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.