The danger of putting spiritual leaders on pedestals – Part 2

Last week I wrote about the danger of people in churches projecting idealized images onto their pastors. This is not only unhelpful for the people, it’s dangerous and damaging for the leader. (See part 1 of this series here). So now the question is, what can we do about it?

What is the answer?

Humanity. Let the leader be human.

A recent meditation from the recovery book “Today,” from Hazelden publishing has this to say about pedestals:

“Sometimes we expect far too much of the people around us, and because no one can ever live up to those expectations, we are almost always disappointed. But wouldn’t it be better if we just let go, and let people be who they are? Then we’d be able to see them as they are – with all their beauty and goodness in which we take joy, and with all their faults, which we can also see in ourselves.

“When we have put someone up on a pedestal, sculpturing them to fit our needs and desires by smoothing out the rough edges and creating new curves here and there, we cannot see the real person underneath our work. All we see is the illusion we have created. That is denying the person’s real identity and is disrespectful. It’s much better for our friends and for ourselves if we drop our expectations and illusions, and accept them all just the way they are.”

We like the pedestal too much

For most pastors, what makes ministry such an obstacle to recovery is this issue of being on the pedestal. Many of us like it too much. Many of us get so attached to having people look up to us that we have a hard time facing ourselves honestly. And if there’s one thing we need to do in recovery, it is to face ourselves honestly. We have to get honest about our resentments. We have to get honest about what we are looking for, and what we are actually doing with our sexual behaviors. We have to get honest about how deceitful we have been. We have to get honest about how unsatisfied we are in our marriage. And we have to get honest about how lonely we are.

And as if that’s not enough, we also have to be vulnerable. We have to get off the pedestal. Being on a pedestal creates a mindset where we are reaching down to help all those poor, needy people around us. This creates a skewed mindset: “I’m strong, and my job is to help these other weaker people around me.” But sometimes we are one of those needy people that need help from others. As pastors we are good at helping others, and we are awful and letting others help us.

My story

After my problem with pornography became public in our church, a number of people reached out to my wife and me. They sent notes, made calls, and some even brought meals to my wife when I was away at treatment. I had conversations with guys in the church who would earnestly ask me, “How are you doing?” I was the one who was supposed to be asking them that question!

On one hand it was great to get this kind of support, but on the other, it was really uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to be on the receiving end of people’s care.

I’ve faced a similar dynamic in the support groups I’ve been in. These groups have been an important part of my recovery journey, but I have had to learn to be authentic in these groups. For me that authenticity means being honest about my insecurities and ungodly thoughts and feelings.

It’s easy for me to take the lead in groups like this and help other people, but sometimes I am the messed up one who needs help. For a long time I would censor myself when I would speak up in our group meetings. I wouldn’t say what I was really feeling if I thought it was too disjointed, or might seem selfish or petty. I had to face the fact that I was censoring myself because I was still trying to be on that pedestal. I wanted the guys in my group to like me and respect me, and I was afraid they wouldn’t if they knew how messed up and small-hearted I am.

Now I see things differently. I realize that both things can be true of me: I can be helpful and I can also be needy. I can be funny and happy, but I can also be pathetic and self-absorbed. I can be all those things and still be loved. Instead of having people look up to me, I can have them walk beside me.

Instead of keeping the people around me at arms length – and being able to “reach out and help them” from my pedestal – I now have fellow-strugglers that I share with. Turns out that this is what both of us needed all along.

7 thoughts on “The danger of putting spiritual leaders on pedestals – Part 2”

  1. Isaiah 43:11 says that “I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior.” It’s not always easy to have faith in a God that we’re not always looking for and can’t “see” and at the same time it can be way too easy to have too much confidence in our church leaders. But you are right – it’s not fair to them and it’s not wise for us to do so. The only one we can truly have faith in is the Lord. Good article.

  2. Thanks Mark for the insightful post. I have read it several times, knowing that it strikes a chord in me. You said “Instead of having people look up to me, I can have them walk beside me.” Having people looking up to me, enjoying the pedestal of grandiosity, seems to feed a need inside me. The question I wrestle with is asking myself is “How much of this is a God-given legitimate need?”, and “How much of this is an over-inflated ego-driven need that is tied into my character defects?” All I know is that the pedestal mentality is feeding something. Then the next question would be asking “How do get this need met in a healthy, legitimate way?”. Any feedback?

  3. Paul and Steven — thanks for your great responses. Paul has raised a great question, and it raises something that is probably good to be reminded of, and maybe I should have emphasized it more in the article: the need or desire to have people look up to us … or admire us … or think well of us … that is normal and to a certain extent healthy. We all want to be respected. But where the problem comes is if our desire to be respected and admired creates in us the need to hide who we really are. Ultimately, the “God-given legitimate need” we must pay attention to is the need to be known and loved for who we are. In leadership, the tendency is to settle for people knowing and loving us for what we produce, and for what people want to think about us.

    If there is part of me that knows that the people around me are connecting to an image that I’m projecting, then at the end of the day I will feel empty inside because I know that I’m not really loved for who I am. Plus, I’ll be living with lots of anxiety, because I will be fearful that they will find out the truth about me and I will be exposed.

    The great freedom is to live in such a way as to not have this fear of being exposed. Then we can just be who we are. My sense is that this is really hard – if not impossible – for many pastors to live this way. We know that if people in our churches are aware of our struggles with jealousy, selfishness, greed, and lust (among other things) … we might lose their support, and maybe even more. So what pastors need to do is (a) put up with this soul-depleting reality, and be very intentional about finding places of honesty and support, (b) take their chances and live with no-holds-barred honesty, and risk the ministry losses that will ensue, (c) go to a different church where they can be more open, or (d) leave the pastor role altogether. (I generally recommend option A.) 🙂

  4. You are absolutely right. Im fixing to go through the beginning pains of all this. I believe I have a form a sex addiction although when I read stories of it mine seems no where near that severe. It isnt everyday for me or maybe not weekly but I do have a problem. My family and I believe in Jesus with all that we are and we were following out with his plan for us. 6 months ago we left to be “missionaries” in Haiti and before I left I was attacked with it and acted. Although I didnt have all out relations with another woman, it did go farther than it should have. My wife found out a week ago and we are packing up and going home to seek marriage counseling and for me to find some help. I called my pastor and informed him. A little nervous about when we get back because our whole church looked up to us and so many lives will be affected, including the relationships we have built in Haiti. Just wondering what our ministry will be if any after this. Your site is already such an encouragement for me and thank you for being bold and following God so that you can continue to be used. Thanks

    1. t.d. Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about what’s happening with you, and the consequences you’re dealing with. It probably is for the best that you’re taking a break from the ministry work … not because you need to be “punished” but because it can be hard to get help when we are in the mode of giving help to others. If you are interested in talking or doing a phone session, send me a note using the contact form on the web site. Blessings!

      – Mark

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