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The Pedestal Paradigm
Dale O. Wolery and Dale S. Ryan
It doesn't seem that complicated. He is drowning, arms flailing. Throw him a rope. If he grabs the rope, pull him out. Simple. Rescue complete. But in real life it seldom works that simply. There are complications. Lots of them.
These and a thousand other painful questions emerge in rapid succession when a pastor's failures become public. The list of painful emotions which underlie these questions is a long one as well: disappointment, betrayal, hopelessness, anger, disbelief. Congregations may find themselves drowning in a sea of painful emotions.
How can one throw the other a rope if both are drowning? We have seen it many times--the unnecessary, preventable drowning of gifted people and churches that otherwise could have contributed significantly to the work of God's Kingdom.
* First, we want to explore some of the factors that put pastors and congregations at risk for a crisis of personal failure on the part of the pastor. As a part of that exploration, we want to identify ways to reduce these risk factors.
* Second, we want to offer hope to pastors and congregations who are in the midst of such a crisis; and finally
* We hope, briefly, to point in the direction of a more hope-full and grace-full future for pastors and congregations.
It is important to recognize that the life of any individual, family system or church community exists somewhere on a continuum between shame and fear on the one hand and grace and love on the other.
Where we are on this continuum-and in which direction we are headed--makes all the difference. The more our lives (as individuals, pastors, families or congregations) are rooted in fear and shame, the greater our risk for crisis. And, the more our lives are rooted in God's unfailing love and grace, the greater the likelihood that our problems and failures will be brought into the light for healing before they become a crisis.
Let's look at some of the ways in which shame and fear put pastors and congregations at risk for crisis.
The Pedestal Paradigm has two complementary components. First, churches, in ways that are often unconscious and unacknowledged, put themselves on a pedestal. They assume that they are somehow unusually blessed, uniquely "right," better than the pack. Pedestal churches find something in their culture, doctrine, size, history, or facilities to focus on that reminds them of their special stature.
Second, Pedestal Paradigm churches (and their pastors!) assume that their pastor is somehow more than merely human. Of course, no church or pastor would ever say this aloud--it is not part of a church's formal doctrine. It is nevertheless a deeply seated, largely unconscious assumption about the pastor.
The pastor is the "spiritual leader" and somehow "above" other members of the congregation. The pastor is, as is the church, the fount of truth. The pastor doesn't (and shouldn't!) personally wrestle, relationally struggle or spiritually fail like ordinary people often do.
The pastor is the example of how things are supposed to be. The pastor's wants and needs are not as acute as those of other people--or if they are as acute as those of others, they are more magically met by his/her close relationship with God. This set of beliefs when stated so directly sounds arrogant. And so it is.
For churches, the unspoken competition with the church around the corner sometimes pushes the congregation to be somehow more appealing in order to attract new members. This pressure to be appealing pushes a church towards the pedestal. Putting our best foot forward can easily mean putting our struggles out of sight.
We may not want, for example, to invite visitors on Sunday and then find that the pastor has decided to talk about personal struggles with depression during the sermon. Who, we think, will be attracted to our church if our pastor is depressed? If the pastor can't be truly happy, who can be? If the pastor talks too much about the struggles in relationships, someone might get the idea that the pastor isn't as spiritual as the pastor needs to be. Who would be attracted to a church with such a defective pastor?
Models of honest vulnerability can easily get lost in this pressure to be attractive. The biblical model of ministering out of our weaknesses, as well as our strengths, is often discarded in the process.
Early in one of our ministries, one of us mentioned in a sermon that counseling had been personally helpful. A member of the church board, clearly full of anxiety, objected privately to this disclosure saying: "The next thing we know you might stand up there and tell us you are an alcoholic or something."
The request was clear: "Please give us friendly smiles instead of painful personal struggles--no matter what the reality of your life." Pretense had somehow become more important than reality. Congregational members contribute to this pretense whenever they assume that a flawed pastor cannot be a good one.
Why is there so much fear of a flawed pastor? We think the fear is this: if God hasn't helped the pastor to solve personal struggles and relationship issues, how can ordinary people like me hope for anything better?
The fact that we want our pastors to be above or beyond such things suggests that we have allowed the pastor's "success" to become our basis for hope. In reality, of course, pastors struggle just like all of us do. The Good News is that the basis for our hope lies in the love and grace of God--a much more stable foundation for hope than any pastor's ability to perform.
We all know that pretense leads eventually to spiritual death--both for pastors and for congregations. Getting off the pedestal will mean abandoning pretense. And that means we will need to find ways to increase our tolerance for the truth--about ourselves, our families, our congregation, and our pastors.
We need to do whatever we need to do to live in truth. For most of us, this will not be easy. It is not easy to face the truth about ourselves. It is not easy for us as congregations. But there is nothing but spiritual death down the path of pretense. We need to get off that path and headed down the road of truth-both as individuals and as congregations.
Shame is the engine which drives perfectionism and makes it unbearably painful to acknowledge flaw, failure, or fault. The shame of imperfection is intensely painful because it connects directly to our sense of global badness, lack of holiness or core sinfulness. The slightest imperfection becomes a sign for us of a much larger problem. More importantly, any imperfection is like the dirty secret that cannot be disclosed.
Rather than embracing grace, we focus on efforts to maintain "God-pleasing" performance. We tell ourselves that God "expects" us to be perfect--anything less becomes unwelcome. We see ourselves or our congregation as better than others because our shame-based self-concept will not allow us to see ourselves as anything less than perfect.
This kind of shame leads relentlessly towards the Pedestal Paradigm. To get help--to move off the pedestal--would be to assume a deficiency. And that's the one thing that Pedestal Paradigm pastors and congregations cannot do.
If the pastor is able to bring this fear and shame into the light of God's love, the pastor will begin to discover more deeply that the pastor is always, absolutely, unconditionally loved and valued by God.
But when this fear and shame is pushed out of awareness and covered with the defense of perfectionism it will continue to be a deep wound that festers and sets the stage for a crisis. Under these circumstances the heady wine of idealized approval becomes a powerful drug. It feels good to be acknowledged as a good person, a righteous example, and an honorable leader. It feels very good.
We know from personal experience that shame-based pastors will go to great lengths to ensure the regular supply of such powerful, mood-altering affirmations. We will work hard, we will try to earn what we receive, we will try to be really good--we will, in short, try to prove that the positive stuff we are getting is stuff we deserve to get. And we will do everything in our power to be so good, so righteous, so perfect--well, you get the point. We will try to be God. We will try to be as good as God. We will forget somehow in the process that we are God's needy creatures.
The instinct behind perfectionism is not new. We are reminded in 1 John that if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us.
We know that this is really what the Good News is all about. Jesus did not come for the really good, honorable, competent, self-sufficient, religious folks. That is not the good news. Working hard to look like we don't need a physician is not what the Gospel is about. Jesus came for sinners--people without an ice cube's chance in Hades of being successful at perfectionism.
The ministry in God's Kingdom is done by broken people, for broken people, with broken people-empowered by the grace of God.
The dysfunction of this "us" and "them" approach is very reminiscent of the attitude of the religious leaders in Jesus' day. Jesus reserved His strongest confrontations for those religious leaders who were convinced that they had all the right answers to all the right questions. This need to be right is often rooted in a fear that God will punish those who "get it wrong." Who would not be afraid of a God who is ready to punish all those who make mistakes? From that fear comes all kinds of dysfunction.
Despite the fact that the history of this church was marked by career ending staff/board conflicts, consuming bitterness, staff/board misconduct, power plays and mistrust, we were comfortable assuming that we were "right" because of our history of great Bible teaching. We were able to discount our self-destructive behaviors because our teaching was legendary.
The senior pastor of this congregation often punctuated personal conversations and staff meetings with the expression: "I know I am right." His "being right" was a quality which the congregation and the staff assumed, enjoyed and encouraged--we needed to be "right" just as much as the pastor did.
Eventually, of course, all the efforts put into being "right" could not cover our fear and shame. When sexual wrongdoing forced the senior pastor's resignation, this need to be right made it impossible for the congregation to get off its own pedestal and to get the help it needed. The congregation was as committed to the pedestal as was the errant pastor. Outsiders who were able to discern the church's systemic dysfunction were not given a hearing because they were not biblical--not "right"--enough.
The devastation of the Pedestal Paradigm continued to mark the history of that church long after the senior pastor left. The church assumed that hiring the "right" pastor as a replacement was the solution. Their focus on the previous pastor's moral failure allowed them to avoid congregational self-evaluation and created faulty filters in their new pastoral search process.
The point is simple: congregations who live by the Pedestal Paradigm need systematic, comprehensive reconstruction, not just a change in personnel.
Humility is an essential element in recovery. Humility is not, of course, that groveling, "I am such a worm" self-loathing that we may sometimes inappropriately associate with this virtue. It is rather the capacity to tolerate the truth about ourselves--both the good news and the bad. It is the ability to be who we are--deeply loved and deeply flawed humans.
The way to get off the "being right" pedestal is through spiritual humility. Spiritual humility puts us on a path that can lead to true spiritual growth.
Many pastors have been taught in seminary that it is dangerous to have friendships within a congregation because of perceptions of favoritism and other concerns. Over time, members of the congregation may also learn to expect their pastors to live in isolation. People in most congregations cannot really imagine being best friends with their minister. Ministers are, as a result, usually profoundly friend-deficient.
Pretense, perfectionism, "being right" and isolation always lead to crisis--whether in the life of an individual or a congregation. When these outgrowths of fear and shame are not addressed, they will damage lives and institutions.
Some churches manage to adapt to increasing dysfunction and live for generations on the pedestal in a kind of chronic crisis. But other congregations are more fortunate. These congregations and pastors find a better way. Unfortunately, too often they find it in the middle of an acute crisis.
Pastoral misconduct is the most common crisis. When the pedestal collapses, another path must be found. It is not, of course, an easy transition. Fear and shame will create many forms of resistance to change.
One form of resistance is the rejection of outside help. Pedestal Paradigm churches are ideologically closed systems. They become consumed with self-sufficiency and cut themselves off from outside help.
Pastors, by lip and life, largely define the values and theology of congregations. The longer a pastor has been part of a congregation, the more likely the pastor will reproduce a church after one's self. People who are comfortable in such closed systems are attracted to these pastors. If, for example, a pastor rejects the idea of professional help, church members will resist such help as well--or cover it up when they seek it.
The more closed the system, the less likely it is that effective help will be embraced. For pastors to seek the help they have been disparaging is sometimes too big a pill to swallow. For congregations to do so means repudiating what they have been taught.
Another form of resistance to getting help is plain, old-fashioned denial. Institutional and personal denial are an inescapable part of every crisis. Denial is a God-given protective defense against an overwhelming emergency which automatically kicks in during a crisis. Helpful denial protects us from having to take in a trauma all at once.
What is initially protective and helpful, however, can become deeply damaging. Hurtful denial leads to not dealing with reality at all. This kind of denial can be lethal when the pastor, board or church members do not take problems seriously enough to seek outside help.
When people are willing to break out of the closed system and push through the denial, long-term benefits are possible. When pastors and churches overcome their natural tendency to avoid outside help, they begin the recovery journey. They find hope. They change their paradigm.
Pastors and churches that are rooted in fear and shame often tenaciously cling to the Pedestal Paradigm. Fortunately, however, this is not the only paradigm available. Things do not have to be like this. There is a saner, more grace-full, more truth-full and more biblical path.
We need not exist generation after generation stuck on that self-blinding and self-defeating pedestal. We can learn to live in grace and love. We can choose a better paradigm--a recovery paradigm. The Christian recovery model assumes that we are works in process--not finished products. We are flawed--not faultless. It assumes our Father delights in our journey toward his love and grace.
Every individual, family and church exists on a continuum between shame and fear on the one hand--and grace and love on the other. Being a person in recovery, or being a recovering congregation, means that we are moving on that continuum away from fear and shame--towards love and grace.
The process of transformation is, however, rarely smooth. There will be many times when it feels like two steps forward, one step back. A sustained focus on the goal is what we need--the goal of becoming a grace-full, loving congregation. What will move us in that direction? What might cause churches and pastors to move toward grace and love? We have room in this article for only one example:
A large church phoned recently to seek help for their pastor. The pastor had been on the staff of the church for almost a decade. His role in building the congregation was significant. The pastor was one of their stars. The pastor had, however, been caught more than once using the Internet to view pornography.
The church leadership felt they had no option but to find a nice way to get him and his family help and to remove him from the staff team. They wanted us to tell them what kind of help was available. As we talked, it became clear that the impending board meeting (that night) was a critical one.
At this point in the conversations among the leadership all the focus was on the pastor and everything was headed in the direction of dismissal even though the pastor was very popular. One of us asked the chairman of the church board this question:
"Is the pastor the only person in the congregation, or for that matter on the church board, who has this problem?"
It was not really a difficult question. He knew the answer. Of course not. The obvious follow-up question was this:
"Is there a way to respond to the pastor's problems in a way that might help some of the other people who struggle with this issue
at the same time?"
A Paradigm Shift
There was a long pause. This was an entirely new thought. The question needed to be asked several times in different ways in order for this new thought to find a place to grow.
Gradually the focus of our conversation shifted. The issue had changed from how to get rid of a popular but "troubled" pastor to how to respond to a very common problem in the congregation--a problem shared by the pastor.
This shift in focus was not easy. It was not a smooth transition. But it was a critical shift. An opportunity emerged for the whole church to deal honestly and graciously not only with the pastor but also with every person in the congregation who struggled with similar problems.
Creative possibilities emerged. Maybe the board could grant a leave of absence, secure quality help for the pastor and his family, and then address these issues openly in the congregation. Maybe the healing pastor could eventually share his emerging story of healing. Maybe a support group could be started for people who struggle with this issue. Maybe, just maybe, if we let the pastor down off the pedestal and start to tell the truth--maybe this could all end in growth and healing for many people.
By taking seriously the pastor's need for recovery and by facing the fact that the pastor's struggles were common to many in the congregation, they opened the door to a much more grace-full future for the congregation. If they had chosen to get rid of the pastor--instead of getting rid of the pedestal--the outcome would have been very different.
We do not mean to imply that it is always wise or possible to retain a pastor who has fallen. But it is never wise to terminate someone without at least fully pursuing restoration. Nothing can have a more positive impact on a body than healing one of its significant parts. This approach requires a church to slow down the process and to accept outside help.
Quick terminations seldom bring quality growth and usually lead to repeated crises. Creativity, combined with a commitment to honesty and grace, can lead to lasting, long-term change.
This story is an example of how one congregation began to step away from the pedestal and towards the freedom of recovery. There are many ways a church might begin this journey--any step that moves us away from fear and shame and closer to grace and truth.
We can be certain that, as we face and let go of our pretense, our perfectionism, our need to be "right" and our isolation, fresh creative options will begin to present themselves. We will find ways to actively practice honesty, compassion, humility and interdependence. And, as we commit ourselves to these new ways, we will gradually become more grace-full communities.
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This article is reprinted by permission from the authors. This article was originally written with the title, "When Pastors And Churches Need Recovery." Christian Recovery Network URL is http://www.christianrecovery.com/
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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:33 PM