherds feeding themselves” rather than Christ’s sheep, proving to be “waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 12–13).
This essay is not intended to address those situations, which have very different causes and solutions, but is intended to help prevent situations where pastors start out noble-minded only to lose their way somewhere along the line. The point is to spotlight the easily missed temptation to think our pastoral remit to be more than what God actually calls us to do, so as to keep in place the guardrails which prevent the kind of malformation of heart that can lead to abuse or burnout. We want to think through the pastoral remit in order to preserve faithfulness.
Why do I say that both abuse and burnout might be caused by the same misunderstanding of the pastoral remit that entails fixing people? First, I want to clarify that thinking we can help people is different from thinking we can fix them. Helping people in various ways is one of the foundational premises of the pastoral call. Helping, however, means coming alongside God’s people in a host of ways for their benefit as they go through the joys and sorrows of life. On the other hand, fixing people means solving their issues.
Two problems arise from this distinction, particularly if we drift into thinking we should fix people. First, our perception of what needs fixing is imperfect. We start adding people’s flaws, personality issues, and lackluster preferences to the list of things that we ought to improve. After all, they are not fixed if we can find something unacceptable about them. Second, we are not truly able to fix someone. Pastors who get trapped by the first problem succumb to the temptation to abuse, and pastors who keep a humble heart but get snagged by the second problem face burnout.
Why these two results from thinking the pastoral remit is about fixing people? On the one hand, in our desire to fix people, we convince ourselves that we have the right insight into exactly what people need to be. We think that our job is not done until all the dots for the life of every member in our church are connected. We become more about getting people to be models of stoicism than about encouraging character formation. All the more, pastors who see their remit as fixing people tend to make themselves the baseline. He becomes his own standard for bringing everyone else into line. He develops a controlling tendency because he is just trying to do his job, but that can only happen when everyone has listened to him. So results the mindset that people should do what we say, “because I’m your minister.” The vocational label of pastor denotes, and connotes, shepherding care, while the title of minister suggests that sort of set apart authority figure.
Pastors, however, should seek to have a moral, not an insistent, authority. I remember coming away from my pastoral internship with a very clear sense of a personal motto: “Spend more time becoming a man worth trusting than insisting that people should listen to me.” Given that the pastor under whom I was an intern has since been defrocked and excommunicated, you can guess that I did not learn this posture by his positive example. If you show yourself approved through your labor in the Word and labor to support and care for people, then you will have to spend very little time saying, “Your minister said so.”
The control tendency and dependence upon titular authority spawns pastoral abuse. Pastors who had a clear heart going into their vocations but developed improper views of our remit can become fixated on getting everyone to line up with their expectations because that is how people get fixed. Eventually the controlling tendency becomes the default programming so that people’s best interests are less in mind than the principle of absolute submission to “The Minister.” So go some pastors who try to fix their people.
On the other hand, pastors who have a keener sense of how they cannot truly fix people but continue to try anyway are destined for burnout. Someone can press ahead in full failure only so long before they bottom out. Like Dirty Harry reminded us, “a man has got to know his limitations.” The men in pastoral ministry who think that their calling is to fix their people but have a more realistic and biblical sense of their methods of care than the control freaks described above lose heart because they never taste what they think are supposed to be the fruits of their labor.
Where do we go then? What is the view of the pastoral remit that helps prevent men from falling into either trap? We must realize that pastors are meant to serve, help, and support but not fix. Mainly, we are not called to fix people because it cannot be done this side of heaven and because no sufficient measuring stick for “fixed” exists in reality.
I used to be very stressed out about pastoral visits. When I would leave someone’s home and knew that they still carried the hurt of losing a loved one, being betrayed by someone close, being ill themselves, or lacking what they thought they needed for life, I would be fully crestfallen that I had not solved their problems. I thought that pastoral success was to remove their causes for despair or lament. I was wrong.
My turning point was in the lightning rod phrase, “I can’t fix this problem for them, but I can be with them through it.” I do not have to turn back all their tears. I do not have to explain away all their sadness. Indeed, people are usually helped more if I try to do neither, but rather share their tears and sadness with them. Certainly, this approach is more emotionally taxing during a given visit or meeting, but I am far more thoroughly rested and at ease in my vocation overall. I carry the burden of weeping with others and of praying with and for them with true fervency, but I do not lie down at night regretting how I was unable to solve the world’s every problem. Rather, I trust the Lord to care for his people and recognize that people love their pastor for pointing them consistently and faithfully to Christ for the joy and hope that he offers, no matter our earthly circumstances. I have found that God’s people seem to be most deeply moved, not when I am quick to offer advice for how to fix their lives according to my insight, but when I am quick to pray sincere prayers for their needs. To connect the dots, prayer is the most pointed acknowledgement of my inability to fix them, and of God’s ability to be good to his people when we are at a loss.
My reflections on the pastoral remit have grown increasingly pensive and frustrated as I watch the growing number of cases where pastors ran over their people. These three related essays have probably siphoned my thoughts on the matter for the time being, offering what I hope are some helpful ideas about the state of these issues and how we might be better than the status quo. That said, I know that I cannot fix the whole church. Christ is the one who washes and beautifies his bride. So, I look to him as the one who has lots of work to do on me as I look to him to use me to do his work for others as well. I find great peace in being amongst Christians who could use some fixing, mainly because I know that I need plenty of that fixing myself. As I search the Word for how to feed Christ’s sheep in my remit, I trust that our Savior will work on us all together.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
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