Guest Post: Seeking to Understand the Rise, Fall, and Loss of Young Pastors by Robert Stewart

Bob was born to medical missionary parents in Burundi, Africa.  The father of six, he and his pastoral counselor wife, Shari, share a psychiatric practice in Louisville, KY and have long worked in the support and care of missionaries and pastors both here and abroad.

A hundred years from now I’m sure that our descendants will know about the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020-21 just as all of us (or a lot of us, at least) remember tales of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1917-18.  And by then, hopefully, the great political, cultural, and religious polarization of these times will be just a very sad remembrance and not a never ending curse.  But, what about the horrific epidemic of promising young evangelical pastors who burst onto the scene and rise like meteors only to fall into disaster and suicide?  Will this also be recalled as a tragic period of darkness from which the conservative church learned much and recovered? Or, will our reflexive need to not explore, to explain away and to quickly move on all serve to guarantee that a century from now sensational clergy loss will continue to corrode and undo the work of the church?

At least (five) high profile young pastors of whom I’m aware have taken their lives during these past twelve months alone.  As painful as this topic is to discuss I believe that we absolutely must force ourselves to do so if we’re ever understand what’s going on here.  We shouldn’t be trying to address this crisis until we better understand all the cultural, characterological, spiritual, and biological issues which influence it.  After the space shuttle Challenger disaster stunned the world in 1986 all shuttle flights were grounded until the underlying cause (defective “o-rings” in the right side solid rocket booster) could be understood and resolved.  Seven astronauts died unnecessarily in that incident.  Almost that many young pastors (or maybe more) have died in this past year.  And, the many opinions about why don’t add up to any real comprehension which could guide us towards life saving solutions.  It just seems unconscionable to continue on as usual amid the carnage.

So, how might we begin the quest to understand and solve this crisis with an inquiry as focused and complete as the one which solved the riddle of the Challenger?

We know that NASA went back and reviewed multiple video tapes and reams of computer data to understand what went wrong to cause the Challenger catastrophe.  Similarly, I think we might go back and review data we have on the pastors, the churches they founded, the people who surrounded them, the impacts they had on the culture and the impacts the culture had on them.  Is there anything we can learn from their character styles, their gifts, their liabilities?

Here let me make the disclaimer that I’m a Christian physician, someone with a great grief and concern about this issue, and not an investigative reporter or a Lee Strobel.  But, I’ve worked with missionaries and pastors for the last thirty plus years.  I’ve consulted with and worked beside other pastors and professionals with supportive roles for a number of these young church planting pastors.  As such, I offer here observations and viewpoints which are an amalgam of my own direct experiences and those of others doing this same work.

From this view there emerges a number of trends which stand out, especially in retrospection.

The first is that they tend to be both extremely bright and charismatic. This shouldn’t be surprising as we look at the huge successes these young pastors enjoyed right out of the gate.  They were often non-conformists whose giftedness permitted them to avoid the usual post-seminary trek up the ecclesiastical ladder.  They seem to have had a knack for understanding how to connect with younger people who were suspicious of the traditional church.  They launched churches from spaces rented from schools, warehouses and theaters.  Trading traditional suits and clerical robes for skinny jeans and untucked shirts, using plugged in musicians in place of choirs, and displaying virtuoso homiletic skills these pastors began rapidly adding new members even as large traditional churches were losing them.  Constantly outgrowing existing spaces meant planting new churches and finding new subordinate pastors who could mimic the founder’s formula for success (and stay subordinate).  The seminaries and older clergy and theologians had no choice but wonder about this phenomenal new trend even when they had reservations.  The Christian media was all over it and even the secular media had to periodically report on these seismic changes rocking the Protestant landscape.

The hugely popular performance based ministries of these young upstarts caused many admirers to refer to them as rock stars.  Such a reference now seems poignantly fitting because riding a towering crest of intoxicating success just like secular rock stars leaves little time or inclination for introspection and for dealing with one’s demons and the brokenness with which one entered ministry.

Both professionally and through the reports of others I’m aware of a number of young pastors who decline multiple opportunities to do the hard work of probing their wounds, exploring and finding the words to express previously hidden grief’s and attendant feelings, learning to become truly open and vulnerable, and grappling with primal shame.  As a prescribing psychiatrist I’ve sometimes found them eager to embrace a mood diagnosis and a prescribed medication when they’re in the depths of profound depression or paralyzed by an episode of panic which seemed (to them) to have come out of nowhere.  But, almost invariably, as soon as the chosen treatment and a new round of external successes had them on their feet again they were ready to abandon not just the medication treating their mood disorder but also any other therapeutic interventions to which they’d agreed to back when they were in the valley of the shadow.  And, consistently, these now “healed” pastors never came in to discuss with me in therapeutic partnership the pros and cons of terminating treatment.  No, sadly enough, it was usually predictable that they would just one day not show up for a scheduled appointment.  Inquiring texts to them would be ignored and I could often detect their dodging a conversation if we ran across each other in public.  At least until the next emotional crisis when the whole cycle would be played out again.

A recent eulogy for one of these violently deceased pastors referred to him as an “orphan”.  I suspect that an in-depth psychological post-mortem on these now lost to us pastors would reveal that there’s a common theme of parental loss, neglect or absence.  I also believe we’d find a universal confusion about what mature masculinity might look like.  As a result, through no fault of their own, these young orphaned men had no choice but to show up as culturally pleasing caricatures of masculinity.  In my and others’ experiences these guys have tended to be caught between asking for and rejecting older male presence and guidance in their journeys.  So, there seems to be this pattern of getting close to but never embracing the deep work required to heal their psychological, spiritual, or masculine selves.

The late Dallas Willard is credited with a quote that seems most applicable here: “God, pleased don’t grant me more power than my character can handle.”

I feel sure that Willard would append to ‘power’ the intoxicating effects of abundant success and adulation.  Because, it seems likely that another etiological “o-ring” for these pastors who rose so majestically into the morning sky only to erupt into heart wrenching spirals of smoke and wreckage was the combustible presence of serial successes and the clamor of adoration.  I imagine that for a rock star standing in the blast wave of deafening applause it’s extremely difficult to attend to offers of advice and input whether it’s from peers, (true) elders, or the Holy Spirit.

And, ever aware of what sells to a ravenous, ever growing group of followers, the book publishers appear to eagerly court these young pastors for books on almost any topic.  The pressure these companies can bring to bear on a hot new writer can’t be over stated.  Deadlines have to be met and new books have to be hyped with constantly updated posts on multiple social media platforms.  All the while the young pastor, who received no business training in seminary, is now trying to be the CEO for a multimillion dollar multi-site organization and burning too much midnight oil because of the drivenness to every week show up with another home run sermon.  I posit that behind the trademark hip, cool, and affable stage presence there too often lies emotional exhaustion and a lurking insecurity hidden not only from us but also from the young pastor himself.

Space flight has always been a deeply inspiring yet complicated and risky undertaking.  And so is church planting.  As with every other human undertaking, we enhance the chances for future success to the degree to which we first prepare for the planned endeavor; then dissect, come to understand, and thereby learn from the inescapable missteps; and seek out with a willingness to seriously utilize input which catalyzes the growth and safety of the enterprise.

And here’s a final observation from the perspective of this layman and caregiver to wounded pastors.  I find myself wondering if our seminaries are placing more emphasis on the Great Commission to go out and preach than they are on the other commission to “Tend my sheep”.  Sheep tending, or shepherding, is messy and un-applauded work.  In earthly terms, it doesn’t pay well, doesn’t sell many books, and is a poor road to notoriety.  In fact, unless the shepherd also gives us a new translation of the Bible as Eugene Peterson did, only a relative few will ever know him/her compared to, say, a rock star.  But, after four decades of working with wounded and suffering people I am crystal clear that the world is full of billions of people hungering to be known, to feel the presence of enduring compassion, and to experience the benefits which come only from the hard, unsung work of loving.

This is a broken world into which we’ve each been born and wounded. There’s a very real, gloves off, life-and-death cage fight here between the darkness and the light.  And, the darkness is stealing unfed, disillusioned lambs both left and right.  We so desperately need shepherds, ordained and not, to not just go out to find lost lambs but to nurse them, not just on the Word, but also with the hard work of continuing presence and non-judgmental loving.  And, both my heart and my experience have convinced me that the shepherds can also be in deep need of finding, binding, feeding and, yes, protecting.

In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters the mentoring devil explains to his apprentice that he shouldn’t waste too much time tempting the individual sheep away from the light because if he can score a single shepherd then he’s captured countless sheep in just one stroke.  Don’t we have enough evidence already that successful pastors have targets on their backs?  Therefore, I challenge us as a church to come around our pastors to form a protective circle of love which provides nurturance spiritually, emotionally and physically.  By spiritually I mean ceaseless praying, honest encouragement, and provisions for straight forward and non-shaming accountability by someone respected, trusted and older who is in no fashion dependent on the pastor.  Emotionally means that we take for granted that our pastors, like ourselves, arrive with their share of brokenness; that we’re expectant that (and will be supportive of) they’re embarking on a journey of self discovery and healing for as long as it takes (which is usually years).  And, by physically I’m not referring to gym memberships, although I’m a huge supporter of such things.  No, I mean the awareness that as part of being embodied souls we have biologies which regularly get broken just as our minds and souls can.  Genetic proclivities, childhood and adult trauma and loss, and the stresses of everyday living can pull our pastors into handicapping levels of anxiety or mood disorders which can run the spectrum from nagging to paralyzing.

In 2020 we have lots of common grace in the form of excellent pharmaceuticals and other interventions for the alleviation of these kinds of affliction.  Sadly, of the many pastors who eagerly quote the depressed and wounded Nouwen from the pulpit, few it turns out are willing to copy his authenticity and themselves accept treatment for these treatable illnesses.  It takes a huge capacity for denial to not grasp that pastors who take their own lives are, among other issues, struggling with unmanaged mood disorders.

In summation, to pastors around the world I’d like to be so bold as to offer some proddings and encouragements both professional and paternal:

  • Be crystal clear about how you’re measuring success in your calling.
  • If you haven’t already, embark on a personal quest to understand how your genetic makeup, gifting, liabilities, traumas, losses, successes, role models, and life experiences have all come together to make you who you are today. Begin to grapple with the issues which hold you back from who God put you here to be.
  • Grasp that each and every last one of us is struggling with some kind of addiction. If it’s not alcohol or pornography it may also be work, success, or approval. Also seek to grasp for the sake of others and yourself the mutually sustaining blind-loop of shame and addiction.
  • Embrace the challenge to hear and be curious about opinions which differ from your own. Your progress here will be an energy saver for you and others, enhance the quality of everyone’s work product, and make you less lonely as a pastor.
  • Practice the art of admitting you’re wrong because being wrong is a recurring and inescapable part of being a human. The ability to honestly own error demonstrates maturity, self confidence, and the absence of narcissism.
  • Similarly, practice the relationally restorative art of asking for and giving of forgiveness. We have to assume that our Lord had good reason for making it central in the prayer he gave to his disciples.
  • It’s proven that mammals lower than ourselves are able experience anxiety and depression. So do humans like ourselves who are subjected to a much larger array of losses, insults, depravations and challenges.  Therefore, determine now to be the first to have true empathy for and to demonstrate sincere compassion for such suffering in your family members, your staff, your parishioners, and yourself.
  • Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankel, was the one who so simply stated that despair occurs in the presence of suffering devoid of meaning (D=S-M).  Sudden overwhelming or unremitting despair in His creatures who comprehend both their free will and their mortality can go on to decide to end their own lives in suicide. Be committed to the detection and treatment of depression, the alleviation of suffering where possible, the confrontation of despair through the compassionate application of the spiritual, and the willingness to overcome the awkwardness of inquiring about suicidal thoughts and plans.
  • Be willing to love and embrace the brokenness in yourself with the same grace and non-judgmental acceptance with which you’re able to show to others in theirs. In fact, your own modeling of this will alleviate more human suffering than you’ll ever believe.
  • Practice authenticity and the integrity of true vulnerability, not affected vulnerability more spoken from the pulpit than lived among one’s family and peers. Because, I’m convinced that this capacity is central to our becoming more and more real such that we may one day, a la C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, become real enough to tolerate the overwhelming reality of heaven.

Bob Stewart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narcissism is not a “leadership style”

I had a sick, here-we-go-again feeling while reading Kate Shellnutt’s Feb 7 piece on the removal of Steve Timmis as leader of Acts 29. But what stopped me in my tracks was this paragraph late in the piece:

According to a copy of a 2015 letter sent to Acts 29 president Chandler and obtained by CT, five staff members based in the Dallas area described their new leader as “bullying,” “lacking humility,” “developing a culture of fear,” and “overly controlling beyond the bounds of Acts 29,” with examples spanning 19 pages.

Having been down this road before with Mark Driscoll and others, you might expect that the piece would continue, “After considering the report of the staff members, Chandler placed Timmis on leave pending an investigation of Timmis and his church culture.” We might expect some measure of sobriety given some painful history.

Instead, Kate writes:

During a meeting with Chandler and two board members to discuss the letter, all five were fired and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of their severance packages. They were shocked.

And then, what follows is a line I’ve heard countless times in church planting assessments and in organizational consultations and staff reviews:

Chandler told CT that, at the time, he saw it as a clash in leadership styles, not as indicators of abuse.

Let me be crystal clear: bullying, controlling, and scaring are not characteristics of any “leadership style” I find worthy of “Christian” leadership. These descriptors do not remotely approach the character of a Jesus-following leader. These pastors described an abusive pastor and abusive culture. And because of this, Chandler will rightly be called to account for what transpired. 

I want to emphasize what is so often overlooked:

Five Acts 29 staff members lives were unalterably changed because of this decision.

These are the pastors I often talk to on the other side of this predictable and abusive process of being silenced. Some have spouses and children. They all bear trauma in their bodies and brains. Sleeplessness. Paranoia. Shame. Rage. Indecision. Depression. Anxiety. Suicidal thoughts. 

Some cope by jumping back in too soon, and others by too-much-drink.

A good many face financial hardship.

Some never pastor again. 

Most lose relationships forged during their time serving the church.

All suffer profoundly. 

For me, this is what hurts the most. I’ve sat with pastors like these in their quiet rage and cathartic tears and I can’t emphasize enough how lost and forgotten they feel. 

So five years later, what does Acts 29 owe the pastors/families impacted by an abusive leader over the course of many, many years? What does it owe the wider network and the many pastors who serve with integrity and humility? 

A first important step is to welcome in an outside investigator like GRACE. Many churches/networks conduct in-house investigations that perpetuate the same patterns of self-protection. That can’t happen here. Sadly, Acts 29 must face the reality that this history repeats itself too often, and must commit to ending this pattern of abuse. What if this network became known not just for its planting but for its commitment to thoroughgoing and systemic healing, reconciliation, and ongoing health? 

To facilitate an effective investigation, all pastors fired should be released from their NDA’s immediately and invited to tell their stories. I can’t emphasize this enough – the culture of church NDA’s is vast and toxic, reaching beyond Acts 29 but often found in church planting contexts. We need to start talking about this phenomenon – why it exists and how it shows up in particular ecclesial contexts and who is harmed. 

With this, and for the sake of transparency, the leaders of Acts 29 must welcome new information, however disruptive, unsettling, or embarrassing. In this process, Acts 29 needs to be ready to re-engage those hurt and harmed by abusive leadership, not merely with polite apologies but with reparation, if necessary. This should include commitments to support therapy and recovery. Each pastor’s story needs to be considered. This is painful and uncomfortable and timely, and so very necessary. 

I emphasize this because while much of the attention in situations like these is focused on the leaders responsible, often with great fanfare and social media drama, the traumatized survivors of the abusive leader are often forgotten. We ignore how being fired impacts one’s mental health, livelihood, reputation, and more. These are men and women with names, image-bearers whose dignity was attacked.  

Finally, I have friends who’ve planted and pastor Acts 29 churches. I’ve counseled Acts 29 pastors and led trainings. My friend Rich Plass has given years of effort to fostering emotional and spiritual health in this network. Some who’ve reached out to me are sick and confused and genuinely wondering if they can remain. I’m relentlessly hopeful, but serious deconstruction needs to happen before folks will trust again. 

If you’re a leader in Acts 29, I appeal to you not to settle for a polite apology. For churches to heal from this epidemic of narcissism, all must walk toward the light once and for all, to tell stories, to speak truthfully, to listen patiently, to repent fully, to deconstruct fully. Don’t let phrases like “but God is doing so many good things” silence an honest appraisal of the dark shadow side of your network. I know no other path to transformation than through the dark night. 

I’m hurting for you and praying for you. I don’t know the pastors who were fired, but tonight I’m particularly concerned for you. How are you caring for yourselves? How is trauma impacting your life, health and relationships? Who are you talking to? What do you need?

I’m an outsider, but I’ve got a big heart for good friends across this network who are in pain and confused right now. So, do the hard work. Move toward those who’ve been hurt. Don’t settle for bandaids…subject yourself to major surgery, the cruciform way. 

Follow the way of Jesus through a painful wilderness into a better future.

Grace and peace,

Chuck

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I am a longtime pastor, therapist, and professor of pastoral care and christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary (MI). My latest book is born out of many years of experience – When Narcissism Comes to Church releases March 17. 

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Can you “narcissist-proof” a system?

If you’re building an organization/community from the ground up, what are steps to ensure it has the best shot of narcissist-proofing itself? Are there parameters you can set for health on the front side?

Seth Haines asked this (@sethhaines on Twitter…a must follow), and I’ve been chewing on it since. His question took me back to conversations with friends from different backgrounds, some who’ve thought great systems and structures could safeguard from narcissism, and some who believed good doctrine (defined differently depending on who I talked to) could do it.

As I mused, I remembered the story of a pastor I’ll call Jake. Jake started on staff at a medium-sized seeker sensitive church, and it didn’t take long for him to realize he was working for an image-driven, stage-loving, leadership-guru pastor whose staff/system adored and enabled him and who only had time for Jake when he was pitching a potentially successful new initiative. This pastor employed all of the popular leadership techniques and created structures that buzzed with efficiency, but everything revolved around the grandiose ego of the lead pastor.

So when Jake and his therapist agreed it was time to move on, he transitioned into another associate role at a small Anglican church plant, a welcome new place of rootedness after his seeker-sensitive sojourn and a church connected to a global community. The liturgy moved Jake and Sarah, his wife. The music was indescribably beautiful – folksy and engaging and lyrically rich. But then, the Bishop and Jake’s pastor got into it. He watched his vestry passive in the face of the Bishop’s abuse of his new mentor and friend. Soon enough, the exasperated pastor left and the Bishop started filling in, barking his way through the once-rich liturgy like a field marshal.

Tired and confused, Jake found himself hopeful again when a young urban church asked him to join the staff. This church was theologically progressive, unlike the others. He served alongside a competent and savvy staff. The lead pastor, a winsome, energetic, tatted up rock star embraced Jake from the start. In her, he found an acceptance he thought impossible. But then she began confiding her lack of confidence in another staff member, questioning her loyalty. In fact, while being the favorite felt so different and even gratifying, at one level, he felt gross and used at another. And while the staff read all of the best church health books available, he knew he was trapped in an awful, sticky web of narcissism once again.

When Jake finally came to me, he was going to plant a church. I talked him out of it. I was pretty confident all of that ‘stuff’ was in him in such a way that he’d show up on day one with good intentions, but with a trauma-laden body capable of inflicting pain on others.

Seth asked, “If you’re building an organization/community from the ground up, what are steps to ensure it has the best shot of narcissist-proofing itself? Are there parameters you can set for health on the front side?”

And as I’ve pondered this today, and over years of navigating ecclesial and institutional narcissism myself, I keep coming back to a simple (maybe simplistic) gut-level response – healthy people.

  • Healthy people. People who’ve navigated the messy terrain of their own stories, and are honest about their beauty and brokenness.
  • Healthy people. People who create safe spaces wherever they go. They’re not inclined to lead by power but by creating space for empowerment. (This is code for “trauma informed”).
  • Healthy people. People who are differentiated. They are not pulled to-and-fro by every passing wind of relational tug-of-wars. They do not merge or disconnect.
  • Healthy people. People who know in their bodies the crazy-making, gaslighting feelings of an abusive, narcissistic leader or system. And are able to name it.
  • Healthy people. People who are secure. Safe in their own being and “in Christ” not merely as an identity marker but a lived reality. They don’t demand respect, but people give it to them. You sense the gravity of their person.
  • Healthy people. People who show up as a non-anxious presence. They show up in a room, and everyone else breathes a sigh of relief. Their presence turns down the anxiety volume.
  • Healthy people. People who are honest. They name reality. They are not afraid to lay their cards on the table, not in some act of gamesmanship, but because integrity is in their bones.
  • Healthy people. People who’ve done their inner work. They tell on themselves. On the first day of work they say, “This is me…the good, the bad, and the ugly…let’s live in the truth together. Feel free to name when I’ve hurt you.”

Seth may be looking for a more sophisticated answer, but I doubt it. He knows messiness. And he knows the long-and-winding journey to health. I think we’ve both been around long enough to be suspicious of idealized, naive answers to complicated questions like his.

And so, as I say often to people, do your own work. Do your work and show up, anchored in your deepest You (Catherine of Genoa), which is secure in God’s infinite love and goodness. My hope for health in churches and systems of all kinds is…well…you. All of you who’ve connected to Love and who live in love, not in some cheesy me-and-my-sweet-Jesus-pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, but in the Eph. 3:16-18 ground-of-our-being sense of it.

Narcissism feeds off of the lie that our persona (Jung), that our illusory self (Merton) is all there is. That’s paper thin. What the world needs is people of substance…grown-ups like you who show up not with some agenda but agenda-less (see Bonnie Bandenoch, The Heart of Trauma), calm and curious and compassionate and connected to the infinitely Secure source of all health and wholeness. People who reveal Christ simply in their being…and being present.

Be there. And you can be anywhere.

Grace and peace.

 

Resources…off the top of my head

Miller and Cook, Boundaries for your Soul

Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety

Herrington and Taylor, The Leader’s Journey

Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma

Allender, Leading with a Limp

Laird, Into the Silent Land

Cox, A Conscious Life

Haines, The Book of Waking Up

Me, When Narcissism Comes to Church (coming March)

Ministry Exhaustion

My heart was hard, and my mind was fuzzy.

Nothing proved a comfort, and I remained for that wretched season

shut in on all sides, stifled, gasping for breath.

Regardless, the grace of God arrives

rushing to the soul

when its endurance is exhausted.

Of a dreary morning, I stood gazing round the courtyard, pleading God for assistance;

suddenly I turned toward the broad monastery and saw one

dressed as though a bishop

enter the open doors, as though borne on wings.

He touched me on the chest and tapped my tender breastbone saying aloud:

I waited, I waited patiently for the Lord

And he stooped down to me.

He heard my cry.

He drew me from the deadly pit, from the mire and clay.

He set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm.

He put a new song into my mouth, new praise of our God.

He spoke these lines three times, tapping me each time on the tender breastbone.Image result for st dorotheos of gaza

Then, he turned and was gone, and instantly,

light flooded my mind,

and joy split my heart with an awful, aching sweetness.

–St. Dorotheos of Gaza, early church monk and movement leader (490-560)