A few months ago, I met with a counselor as part of a ministry assessment for a spiritual formation class. He noticed that I had some unresolved issues that were affecting my behavior and recommended that I meet with a therapist. My initial thought was, “Thanks for the concern, but no thanks.” I had grown up with the impression that, since my sin had been forgiven, I simply needed to pray and have more faith when I felt into habitual sin.
Upon reflecting, though, I felt a deep sense responsibility to deal with my pain and sin. I knew I was headed for pastoral ministry, and I felt that I needed to do everything in my power to receive healing for the sake of my future congregation. I started meeting with a counselor and have begun to deal with deep-seated anxiety.
In the church where I grew up, my pastors did not place much emphasis on the their self-care; their priority was caring for the congregants. The congregants’ spiritual growth took precedence over their own.
It seems to me that my pastors’ mindset is a common one in the church. But is it the most biblical? After reading James’ W. Thompson book Pastoral Ministry According to Paul, I don’t think so.
Thompson explains that one of the primary roles of the Christian minister is to be a model of transformation. Drawing from the letter to the Philippians, Thompson explains that Christians live in anticipation of the complete transformation into the likeness of Christ at his return. In the meantime, they are transformed into his likeness as they identify increasingly with the cross, learning to love each other more (Thompson 2006, 50-53). This present transformation (sanctification) has begun in their baptism—their “death to sin and new existence in Christ,” as Romans 6—8 explains. Thus, to be sanctified, the church community must live in this new reality of baptism. The goal of ministers is “to guide the community toward this transformation” (101-105), and one of the primary ways they do that is by modeling it themselves (51, 161). The pastor, then, must be the Christian par excellence.
This picture of the pastor differs from many contemporary models. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of pastors’ failings. In recent months, Mark Driscoll’s intimidation tactics made headlines across the evangelical world. Even more recently, we heard about Heather Cook, an Episcopal bishop, killing a bicyclist while texting and driving intoxicated. We generally denounce such shortcomings, but often the root of them is not sought out.
A more socially acceptable trend is the pastor as the epitome of brokenness. Some churches, it seems, place more importance on the pastor’s transparency about his weaknesses—being a “sinner redeemed by grace”—than on his sanctification—being transformed more and more into Christ’s image. To be sure, sin does not disqualify a pastor, and it is commendable for her to be open about it (with discernment, of course), but she must also constantly seek to grow out of sinful habits—to mortify the flesh (Rom 8:13).
Both the high-profile sins and the romanticized brokenness of pastors are symptoms of the same problem: we as a church have often forgotten that ministers are to be models of the cross-shaped life. In some cases, we have valued the growth and administration of the church over the pastor’s personal needs, resulting in his burnout-fueled transgression. The self-care of the pastor has taken a back seat to the needs of the congregation, so there is little emphasis on his accountability and discipleship. In other cases, the doctrine of grace has been distorted to the point that the pastor who is struggling with habitual sin continues to lead, in spite of the hurt caused to herself and those around her.
I think that Thompson’s application of Paul reminds us that the best thing a pastor can do for her congregation is care for herself. Having died to sin and been raised to life in Christ, she should be an example to her parishioners in her present transformation, as she looks forward to her ultimate transformation at his return.
This blog was written by Phil Landin, a student at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, for his class on Pastoral Theology.