The danger of putting spiritual leaders on pedestals – Part 1

As an ordained minister and the senior pastor of three churches (thus far), I know from experience that pedestals are dangerous. People often come into the church with a powerful mixture of expectations and illusions about what an uber-spiritual person should be.  They may assume the pastor will embody that. This is a problem when we let them down – when they see how we fall short of the ideal that they created in their minds.

But it’s maybe an even bigger problem when they don’t see our flaws, because they don’t want to see our flaws, and we get too good at hiding them. Most of the people in our churches want to see us in a good light, because this reinforces their faith … the leader of their spiritual community can serve to validate the power of that faith. I think it is rare that anyone – pastor or parishioner – intentionally creates this dynamic; it just happens, often out of our awareness.

In spite of whatever we might say about honesty and authenticity in relationships, this idealization creates an opportunity – and a motive – to appear holy. And because we are human, the only way to appear holy is by hiding parts of ourselves and becoming ever more isolated. It might seem to be a good thing … the people get to have their faith encouraged by this example of a leader who’s pretty “together,” and the leader gets to have higher esteem from others than he/she really deserves.

But this all comes at a price. When people who’ve idealized their spiritual leaders are forced to face their less-than-savory humanity, they are often disillusioned and angry. Somehow they expected us to “be better than that.” So reactions to perceived slights, and evidences of imperfections can often be magnified, because people cling to their hope that their leader will not be struggling with the same things that other people are struggling with.

But even more dangerous is what the pedestal does to the soul of the leader. The leader who is dehumanized in this way is trapped by the expectations of other people. The leader may come to believe that they must keep their  personal struggles and foibles hidden. This creates unbearable tension and fear for many leaders. “What would happen if people in my church found out that I was struggling with X?”

On top of the fear of letting other people down if the truth came out, many leaders struggle with unwarranted guilt and shame about their personal struggles. It’s as if it’s okay for other people to struggle with some temptation or character flaw, but not them.

So pastors don’t get help. In order to cope, they may live in denial, and minimize how serious their problems are. They live in lonely isolation, and the shame and fear escalates.

The reverse side of the problem of pedestals is that for some pastors it tends to reinforce the tendencies of narcissism, pride, and judgmentalism. The less in touch I am with my own faults, the more spiritually superior I feel. No one is really in a position to challenge most pastors about their behavior or attitudes, because they don’t let people close enough to them. They may hide behind the cloak of spiritual authority, and thus stay stuck in blindness to their true condition.

When you add the fact that hundreds or thousands of people are listening to the pastor speak God’s truth to them each week, you have a dangerous mix. As someone said, this is like “pouring Miracle Grow on one’s character flaws.”

So what’s the answer to this dilemma? We will talk about that in the next post on this topic. Click here for Part 2 of this article.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts about this? Have you had negative experiences where you’ve been let down by a spiritual leader? Are you a spiritual leader who’s felt this struggle? Any thoughts you have about the problem of pedestals?

3 thoughts on “The danger of putting spiritual leaders on pedestals – Part 1

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