“I wasn’t able to lead my church during the Christmas Eve service this year.”
It was just a few short weeks into the New Year and I was with a pastor friend from a neighboring community. We sat at a coffee shop catching up.
“Why? What happened?” I asked.
“I had a panic attack,” he answered. “I couldn’t get out of bed. I shook all over, started sweating, and had difficulty breathing. I called our worship leader, told him I was sick, and everyone else took care of the morning. And when I knew the service was over, I started feeling better.”
I asked who he had talked to about this and he chuckled, shaking his head. “You’re it, man! Can you imagine what would happen if my church knew I’d had a panic attack? Being stressed and sick is one thing but having an emotional breakdown? That is completely different.”
My friend and I continued to talk but the conversation haunted me afterward. Would he have really been punished if he had been honest and shared his struggles with someone at his church? Would he be seen as too weak to handle the pressures of full-time ministry? Or would the response been one of grace and compassion, coupled with the encouragement to take time off in order to get healthy?
Thinking of my own experiences with churches, I have to agree with my friend: He would have been skinned alive. We just don’t like it when church leaders show weakness. If someone is struggling with a health issue that they cannot control, that’s acceptable. But if it is an area that is within their power—overeating, stress management, a character flaw, sexual struggle—then it’s completely different. We think leaders shouldn’t struggle, admit to weaknesses, or sin in any way. Their exemplary behavior needs to be our beacon of hope that life with God really does work. If we can’t see it happen in our own lives, then we at least want to see it in someone else’s.
Which makes me think of the Apostle Paul. In his letters, he says two alarming things that make me wonder if he could make it on a church staff today. The first concerns his “thorn in the flesh,” found in 2 Corinthians 12. Apparently, to balance Paul’s proclivity for visions and prophesies, God gave him a weakness in order to keep him humble. We’re never told what this “thorn in the flesh” might be. Some scholars think—probably to keep Paul’s sainthood intact—that it was a physical limitation. But if it was something that was so out of his control—one leg shorter than the other, a leaky bladder, hemorrhoids—then why wouldn’t Paul just say so? It wasn’t his fault anyway.
Because Paul keeps it hidden, I tend to believe it was a struggle with sin that God refused to remove. Was it pride? Or lust? Did he struggle with sexual urges? With human applause? With drunkenness? With a love for money or power or control? Did he ever give in to it? We have no idea.
Think about today. What would happen if you interviewed at a church, or told your board of elders, that you struggled with something and could not overcome it? At best you would be deemed spiritually immature; at worse you’d be disqualified for ministry. There would be no place for you … or Paul.
But the second thing Paul mentions about himself is even more blatant than the first. At the end of Romans 7, Paul admits to having a good heart that he doesn’t always live out of. In fact, he says, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. … For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (verses 15 & 19). He’s doing the very things he hates and is actively practicing evil. Those are strong words.
Can you seriously imagine hiring someone who says this about themself? We call them double-minded or tossed back and forth by their circumstances. We want our leaders to have grown beyond struggling with sin because that, at least in our mind, is not consistent with spiritual maturity.
Let’s be honest for a moment. When are we going to stop looking for perfection from those in leadership? When will we demand that authenticity be a higher value than appearing to be sin-free? When will we build a culture within our churches where the leaders are able to talk about their sins and struggles without the fear of being punished? Somewhere along the line we have bought the lie that leaders need to be so far and above the rest of us, that if they struggle and sin, then they are no longer qualified to lead. What we have fully embraced is a Gospel that is good for the hookers, the drug addicts, and the adulterers—those with big sins on the outside—but largely impotent for the pastors, worship leaders, and small group leaders—those with big sins on the inside. The idea of being forgiven of sins actually works until someone in leadership actually sins.
A friend of mine refuses to hire anyone in his church who can’t talk about their sins or struggles. He wants to have people leading the church who can openly and authentically embrace their weakness, talk about their weakness, and lead out of their weakness. This is the exact opposite of what most of us look for in a potential hire. We want those whose lives are balanced, victorious, ordered, put-together, and relatively struggle-free … the opposite of how Paul described himself.
I am not advocating hiring the worst sinners we can find. Paul even questioned the logic in sinning more so that more grace could be poured out. However, what if this became a serious conversation in our churches? What if we added to our employee handbooks a grace-filled, yet dangerous, statement that simply read, “No staff member will automatically be fired because of sin or a moral failure.”
What would that do to your staff team? Would it suddenly give them freedom to openly talk about their deepest struggles without fear of retaliation? Would they suddenly allow the light of Christ to enter areas of their heart that have remained in darkness? Could this then eventually infect the culture of the entire church? Would it then create an environment where people were able to freely admit their struggles in order to find forgiveness and hope and restoration that only Christ can bring?
On the other hand, would such a statement simply give people a license to sin? Without the fear of being fired, wouldn’t people just indulge in drunken orgies? Perhaps. But as Paul wrote in his letters to the churches at Rome and Galatia, the threat of rules stir in us a desire to sin even more; grace, however, brings freedom and a desire to do good.
With a message like that, maybe Paul does need to be hired by your church today.