By Carey Nieuwhof on Sep 21, 2016
Pastors aren’t fake; the struggle is real.
Like many of you, I was deeply saddened to learn of Pete Wilson’s recent resignation as the Senior Pastor of Cross Point Church.
In Pete’s own words (you should read and watch them for yourself), he’s tired, broken and has led on empty for too long. So he’s stepping back.
This comes, of course, just a few months after the exit of Perry Noble from NewSpring.
If someone had told me in January of this year that both Pete and Perry would leave ministry this year under tough circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have believed them.
Their departures have a lot of people talking and a lot of people thinking. Hopefully, it’s also got a lot of people praying.
It also has pastors reflecting.
I’ve been in conversations with people in church leadership. Many of us are asking what it means, and whether it can or will continue to happen to more of us.
Some writers and social media commentators have taken cheap shots. Man, that breaks my heart. I hope this post is the opposite of taking shots at anyone.
The mission of the church and its leaders is too important to do that.
I offer these few thoughts with the sincere hope this makes all of us a little better in the church. I also offer it out of a deep love and respect for Perry, Pete and all of you in church leadership.
1. Pastors aren’t fake; the struggle is real
When a megachurch pastor resigns because he’s burned out, or because he’s experiencing personal problems, critics often rush in to claim that pastors are fake.
Look, most leaders who get into ministry aren’t fake.
It’s not that pastors are fake; it’s that the struggle is real.
I know Perry and Pete personally and I have only detected sincerity in both of them.
They started churches because they love Jesus. They led out of a love for Jesus. They sincerely wanted to reach people and did reach people who will actually be in heaven because of what happened.
I think I’m on firm ground to say they still love Jesus, very much.
Pete and Perry are the real deal. They’re not the plastic hair/shiny suit type of preacher. They got in this and stayed in this for the right reasons.
I’ve also felt the push and pull of ministry and life. And it almost took me under.
By the sheer grace of God, I came back and am now in a place where, while I have struggles like anyone, I feel healthy and extremely grateful. (While this isn’t a universal prescription, here are 12 things that helped me come back from burnout.)
Often when you see a leader exit, it has nothing to do with whether that leader is sincere. It has everything to do with the fact that the struggles he or she is facing are real.
2. It’s hard to lead anything
It’s hard to lead anything, let alone a church. Or yourself.
Leaders face pressures non-leaders don’t always understand.
And leaders of large organizations face even more complex problems.
When you lead a large ministry or organization, it comes with problems and challenges 99% of the population never wakes up to most days.
Add to that the pressures of life, marriage, family, relationships and the task of leading yourself, and you have a recipe that requires tremendous personal stamina, humility, growth and development.
Sometimes critics say large churches are bad because they seem to generate outcomes like the ones we’ve seen recently.
The reality is that small church pastors also leave their ministries, experience burnout and suffer moral failure every day.
You just never hear about it because those stories don’t make the news. (Please note, neither the exit of Pete or Perry involves moral failure.)
Large churches aren’t inherently bad. Small churches aren’t inherently good.
Churches just have people in them. And that makes it…well, complex.
3. God loves and uses broken people
Are Perry and Pete broken?
And so am I.
So are you.
Too often we hold up perfect pictures of what our life is supposed to be like.
We all remember Eden somewhere in the back of our minds. It’s like we all know what it was like, and what it will be like in heaven.
But this isn’t Eden and this isn’t heaven. The war’s been won, but we’re living in a battlefield somewhere in between what was and what will be.
As a result, our lives are a complex mixture of sin and grace. Of brokenness and redemption.
This is true of pastors too.
We don’t have a direct line to God any more than you do. Our marriages aren’t ‘easier’ just because we’re in ministry (actually, you could argue that they’re harder). Our souls aren’t inherently more virtuous.
Pastors aren’t better people; they’re just called people. Called to the same calling to which non-pastors are called but in a specialized role.
Sometimes I wish people would actually read their bibles. We think we have to be perfect for God to use us.
But then there’s scripture…
Noah got drunk and partied naked after God delivered him and his family from death.
Moses came into ministry after he murdered someone.
Jacob raised perhaps the most dysfunctional family imaginable.
Judah slept with his daughter-in-law only because he mistook her for a prostitute.
David was a fantastic king. And then he saw Bathsheba.
Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived in Old Testament times but really struggled with sex. And God. And cynicism.
Elijah saw one of the most powerful displays of God’s power in history, and then promptly fell into a self-pitying depression.
Jonah ran away from God again, and again, and again.
Peter denied Jesus.
Thomas doubted even when he saw Jesus with his own eyes.
Paul was a little insecure (just read 2 Corinthians).
The early church as described in Corinthians is a study of dysfunction.
Early Christians stopped believing in the resurrection (Read 1 Corinthians 15).
The amazing part is this: God used it all.
I know we preach on this stuff but it’s like we don’t expect it to apply to us.
As my friend Reggie Joiner and I wrote a few years back, God doesn’t use perfect pictures. He uses broken people.
Why does God use broken people? Because those are pretty much the only people he has.
Don’t get me wrong, none of this is an excuse to start sinning.
I want to stay faithful to my wife, be a compassionate father and be a healthier, better leader because I know it honours God to do that. Plus, life honestly goes better if you avoid those pitfalls.
But the fact that we are imperfect shouldn’t be a reason to say we can’t lead.
Clearly, there are activities and conditions that would and should take us out of ministry for a season or longer, but we have to get over this idea that leaders need to be perfect.
Christ is perfect. We get to partner with him.
If you’re thinking well, I’m just more righteous than all this, you need to know that puts you in great company. That’s exactly what the Pharisees thought.
I hope and pray the day will come where we see Perry and Pete back in strong and vibrant leadership in the local church. The story isn’t over for either of them. As Perry often famously said, if you’re still breathing, God’s not done with you.
I also hope and pray that honest, helpful dialogue will help many more of us avoid hitting the crisis point that tips us out of leadership, if even for a season.
This is not a ‘do these 5 things and it will bullet-proof your ministry’ kind of post. Because the issues are far more complex than that.
But as for me, I want to develop the practice of getting the help I need before I need it. Yesterday, I went back to my counsellor not because I have any burning issues, but because I want to see them before they start. As a close friend has told me, sometimes you need to go to a counsellor not because you have a bad marriage, but because you want a good one.
I want to stay close to my inner circle, telling them more things more often. Walking closely with people who love me enough to call me out and tell me the truth.
And finally, I want to stay even closer to God. It can be difficult to have an intimate relationship with God when you do his work every day (I know that’s hard to understand if you’re not in full-time ministry, but trust me, it is). So I’ll keep pressing closer knowing he loves me because I’m me, not because I lead.
I’m not saying my friends didn’t do any of these things or didn’t want to do them, I’m just saying I know that when I do them, I’m healthier.
Any thoughts on this, friends? Abusive or negative comments will be deleted. This isn’t the time or the place for that. Cynics, please go somewhere else.
But for those of us who love the church and its leaders, what are your thoughts and what has helped you when you’ve run into the challenges of life and leadership?
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