When a Pastor is Never Wrong

He had been my patient for years, as had his family. He had several children, so there had been enough visits over the years for a relationship to develop. He was a pastor at a local church and we had much in common. My family had visited the church on a number of occasions and  he had invited me to fill in for him on a number of Sundays when he was out of town. It seemed a friendship was developing, so during one office visit we decided to schedule a lunch together. A few weeks later on a Friday I found myself sitting across from him at a local restaurant for casual conversation about life and ministry.

He told me how busy he was, how he felt as if he was stretched thin. It was Friday, and he had not even started to work on the sermon for the following Sunday. I had preached enough to know that it takes more than a few hours to compose a quality sermon and that he had not allowed himself enough time to prepare. I asked how his life had gotten so far out of balance. Teaching, and teaching well, should be one of a pastor’s top priorities. I asked what things were getting in the way.

He talked about his administrative and counseling duties, and then mentioned the church’s Wednesday night Bible study that he also taught.

“Why do you need to teach on Wednesday nights?” I asked

“We always have Bible Study on Wednesday,” he replied.

“I understand, but why does it have to be you to teach it? Why can’t you delegate that to someone else?” I knew the church had over 500 people in regular attendance and was certain there was at least one person or pastor who could help with the task.

“Well, people expect me to do it,” he replied, beginning to get a little defensive.

“Who cares what people expect?” I challenged him, “It’s Friday and you have not even started working on your message!” His facial expression led me to believe he was not used to being challenges in this way. His response was clearly intended to end the challenge.

“Well, I feel led by the Holy Spirit.” This was his trump card, his way of saying that he did not need to explain himself. He was the pastor, and he did not need to be questioned. Beyond that it seemed that he refused to be questioned about anything spiritual. That was the end of deep conversation that day, and the beginning of the end of our burgeoning friendship. We never had lunch again/

He was like a number of pastors I have encountered over the years. He was accustomed to being the unquestioned leader of the church, above and separate from the masses. It was as if he was closer to God than other people, more knowledgeable and more spiritual. If someone questioned anything he said or did it was tantamount to challenging His relationship with God, and that could not be tolerated.

I am certain that this attitude was protective for him. Pastors face an incredible amount of scrutiny, each day living their lives under a congregational microscope. Every joke, comment and facial expression is judged and evaluated, every misspoken word and mistake likely to be the topic of Sunday afternoon gossip or the subject of an angry email. When faced with such scrutiny it is easy to withdraw into a defensive cocoon.

As understandable as his defensive posture was, it was dangerous. He had no one in his life who would treat him for what he was, a normal person with normal failings, faults and struggles. He kept his faults hidden from others and surrounded himself with people who were unquestioning in their devotion to him. Because people who knew his weakness and who were willing to love him and encourage him to be better were absent from his life, his weaknesses were not addressed and he did not grow. The lack of accountability ultimately resulted in actions that disqualified him from ministry. A number of years later he left his job in disgrace. I have not seen him in years.

The pastor’s story is a sobering one for all of us. We often say that “nobody’s perfect”, but few of us are open about our imperfections. The truth is that it is when we are open with our weaknesses those who love us can come along side us and shore up those areas that need strengthening.

I have seen this in my own life. As a result of my anxiety disorder there are certain situations in which I do not do well. I struggle in particular with certain types of patient complaints. I can tend to be defensive and lose my temper when attacked. I have learned to reach out to office staff and ask them to reach out on my behalf when I feel I may not be the best person to respond to such a patient. They are able to act as intermediaries and gather information that allows me to come up with better and more gracious responses.

Most remarkably, I have seen that asking for help has caused my staff to have greater respect and love for me. No one is perfect, and my willingness to admit that and deal with that is viewed as a positive and not a negative characteristic. It also allows me to grow and improve at a safe and less anxious pace.

The pastor's sad story has meaning for all of us. None of us are perfect, and all of us need people in out lives who know our imperfections and who are willing to help us get through them.

-          Bart



Why Pastors And Leaders Don't Get Fired. Even When They Should

It is always hard to address failure. When the person failing is the leader of a church it is even harder. As painful as it can be to confront a leader, the pain of ignoring a problem is almost always worse.

I read with sadness recently the reports on the demise of Mars Hill Church, a massive church in the Seattle area. The church welcomed over 12,000 attendees each Sunday to its services at 15 different venues in the city and surrounding communities and its Pastor, Mark Driscoll, was somewhat of a celebrity in evangelical circles. The church seemed to be growing and successful. Members were understandably shocked when the announcement came in the fall of 2014 that Driscoll was resigning and the church would cease to exist in its existing structure. The organization dissolved, and what was once one church with 15 locations fractured into 11 independent churches. Mark Driscoll was out of a job.

While the news caught most people off guard, it was not a surprise to those who were in the know. It seems Mark Driscoll was not a very nice man. While charismatic and gifted as a speaker, church leaders revealed that he was mean-spirited, domineering and profane in his dealings with other church leaders and members. He lacked the personal character required of those in his role. When his inevitable fall from grace came he took the church down with him. The fault was not only Driscoll's. The elders of the church tolerated the intolerable for too long and their unwillingness to act irreparably harmed the church.

Reading of the tragedy of Mars Hill leads me to reflect on why it is that churches and other organizations select, tolerate and even enable dysfunctional leadership. The fiasco of Mars Hill is not an isolated event. In my years in ministry and medical practice I have observed many men who were not qualified to lead be allowed to continue in their roles unchecked and undisciplined. The list of pastoral wrong doings of which I am personally aware includes foul language, arrests, sexual indiscretions, recurrent gossip, bullying of staff, and misuse of church funds. The list of professional malfeasance in secular organizations is even longer.  In the majority of circumstances the pastors continued in ministry and leaders continued in their roles without significant consequences. When I consider the cases of which I am aware I see a number of recurrent problems. While I specifically address the role of senior pastors, the role with which I am most familiar, the issues and principles they represent apply not only to churches but to leaders in other large organizations as well. 

Problem #1-      A Culture of Celebrity.

We live in a world that makes pastors into stars. Mark Driscoll had a salary of over $500,000 a year and commanded speaking fees of over $15,000 per appearance. Even in smaller churches the pastor can become the center of the church community, the focus of the ministry. This can lead to a fear that the church could die if the pastor leaves. As a result sin is overlooked. As long as people are coming, the pastor is not confronted. When the pastor is the focus, focus is lost. 

The Solution-  Churches need to guard against making one man the focus. This danger is increased with multi-campus churches that broadcast one pastor's preaching into multiple venues. It can be addressed by having other men assume more visible leadership roles, and by making character a priority. Talent is no substitute for character.

2-      Weak Leadership.

Elders (or governing boards) are supposed to be overseers, shepherds who guard the flock. Men in this position may at times be required to confront those who are in error. In many churches elders are poorly suited for this aspect of the job. They are often chosen or elected because they are nurturing and supportive by nature. In churches where Elders are elected there is a danger of selecting leaders who are more popular than they are firm in their convictions. 

The Solution- Churches should seek out men with proven records of character who have shown they can make difficult decisions.

3-      Change is Hard. And Risky.

No one wants to admit they are wrong, and it is not easy for leaders to admit to a congregation that they picked the wrong guy or that the right guy turned wrong. How do you explain to a church body that the man they have been listening to every Sunday is not the godly leader they thought he was? It is often easier to rationalize and ignore than deal with the fall out.

The Solution- Create a culture where self-assessment is expected. Periodic reviews of the ministry should be scheduled and results shared publicly. When self-correction is a part of the culture necessary change is less disruptive.

4-      Small Parts, Big Whole

Often times no single event is big enough to merit confronting the pastor. While multiple small events are at times indicative of a major character flaw, confrontation in such circumstances is more difficult. This can result in pastors who remain in their positions if infidelity is non-consummated, or whose bullying of staff is verbal but not physical. 

The Solution- Create a culture where leaders are expected to perform at the highest levels of personal conduct and where the truth that words and deeds reflect a man’s heart is embraced. Simple apologies should be rejected and replaced by definitive action plans and formal counseling.

5-      Misplaced Faith

We believe in a God who restores, redeems and rehabilitates. Leaders often feel that they need to give struggling pastors time to allow God to move. While this is true in most circumstances, when it comes to the senior pastor the bar can and should be higher.

The Solution- If the pastor needs significant rehabilitation he needs to step aside. There is a spiritual battle being waged and a weak general puts everyone at risk. Extending grace does not necessarily mean foregoing action.

This list could be much longer. It is my hope that pastors and leaders who read these words will be encouraged to stand up for their flocks and their faith. Scripture is filled with examples of people suffering due to the sins of their leaders. None of us want our church's story added to the list!

For those in leadership roles in other organizations the principles still apply. When we allow dysfunction to continue unchecked everyone suffers.

- Bart

Know a leader who needs to hear this message? Please consider sharing it. Comments or questions? I would love to hear them.

Why Pastors Fail

If you attend enough churches you will eventually come across a pastor who makes you ask, “How did this guy end up in the ministry?” I have attended enough churches and I have asked the question many times. I have listened to awful sermons, terrible in both content and delivery, some bordering on unintentional heresy. Some pastors do not appear to know what they are talking about while others struggle to say what they want to say. I have seen dysfunctional pastors who could not lead or communicate effectively with staff and volunteers. A trait shared by all of these struggling men was a  belief they were called to the ministry.

It is this sense of calling that underlies many pastoral struggles. There is a huge difference between the call to service and ministry and the call to “the ministry” or vocational ministry. All believers are called to ministry and service, all are called to serve with their whole heart and all of their being.  For young believers excited about their faith and desiring to serve God it is easy to mistake this universal call to service for the much rarer call to full-time vocational ministry.

This misunderstood calling may be because young people who grow up in youth groups are often exposed to very few layperson role models who are fulfilling the universal call. What should be common in the church, lay people serving wholeheartedly and actively participating in Kingdom work, is seldom seen by young people planning a career. We live in a culture where ministry is what pastors do, not what lay people do. 

The end result is that when a young person shows a passion for God he is told that he should “go into the ministry.” Instead of pursuing a vocation within their skill set and calling, instead of impacting the world as a faithful servant of Christ in the world, they enter full-time ministry, and they struggle. They have a heart for God, a heart for people and a desire to serve, but they do not have the gifts, the calling or the skill set, so they fail.

I nearly fell into this trap. I have been blessed with a public speaking gift and have a heart for God, so I was encouraged as a young man of 19 to “go into the ministry.” Fortunately my first foray into ministry was as a volunteer working with junior high students. I was terrible at it. It took only a few weeks to discover that I definitely was NOT called to full-time vocational ministry! I sought a different path while maintaining a desire to make a difference.

I never went to seminary and have never been on a church's payroll but I am still in ministry. I serve the patients God brings my way and regularly share my faith, often to people who would never interact with a pastor. I have used my speaking, teaching and writing gifts regularly over the years. In fact, there have been a number of years where I have preached more than many pastors I know! I have done this while avoiding the disaster that would have come if I had been a full-time pastor. For most of my adult life I have lacked the compassion, understanding and patience required to successfully lead a congregation. If I had listened to those who had encouraged me to be a pastor I would have hurt many and failed miserably. I would also have missed my true calling.

I share this post in the hope that it may encourage others to reconsider their calling without guilt or shame. Young people considering a career in ministry need to take a step back and be sure of their calling, to be very careful before heading down the path to becoming a pastor. Remember the admonition of James, "Let not many be teachers!" I am a living example that it is possible to fulfill one's calling without being a pastor. I am convinced that the majority of God’s work is accomplished outside of the church walls by God-loving people in the course of their daily lives. Ministry happens everywhere, and no one needs to be a pastor or have a seminary degree to participate!

I write to remind pastors who are struggling in ministry that it is okay to think of a life outside of the pastorate and to reassess their gifts and calling. It is possible to leave a paid staff position and still contribute vitally to the ministry of the body of Christ. There is an incredible amount of ministry that needs to be done out in the world by committed lay people. For some currently in the pastorate this is where they need to be.

Pastors who are currently comfortable in their calling need to take the time to evaluate the message they are sending to young people. When teaching and preaching are only done by pastors, lay people are being taught that this is the only way to utilize these gifts. When all leadership is in the hands of pastors, when ministry oversight and creation is limited to paid staff, talented leaders can conclude that there is no place for their gifts in the church. We unintentionally present them with the false choice of work or ministry.

To counteract this message pastors need to seek out lay people living missionally in their vocations, to raise up, empower and equip gifted such people to use the gifts that God has given (maybe even in the pulpit and in ministry oversight!.) We need to highlight the roles of these lay people so they can be an example to young people of what the universal call to ministry looks like. Young people need to see that they do not need to choose between ministry and vocation so they can avoid the future failure that awaits those who are mistaken in their sense of calling. 

- Bart

Church members and leaders, if you are interested in a lay person coming and speaking to your congregation or group I can be reached through the contact page on this website. I can be followed on Twitter @bartbarrettmd .  You can have each post delivered to your inbox by clicking on the subscribe button.

A Pastor's Shocking Behavior

In my 21 years of medical practice and 40 years of church attendance I have seen a lot of unexpected behavior from men in ministry. From adultery and arrests to dishonesty and gossip, I have seen almost all there is to see, or so I thought. In the last week I encountered a pastor who treated me in a way that caught me totally off guard.

Two weeks ago I visited a local church for the very first time. The people seemed friendly and the sermon was excellent so I thought I might return for a prayer service later in the week. The next day I discovered that the prayer meeting conflicted with a medical staff meeting I was required to attend.  I sent the pastor an email asking how long the prayer meeting would last as I was wondering if I would  be able to make it for the latter half. Although we had never met he answered me within a few hours, saying he hoped I could make it to the meeting and that he would love to meet me, perhaps over lunch.

I was impressed by his timely and courteous response. Two days later my medical meeting was cancelled so I was able to make it to the prayer meeting on time. That is when things took an unexpected turn. Before the meeting of about 80 people began he walked up to me and shook my hand saying, “So glad you could make it!” My email to him had included my website in my signature line. I realized he had taken the time to look at the site and thus recognized me from my photo. He had gone out of his way to identify me and make me feel welcome!

Things got weirder after the meeting concluded. I went up to him and thanked him for replying to my message and he repeated his lunch invitation! His initial invite was not the shallow and empty courtesy invite that so many others make in our society. He actually meant it! He even suggested a day to meet. We exchanged emails again the next day and agreed to meet this last Tuesday.

He surprised me again the morning of the meeting with an email confirmation, then continued his ridiculous behavior by showing up on time for lunch. His unanticipated niceness continued for the next 75 minutes as he openly and graciously shared about the church and his heart for the community. I asked direct questions about doctrine, church government and his philosophy for ministry and he answered all of them without a trace of defensiveness. I am a man who is hard to impress but I walked away truly impressed with his kindness and professionalism.

As I reflect back on our interactions and conversations I am reminded how important simple things can be. Kindness, promptness, courtesy and respect are all too often lacking in our culture. These attributes are seemingly small and insignificant but their presence or absence reveal much about a person’s heart and character. When we are kind, prompt, courteous and respectful, we tell others that we value them in a powerful way, a way that may be shocking!

When I consider the manner in which Jesus dealt with others I am reminded that He was the perfect role model for interpersonal interaction. The gospel writers describe His encounters with shamed prostitutes, tax collectors, social outcasts, soldiers, religious zealots, rich nobles, blind beggars, grieving mourners, adulterous women and little children. In every circumstance He loved and served. If we are to truly bear His name we can do no less.

-          Bart

I purposely did not name the church or the pastor. Based on our brief interaction I do not believe he would want to be identified or praised. If you live in the Huntington Beach area and are looking for a church, send me a private message through the site and I will tell you more about the church he pastors. Remember I can be followed on twitter @bartbarrettmd and that you can subscribe to the blog to have posts delivered directly to your inbox.