Why Do Some Pastors Sabotage Their Own Ministries?

And how can they avoid the allure of the self-destruct button?
STEPHEN L. WOODWORTH

Why Do Some Pastors Sabotage Their Own Ministries?

Can we be brutally honest with one another for a moment? Can I ask you, pastor to pastor, the question that no one dares to ask.

How often do you want to quit?

How often do you fantasize about doing something else, something that refuses to weigh so heavily on your soul, something that offers more money? Or less? Something that doesn’t cost your family so much of their time, energy, and privacy? Something that helps you feel “normal” when you talk to fellow parents at your child’s school or their weekly sporting event? Do you ever wonder if there might be another way to make a living that doesn’t cost so much?

I do.

I do on those Monday mornings when the post-sermon blues hit me so hard I could stay in bed for days. When people judge my children, second-guess my motives, and criticize my teaching. When I spend another sleepless night on the couch, in the silence and stillness of my house, wondering if there might be anything else in the world someone like me could do, but when the thing I know how to do best is pastor the souls of broken men and women.

These haunting questions are the unspoken underbelly of the pastoral calling. They are asked by those torn in two by the burden of their calling and the desire for escape, those who have invested too much time and money building a platform they can’t afford to lose, and those who wake up some morning to discover that all the years of preaching truths they never experienced themselves bored a deep cynicism into their souls.

This kind of pressure pushes some pastors toward the light, draws them closer to Christ, and grows them into greater spiritual maturity. Yet it casts others into the darkest of corners, sends them running away from Jesus, and tempts them to give in to temptations that have haunted them for years. While many pastors handle the burden of ministry with grace for decades, why do some crash and burn in only a few years?

Many people believe the reason is quite simple: the sinful human heart. This is true, of course, but also vague enough to be of little value for those seeking a specific prescription. Others suggest pride or a culture of celebrity that elevates pastors above the law. Still others talk about pastors’ isolation, their lack of confession, their diminished willingness to engage in self-reflection. Or as my wife suggested, some pastors have gotten so used to faking it that this becomes the norm in every sphere of life. Undoubtedly these all play a role in pastoral failure.

But I want to suggest another option: Some pastors sabotage their ministries on purpose.

Hitting the Self-Destruct Button

I often read that pastors never decide one morning to become addicted to pills, to bed down with someone other than their spouse, to endlessly click through pornographic websites, or to drink until life becomes a dull blur. And while it’s true that these decisions probably aren’t spur of the moment, we deceive ourselves if we pretend pastors never willingly and intentionally decide to fail. Some do.

As Carey Nieuwhof reflects, failure is sometimes the quickest escape.

When I first started out in ministry, I met with a pastor who had just had to resign because of an affair. He was 20 years my senior, and we met for lunch.

I asked him why he had an affair, and he told me in part it was because he couldn’t handle the pressure of ministry anymore but couldn’t find an easy way to get out. The affair forced him out.

Years later I would discover the pain of burnout personally. … I was so burnt out an escape from my life looked appealing. By the grace of God, I knew enough to keep my head in the game even though my heart had stopped working. As a result, during my darkest months, I kept saying to myself “whatever you do, don’t do anything rash—don’t cheat on your wife, don’t quit your job and don’t buy a sports car.”

In its simplest terms, self-sabotage, or self-defeating behavior, includes any behavior that undermines a person’s own goals. Psychologist Ellen Hendrickson suggests that, among other reasons, many people self-sabotage because it gives them a feeling of control over their situation. She notes, “It feels better to control your own failure. At least when you’re steering the ship, going down in flames feels more like a well-maintained burn.”

Others may sabotage themselves due to insecurity. Many pastors feel like imposters, and it may feel easier to fail morally than face the potential of being fired for inadequacy. “How does this manifest?” asks Hendrickson. “Feeling like a fraud easily leads you towards procrastination and diversion—if you’re faced with a task that makes you feel like a phony, it’s a lot more tempting to … realize there’s no time like the present to immediately start a DIY spice rack project.”

And then there are those who pursue self-sabotage as a way to return to a sense of equilibrium. To one degree or another, every pastor feels the gnawing sense of their own hypocrisy. We are called to preach, week after week, about a vision of Christianity that we may not fully experience, a love from God we sometimes don’t feel, prayer we don’t practice, parenting and marriage advice we forget to employ in our own homes, forgiveness we struggle to give, an identity in Christ in which we struggle to stay rooted. Amid that tension, pastors may look for a way to balance others’ external expectations with their internal reality. The higher the pedestal, the stronger the pull back down.

For this reason, it doesn’t surprise me anymore to see those in some of the largest and most influential ministries in America jumping toward the ground. Sin is the norm and sainthood our elusive goal, so it can be a bizarrely cathartic act for some to give in to their temptations in order to feel “normal” once again. I have watched this principle play itself out among colleagues who have confessed to retreating to their office immediately after the sermon to look at porn, swallow a pill, or drain a bottle of liquor.

I do not believe pastors misunderstand the ramifications of these sort of actions. Certainly, many have successfully hidden their sins for years, but the truth usually finds its way to the surface. And when it does come into the light of day, pastors can’t speak about biblical ignorance or moral ambiguity. Indeed, perhaps the greatest irony of pastoral failure is the amount of teaching, preaching, and writing pastors have often dedicated to decrying the very sins that lead to their fall. Pastors are uniquely positioned to understand the gravity of their immoral decision. This is precisely why their moral failures are more shocking, and why it is difficult to deny that, at least in some cases, pastoral failure is an intentional push of the eject button.

Even while I use the word intentional, it is important to remember that the motives for our self-defeating behavior may be hidden from us in the moment. As with many poor decisions we make, our motives may be limited to hindsight. Such is the case for Darrin Patrick, who underwent three years of restoration since his firing from The Journey church in 2016. After years of counseling, reflection, prayer, and repentance, Patrick came to understand his own act of ministerial self-sabotage was driven by a deep need to be rescued and rebuked:

In my own story, this self-sabotaging was a cry for help. It was me throwing the white flag up and saying, “I need help.” I was saying, “I want to be known, I want to be accepted despite my flaws, I want people to know I have struggles, I want people to know how hard it is and how much I have sacrificed.”

Perhaps most important for Patrick during his season of restoration was the counsel he received from CrossPoint Ministry founder Richard Plass, who shared with Patrick, “You have been crying out for help since you were a little boy; you’ve been wanting somebody to come and be your dad, be your older brother. You’re acting out in order to be rebuked.”

Stepping Back from the Ledge

I shared these reflections recently with some pastoral colleagues who resonated with many aspects of the self-sabotage temptation. When I asked them how they had managed to avoid this fate, a few themes repeatedly rose to the surface of these conversations.

1. Avoid Isolation

Several pastors mentioned that their primary driver of frustration, disillusionment, and sometimes despair is the inherently dehumanizing nature of ministry. In too many churches, the pastor is a role, not a person. Pastors fulfill certain duties—they pray, they preach, they visit, they counsel—but many don’t feel seen as individuals. When someone or something makes a lonely pastor feel “human” again, that pastor may struggle not to run straight into its arms. And the temptation grows even stronger when giving in to it might provide an easy out from a ministry that otherwise feels unavailable. This is the temptation Henri Nouwen was guarding against when he wrote about the need for constant community in the life of a pastor:

When spirituality becomes spiritualization, life in the body becomes carnality. When ministers and priests live their ministry mostly in their heads and relate to the Gospel as a set of valuable ideas to be announced, the body quickly takes revenge by screaming loudly for affection and intimacy. Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body, not only in their own bodies but also in the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence of the Holy Spirit.

2. Watch for Patterns

Second, my colleagues suggested that pastors on the verge of self-sabotage begin to notice the moments in which temptations strike hardest and keep track of when their particular struggle rears its ugly head. Is every spiritual success, every instance of high praise, met with a plunge into the depths of darkness? Pastors on the verge of collapse should ask those who love and know them best if they recognize a pattern in their bouts of depression, anger, despair, or defeats with temptation. If these pastors are seeking a sense of stability to help balance their external persona with their internal reality, they should talk to older pastors about their feelings of inadequacy, their guilt of hypocrisy, and their desire to leap off the pedestal. More ministry “success” will only aggravate the problem.

3. Grieve Your Losses

Finally, and maybe most importantly, my colleagues recommended that pastors learn to grieve. Pastors everywhere, regardless of ministry context, size, or denomination, will sometimes experience a sense of personal loss, betrayal, and anger toward congregants—people who criticized their ministry, tried to get them fired, or consumed their time with petty gripes about music, sermon topics, or the youth ministry. People they poured their life into, yet they still left the church for another one down the street with better coffee in the foyer. People who tried to split the congregation over a trivial issue or personally attacked their spouse or kids. People who hurt them.

Pastors need a way to take these wounds seriously and address them in healthy ways that don’t include passive attacks from the pulpit. They should make time for regular, extended Sabbath rest and quarterly appointments with a trusted counselor who can help them process their pain.

Finally, let me say this: It’s okay to quit. You are not your church. You are not your ministry. You are not the sole bearer of the kingdom in your corner of the world. And stepping away from a role in full-time ministry is not equivalent in any way to stepping away from God. In fact, for some of you, stepping away from full-time ministry may be a step toward God. Every time a pastor escapes ministry through self-sabotage, an entire community is devastated and the global reputation of the church is harmed. Some pastors need to resign rather than escape. Yes, the church needs pastors, but it also needs to stop getting hit by shrapnel when they crash.

 

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Thirsty?

May 24, 2019 by Discerning Dad, KEITH GRIGGEORY

lessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

What does Jesus really mean, to be thirsty for righteousness? What is righteousness and why is it a blessing to thirst for it? The word, “righteous,” here means to stand in the right way. Does this mean the religious, that have it all together with the Big Guy upstairs, get blessed? It makes sense that God being pure love must always bless His children. So, it makes perfect sense that the prosperous must be on God’s good side. Yet we see many examples of wealthy individuals who obviously are not seeking God. Then, why are they so blessed? There’s something we missed. What about the word here, “thirsty?” A quick word study in the Blue Letter Bible website reveals this definition, “figuratively, those who are said to thirst who painfully feel their want of, and eagerly long for, those things by which the soul is refreshed, supported, strengthened” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, 2019).

What does it mean to be thirsty then? Here in the Arizona desert, one summer season can drop even the strongest man without the life-giving, life-sustaining power of water. But thirst has more ways to be quenched besides water. If you have any teens around the home, you may already know more than one meaning of the word. I have three teen boys going to our local high school and I find myself often conversing with them about relational drama. Anyone who must have multiple relationships or must continually be in a relationship, regardless of the number of hookups and breakups, earn the name of “thirsty.” Of course, as young men, they are obviously not immune to the culture’s seductive lure, so we strategize what the best ways of maintaining focus might be. I will say my old eyes have been opened to the aggressive dating atmosphere plaguing their young existence (okay, well I’m 46 so whatever.)

I don’t know about you but, as I attended high school, I remember there being a preoccupation with relationships, but the atmospheric pressure was a little more secondary to school activities and/or hanging out with friends. Or was it? Growing up in the seventies and eighties was all about the top 40 hits and movies that were fast and furious before there was such a franchise. The phrase, “one-hit wonder,” was birthed out of what is now called the Retro Age. The music industry and the movies echoed relationships that promised forever and ever based on the youthful ego of now. Thinking more on it made me realize those events did show us wrapped up in the “perfect relationship” just like today. It’s funny how our memories tend to color facts to the point of diminishing the past’s reality. King David gives us a notable example of how easily we can forget past realities but more shows us what it looks like to thirst either for God or for others.

Some of King David’s most pointed contributions to scripture were written while hiding away from the then current king, King Saul. David had already been anointed king, so he had right to the throne, but his zeal for the relationship he had with God kept him from challenging the current king. He trusted God’s appointment to the position would eventually make his kingship a reality. Though, this was not to be in King David’s timing but God’s. In his self-imposed exile, he laments over the fact he cannot draw near to God’s presence in the Levitical Israelite way. An example like Psalm 42 shows David’s desire for God as it states, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1-2). This passion of his for God was incredible but later it’s revealed that passion can be distracted.

King David’s most touching readings of relationship with God are in Psalms, but his most infamous recording of passion is in 2 Samuel. It records that while the king should have gone out to war, he stayed back. There is no mention of why, yet, in the same passage he is shown to have adulterous passion for a neighbor’s wife. This thirst led to adultery, deception, dishonor, and murder. Tell me again why this man is called a man after God’s own heart? Before getting too consumed by the question, it’s wise to look at our own world. All around we see passion plays. We pay billions of dollars a year to be entertained by the latest superhero movies with emotional relationships woven throughout the genre. Media thrives on thirst. So, if thirst runs rampant throughout society, and we believe that God created us all, then it follows that He placed the thirst in us. Why? Isn’t calling Him our Savior good enough? If God was handing out insurance plans for those that want assurance of a heavenly destination where they can experience eternal selfish bliss, then I suppose that would be enough. But scripture doesn’t show God as a heavenly Circle K clerk. Nor does it show Him as a Zeus-like impersonal jerk who sets things in motion just to see how much trouble we can get into without Him.

The history we see in the lives of the Bible are earmarked by moments of greatness mixed with human depravity. Even after King David’s example, the line of kings that followed seemed to either cling to God through devotion or rail against Him in rebellion. In all cases, whether loyal or defiant, God shows Himself to the Israelites as long-suffering yet powerful. In the book of Isaiah, He longs for the people to be faithful. He knows what’s best for His love, even if they have gone astray, as He states through the prophet, “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea.” (Isaiah 48:18). The prophet later reminds them regarding their ancestor’s common selfish nature saying, “They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out. “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” (Isaiah 48:21-22). Scripture shows they didn’t thirst for God but wanted their own way.

Repeatedly, we demonstrate how we hunger and thirst for anything but God, while over and over God shows He desires us. It’s not only our focus that needs redirecting but our definition of peace as well. Even though Isaiah was written some 2600 years ago, the message from God has not changed. A later portion of the book states:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” (Isaiah 55:1-4.)

The hunger and thirst we have aren’t really for food or water but for the Living God who created us and sustains us. We end up searching for other things to satisfy that need though. Here, God states through Isaiah that it’s the ones who unashamedly come to Him, those that are not able to purchase, that will be satisfied by what He provides. God’s providing faithful love identified like the Davidic relationship. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard this before so yeah, you’ve checked out. One more question though: got milk?

Of course, there are things that go together like Oreos and milk but what about good works and faith? For some people, doing good is easier than for other people, that’s plain to see. But is doing good what counts for being in a right relationship with God or is faith in God’s ability what counts to create appropriate works? The stories regarding the rich and the Kingdom of God in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18 all tell of the rich young man questioning Jesus about what he must do to gain the Kingdom of God. He had great wealth and lived religiously in a culture that elevated pious acts in a prescribed order to God status. Still, he obviously desired more since he continued to thirst. When Jesus told him the correct answer of selling all he had (losing all of his statuses that he made for himself) and follow Jesus (be in right relations with the King of the Kingdom he desired), the man’s response was natural, wrong, but natural. Most of the time we look at the wealth component of this story and see God saying we must be in poverty to experience God. Well, that may be true. Living in the wealthiest nation on the planet, we all might need to lose a lot of financial success to see God for who He really is. But the deeper point to this story has little to do with the amount of money. It’s much more about the desire for God and His Kingdom versus our desire for ours. What will we choose?

The issue of thirst did start at the beginning with Adam and Eve. But to say that they are to blame for the choices we make some six thousand years later is absurd. The only thing it proves is that like them, we choose to blame everyone else for our dumb choices. What of our children that have been handed the torch of thirst? We cannot make their choices for them, nor can we stop the incessant flow of temptations. As a father of six great blessings (yes, I have been thirsty too) I have found the best thing I can do for them is focused on my example. I conclude with this, for those of us who call ourselves Christian, where is the thirst for the One that first called us to Himself? For those who don’t call themselves Christian, what do you thirst for? For all involved, what do you find your mind bent on most of the time? What things have we all been allowing our hearts to crave? Whether we admit it or hide it, whether we celebrate or exhibit shame for it, the things we thirst after are the best indicator of whose kingdom we serve and who we really love. The choice is ours, what are we thirsty for?

Keith Griggeory
Guest Discerning Dad

 

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The Heart of God

May 10, 2019

 

What would it be like to have the heart of God? What would it be like to know Him, fully and completely, without boundaries and without end? Would we act as we do today, with restraint in our step and caution in our tongues? Loving God is knowing God. If we love Him, we will do His will and we will know Him. His heart will then be our heart, and we will no longer hold back from proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God.

The prophet Jeremiah, who was still a youth when God called him, said this about God’s children:

“I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” (Jeremiah 24:7)

When God imparts the Holy Spirit into someone, He has imparted His heart into that person. This means that you and I, regardless of race, gender, culture, or otherwise, if God has chosen us and begotten us with His spirit, He then lives in us.

The prophet Ezekiel describes it this way:

“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

God wants nothing but good for his people. God wants Christians to know He loves them, will provide for them, and will bless us. In everything we do, the heart of flesh that God has imparted in us will lead us to do His will in spite of the temptation that surrounds us.

This is what it is like to have the heart of God.

 

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Stressed to Temptation

May 9, 2019

 

Good morning everyone and happy Friday! I’d like to talk to you about one of the things that truly brings out the worst in many of us. Stress makes us always want to take the easy way instead of the right way. Stress makes us irritable to even our loved ones. Stress can destroy our lives if not dealt with properly and more importantly our Christ like behavior. We are always going to face it in one form or another so we should be wise to respond appropriately to it!

Here’s some of the ways you shouldn’t respond to it. Everyone wants relief but most of the time they seek the wrong reliever. A reliever that is temporary and imperfect has a habit of being self destructive. The stress of a job can lead a man or woman to substance abuse. The stress of problems in a relationship can lead to adultery or divorce. In short, stress can lead us to sin!

The King of Kings experienced stress unlike any other. When he went into the desert for 40 days, did he falter under the physical stress he endured? No, because the Word was on his heart and lips always: temptation had no power over him. When Jesus knew that he was going to be killed, the religious leaders hated him, or that he was constantly on the move with people always trying to swarm to see him, what was his solution? Prayerful quiet time kept the most stressed human being to ever live at perfect peace.

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Hebrews 5:7

After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. Matthew 14:23

Granted our Lord is perfect and it may make it seem like it’s easier for Him to resist the temptations of the flesh. However, he has simply shown us what to do and we just have to slowly train ourselves to respond in ways that he does. Whether it is stopping what we are doing or separating ourselves from others to cool off. Placing our focus back on God through prayer is a great way along with giving thanks for our undeserved heaven sent amazing GRACE!

Stressed to Temptation