When the Pastor Lets Us Down

What do we do when the Pastor lets us down, maybe even wounds us? Where does that leave us as far as church is concerned? Do we decide to withdraw from church completely? Or is there a better way?

First – I have been a church pastor, and I am sure I have disappointed people in that role. And I’m sorry about that.

Second – I have known a number of church pastors during my life, and virtually all of them have let me down in one way or another. So – there is a pattern developing here. Church pastors are people, and people are imperfect. They let other people down, and they do things they are ashamed of.

Consequently, pastors just do not belong on the pedestal that so many in their congregations want to place them on. It’s tough when the pastor is a likeable, and gifted communicator. You want to hold them up there. But – it is never a good idea, and it does not reflect reality. It’s worse when the pastor seems to think they deserve to BE on a pedestal! Spoiler alert – church pastors get it wrong, just like the rest of us.

Perhaps you’ve been in a church setting and had a touch of this. Sometimes it can be more serious than that. Maybe you’ve experienced bullying, intimidation or manipulation. You’ve endured the pastor’s need to control and be the power person. Perhaps you’ve suffered gaslighting, being undermined and misrepresented in public and private, and this has been a horrible experience for you. Recently, various serious and heartbreaking stories have come to light about high profile church pastors and their unseemly behaviour. The latest report is of the late Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, who abused multiple women during his ministry.

So – what do we do with all that?

First – we recognise that Christianity is all about saving broken people. The church is there to rescue those who are lost. And the reality is that, when we respond to Christ and become a Christian, we are just at the start of a process of life change. We don’t become perfect right away. Rather, God starts the job of changing us from the inside out.

Pastors are also people who have been saved by Christ, and aren’t perfect. But crucially, they need to cooperate with Christ in the process of life change. Everyone is on that road, church pastors included.

Second – Christianity says clearly that the only perfect person that has lived – is Jesus. And so, he is the only one deserving of the pedestal that we may have mistakenly put the pastor on.[1]

Third – every person has weak spots. Maybe it’s how we use our tongue, or maybe it’s sexual temptation, or something else. What the pastor finds in the course of their job, that their weak spot is attacked when they are in their public position. Everyone has weaknesses – we might hide ours, but we might learn about the pastor’s weaknesses because they are a public figure.

Fourth – this does not minimise the seriousness of a leader’s sin. It was Jesus himself who encouraged little children to come to him, and warned that anyone who caused little vulnerable ones to fall, would be in serious trouble with God.[2] So, there is a warning here for leaders. We are given the responsibility to care for vulnerable people. We are heading into trouble if we abuse the very people we are supposed to care for.

 

If I’ve been wounded by a leader, does this undo all the good that leader did?

I like the way the Christian leader and Theologian N T Wright puts it. It doesn’t undo the good they have done but it casts a shadow on it.[3] The good messages they shared remain good, the positive arguments remain good arguments even if the person sharing them has a shadow in their life.

Actually, this leaves us as the wounded party to do some work to do in OUR lives.

First – we must remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”[4] So – we need to be looking at those words, accepting them and believing them and applying them to our situation as we pray them every day.

Second – our job is therefore to forgive the pastor who has hurt us. Why? Because if we are a Christian we enjoy God’s forgiveness, and so he expects us to share that with others who need it. Pastors included.

 

What do I do with feelings of betrayal?

Wright observes that our culture either wants people on pedestals, or it wants them crashing down to the ground, Harvey Weinstein style. There’s no “in-between” allowed. Yet the “in-between” is the reality because life and human beings are complex. Yet God’s big enough to deal with this complexity.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.”[5]

We enjoy God’s free acceptance even though we let people down. We need to give our feelings to him and allow God to make us into people who share the undeserved love we have ourselves received. Even to our betrayer.

 

But what if the pastor doesn’t think they have done anything wrong, yet I am still feeling hurt?

Well, sometimes the pastor needs to feel they have the moral high ground at all times. We may be sceptical of the truth of that, seeing it just as another lever of control. Yet the truth is, it is not our responsibility to police them in this. That’s God’s job. Our responsibility is to keep our side of the street clean, to ask God to help us forgive them…and walk God’s road of forgiveness for us towards them. It’s probably not going to be a short road!

 

What do I say to people who point to this situation and say, “All Christians are hypocrites.”

Well – frankly, everyone is guilty of hypocrisy in some way shape or form. When we take a position of judgement on someone else, we are probably conveniently forgetting everything we would rather keep hidden in our own lives.

But even tho Christians are as broken as everyone else, Christianity has always from the beginning focussed on developing some particular areas of virtue. N T Wright observes that these 1st-century virtues were distinctly Christian:[6]

  • Patience
  • Chastity
  • Forgiveness
  • Kindness

Christians just admit their need to grow in these and other virtues. And as we grow in virtue, we become ever more conscious of our weaknesses. As the old hymn says:

And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would serve Thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.[7]

I am not perfect. But – I’m painfully aware of my weak spots. And I’m pretty sure I’d be a whole lot worse if I was not a Christian.

Maybe you aren’t a Christian and you think that, “Well, I’m not a Christian and I’m doing just fine thanks.” Well – maybe you are doing better than me in your life. But what additional potential awaits you if you were to become a follower of Jesus? Lots!

 

But what if I’m wounded and I just don’t trust the church anymore?

Perhaps we need to heal, and to take the opportunity to do that.

But if we are a Christian who remains isolated from church family, we will lose a lot. And – we will struggle to hang on to our faith in Christ. As N T Wright says, find another good Christian church where you will receive kindness, affirmation and friendship.[8] That’s what the church is for, and it’s what all Christians need.

[1] Hebrews 2:10.

[2] Matthew 18:1-6.

[3] Ask N T Wright Anything Podcast, 33. #31 Jean Vanier and when leaders let us down, February 28th, 2020.

[4] Matthew 6:12.

[5] Romans 3:23-24, NLT.

[6] N T Wright, podcast.

[7] At Even When the Sun Was Set, hymnal.net, https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/757.

[8] N. T. Wright, podcast.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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