The recent exposure of hundreds of cases of sexual abuse and cover-ups within the Southern Baptist Convention is only the most recent dramatic example of such behavior within the church. David and Nancy French exposed similar abuse and cover-ups at Kannakuk Camp—one of the most popular Christian youth camps in the country. While it seems like ages in retrospect, the revelations about Ravi Zacharias’ misconduct are still relatively recent.
There is something deeper going on here—perhaps many things. Like the rest of the culture, I think Christians are tempted to write off such scandals with overly simplistic explanations. Perhaps a certain pastor was just a deviant from birth? Maybe he just woke up one day and decided to become a predator? “No one would say these things,” you might suggest, but there is an ominous silence regarding the reasons behind this crisis and I think I know why.
The culture avoids talk about sin in the face of tragedy because such talk indicts us all. The church focuses (belatedly) on putative and corrective actions—rightly so—but (conveniently?) ignores the causes behind pastoral scandals and abuses. It hurts. Most of these ministers genuinely loved the Lord when they first entered ministry, but like King David, they allowed sin to progress unchecked within their own hearts, and many of us created a culture that encouraged these pastors to hide along the way.
Taking this line of thought a step further, I think there is a pastoral crisis that extends far beyond the recent scandals. What if many—even most—pastors are hiding their sin? What if they genuinely hate their sin but fear exposure? What if we are complicit in this struggle? By creating unfair expectations and ignoring the reality of sin and the dangers of ministry, what if we have set our pastors up to fail?
The Lovely and Lonely Pulpit
There is perhaps no greater privilege for the minister than to bring the Word of God to the people of God. The Lord prepares the feast, the minister displays the Lord’s food, and then the Lord helps His people to eat. There is something wonderfully Trinitarian about this process and the minister, even as he sweats and strains, gets to see the Triune God work in this unique corner of the kingdom at such a time as this.
At the same time, the pulpit can be so very lonely. It separates the minister from the people—not just by calling, but also in relatability. It veils Christians from the man who needs the body of Christ and the private ministry of the Word as much as anyone else. Even as it exposes the minister to the watching eyes of God’s people, it also provides a barrier to his everyday struggle with sin. There is a reason why some teachers advise future pastors to not make friendships within the church. He is regarded as a friend for a time until the minister is needed once more.
Let’s meld these two ideas—the lovely and lonely. After the minister shares the Gospel, he is spiritually depleted. I used to joke about how the Lord would correct me after a sermon. When I despaired of my sermon, someone would tell me how it changed their life. When I exulted, I would be met with “Don’t worry—you’ll do better next time.” Now that I’m a chaplain, I look back and wonder if it would’ve helped if a fellow believer wrapped me up in a hug and reminded me that the Lord loves me and His grace is for me too.
Laboring in Christ’s service won’t always feel lovely, but we should mitigate the loneliness. No pastor should feel friendless within the church, nor should he feel that the love, encouragement, and accountability of the body is not for him. Withholding these from him creates a distinction—not between callings—but at the ontological level. Pastors come to be viewed and treated as fundamentally different persons than the rest of God’s people. This is done to their peril…and to the peril of the rest of God’s people as well.
Pastors are often not given room to be sinners in need of God’s grace. This is deadly. Satan loves to take down those whom God has raised up to lead His flock, like King David. Devastating consequences follow from unexposed and unchecked sin—both for the pastor and flock. King David’s son died and strife would tear apart not only David’s family but the whole nation of Israel.
Why are we surprised with the church scandals that suddenly seem so prevalent in our culture? We ignore the dangers faced by our pastors, are incredulous at credible claims of their misconduct, and occasionally condone misconduct for pragmatic reasons such as church growth. As they labor to protect the flock, who’s protecting them?
True Pastoral Care
In the face of recent scandals, myriad remedies are being proposed to both prevent and address more abuses. But what is being done to aid our weary pastors in their battle against sin? How are we holding up their arms when they grow tired? Here are a few ideas.
For Presbyterians and other bodies with a similar ecclesiology, we can focus just a bit less on points of order in our regional gatherings and a little more on pastoral care. Perhaps pastors and elders could split into groups and discuss issues perplexing them, spiritual vulnerabilities, and to encourage one another. Maybe a committee of retired pastors could disciple those still in the ministry.
At the session level, we must make sure that potential elders are being vetted for their ability to care for the under-shepherd as well as the sheep. Is a particular candidate simply a strong personality with strong opinions, or is he someone that the pastor can go to in his hour of need? Are session meetings, like some Presbytery meetings, treated more like a business meeting or a place for mutual accountability and encouragement—a model community for the rest of the church?
As congregations, how will we treat the struggles of our pastor? If he is struggling with depression, he could be given a month-long sabbatical and a commitment of indefinite counseling resources. Maybe his family is in disrepair—could the congregation commit to pray for and love on each family member? When we do this front-end work, we help prevent some of the scandals we later see when sin is left unchecked. Repurposing Lewis, let us not castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
If we don’t want pastors to hide, we should incentivize transparency. Satan—with temptation and accusation—can lure the isolated pastor into greater and greater sin. King David lusted, he committed adultery, he murdered—and all along the way, there were opportunities for repentance and for intervention. As Christians who long for the faithful and unobstructed preaching of the Word and the good of our pastors, we should make it easier to confess and repent than to sin and hide. Let us start now.