I’m the pastor of a small church in a small town, and I’m know in my church as well as the community for turning a memorable phrase or two. Some have even made their way to the church sign. My personal favorite is “If you don’t believe in Bigfoot, your God is too small”. But another phrase I say often is “I’m just me,” meaning I never try to put on airs or pretenses, what you see is what you get; for better or worse, warts and all.
As with so many others, my heart broke when I heard the tragic news of Pastor Andrew Stoeklein taking his own life. My prayers continue for both his family and his congregation. I have also read many responses to his passing, including Stephanie Lodbell’s brave piece, “Pastors and Mental Illness”.
I have never struggled with clinical depression, and my prayers go out to my sisters and brothers in the pastoral ministry who struggle daily. Although I have my own demons, many since childhood, I cannot imagine the sense of hopelessness you all must feel at times.
It saddens me that a sense of vulnerability and imperfection in pastors is still met with judgement in the church. It is simply wrong that the responsibility of pastoral leadership should include the burden of perceived perfection.
I grew up in the church, and I cannot tell you how many times I saw congregants go on the attack at the slightest hint that their pastor or his family didn’t live up to their “expected” standards. They use the euphemism that “a pastor is held to a higher standard” – but, in reality, it is plain, old fashioned, self-righteous judgement.
I have pastored in the Midwest, the South, and now the West Coast, and I have always resisted these expectations – particularly for my children. I have told more than one church board member that if I am told my employment hinged on my children’s behavior I would quit on the spot. It’s hard enough to be a Christian kid in this country today; no child needs the added weight of their father’s employment resting on their shoulders. I would rather dig septic tanks than expect my child to bear such a load (particularly when it’s a load of manure).
It’s this fear of judgement that keeps pastors in solitude; fighting such horrific demons as mental illness, depression, self-hatred and anxiety without the support the church so freely offers to others. It would be an amazing day in the Church of the Nazarene if pastors could say, “I’m just me,” and know that their friends and congregations saw them as loved and broken children of God who have simply been called to lead.
Although I am fully sanctified, my heart and my life devoted to Christ and Him alone, I don’t pretend to have attained any degree of perfection or sinlessness – perceived or otherwise. The best example I can set for my congregation and for my family is the same example set by Paul to the Philippians:
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
I am nothing more than a devoted follower of Jesus who is in process. I press on. Not perfect, not complete, but pressing on.
Let’s follow Jesus with our whole heart – study, pray, fast, serve, love and trust – but let’s do it without the fetters of perceived perfection and unfair (dare I say, idiotic) expectations. We lead best when we can do so with transparency and honesty.
We are in process, but we don’t pretend to have achieved any sort of perfection or any particular goal. If we are farther along the path of maturity than others, it is because we have been called by God to lead, and in that only because He has gone before us. The best part of being a little farther down the road is the opportunity to take the hand of another who is in process and help them over the obstacles.