Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Story of Two Pastors

Since I'm on an autobiographical kick, I'm gonna just go with it.

I grew up in a Presbyterian church in Denver. I don't know what it meant that we were Presbyterian, other than the pastors wore black robes with purple velvet lining. I kind of miss those robes. I remember the pastor as a funny, teddy bear-ish kind of man. He was charismatic and a good speaker. He told funny jokes, and I liked him.

At some point, I think when I was in middle school, the truth came out. He and the preschool teacher were having an affair. He left the church, and our church split in two. He married the preschool teacher and they're still married today.

Fast forward to college. My pastor, Steve, was a dynamic speaker and brilliant man. He baptized me and taught me to study the Bible. He was charismatic and soon big crowds began to fill our meetings to hear him speak. He gave us the vision for missions, and 5 years after I joined the church, I moved with a group of 30 or so people, including his family of 6, to Amsterdam to help start a church.

After about a year, the truth came out. He was having an affair, and he left his wife and the church.

I've known many wonderful pastors in my life, like Fred and John and Barry. But these two were the most influential in my life, both before the affairs and in the subsequent fallout. I didn't fully deal with the impact Steve's affair had on me at the time - it came out right before my wedding. I asked Mike and everyone else in my wedding party not to bring it up. The last thing I wanted was my wedding to be a hot spot of gossip about the pastor's affair or to be depressed on my honeymoon over the failings of man. So by the time I was back from my honeymoon, most people had already dealt with it, and I was left wondering how to respond.

I've often thought about the impact these two events had on my life and faith. I think they've had bad effects and good ones.

I'll start with the bad. I have an inherent distrust of leaders. Especially charismatic leaders. Especially good-looking, charismatic leaders. Especially good-looking charismatic leaders who tend to draw big crowds around them. When another Ted Haggard-esque event takes place, I can find myself nodding my head saying, "Mmm-hmm. Just what I thought." I don't like this cynical aspect of myself. I have to check myself - not allowing myself to become jaded and judgmental, but giving others the benefit of my many doubts.

But there have also been good effects on my perspective, and one I think is so necessary in today's church: Pastors and dynamic leaders are just men. They fail, they make mistakes just like you and I do.

It's sad, but I can rattle off the names of Christian celebrity pastors faster than I can quote Scripture: Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Francis Chan and on and on. It's so easy for us to become focused on the man and not the message. That happened with Steve. People put their trust in Steve and how smart and dynamic and great he was. But Steve was just a man. This errant focus is happening now with many of our celebrity pastors, like Francis Chan, who decided to leave his church for a time because of the shift of focus onto him.

Francis and Mark and John and Josh and Bill and Rick didn't die for you. They're just men. We should listen to our pastors and learn from them. But we should never idolize them. We should never put what they say above what the Bible says.

Sometimes in our own church, we've noticed the tendency, when discussing spiritual matters, for people to say, "Well, Pastor Barry says..." Hang it all! What about what the Bible says? I respect my pastor and his views greatly, but our starting point always ought to be the Bible. If we hear, "Well, Pastor So and So says" more often than we hear, "Well, the Bible says," I think we're in big trouble.

I had a good friend in college who had been burned by pastors. One had an affair. Another began writing his own Bible, adding to and deleting from the original. So when she went to church, she always had her quick fingers hovering over her Bible, ready to check every verse reference to make sure it was actually there and in context. I appreciated her earnestness.

Most times people aren't nearly as bad or as good as we make them out to be. Not all pastors are closet pedophiles, and no pastors are perfect. I think we need a balance between the two extremes. It's wrong to plop our rumps down in a place of judgment and paranoia. But it's also wrong to sit at the feet and bask in the glory of any leader save Jesus.


Tara said...

What a thought provoking post! I feel like mom and dad tried to shelter us from so much, but when it happens in your own church it is eye opening as a child. I remember also feeling like we were cheated by our pastor when the news broke and it was worse since we felt bad for his family. I do think that having Fred as an amazing example helped me cope and not distrust pastors.

Grimes said...

I love this post. I can be cynical too. Steve was my first pastor, I lived with his family, I trusted him. I struggle with a distrust of church authority. Thank you for your reminder that they are just men.

Julian said...

I remember our pastor saying, "I don't counsel women alone at the church. Someone is always nearby. I just don't put myself in that position." I was surprised . . . What? Not you! You mean you could be tempted and fail?

I always appreciated the honesty. There is not one of us that is above falling no matter what good intentions we have. Each one of us has to be vigilent and not put ourselves in that position. I have seen four pastors have affairs and have to leave the church. It shook my faith to the foundation. It's so true that we have to keep our eyes on Jesus and admire and support,but not idolize our pastors.