Leaders and Loneliness

In the past two years, five of my friends who are pastors lost their ministries because of moral failure.

Five.

Most of these pastors were also well known and celebrated beyond their local contexts. From the outside, it seemed they were at their peak pastorally and relationally. How could it be otherwise? Their books sold like hotcakes, they had speaking engagements galore, and their adoring congregations devoured their words like honey. Surrounded by such acclaim, the one thing they couldn’t possibly be…

…is lonely.

But the stage is a deceitful place, because the stage can often be the loneliest space in the room. In their private lives, these five pastors were isolated relationally. Somewhere along the way, they substituted friendship with counterfeit versions of community, as evidenced by their growing throng of online likes, followers and fans. But in reality, thousands of fans and followers are a very poor substitute for a handful of healthy, transparent, accountable, and loyal friends. Their isolation, not their moral failure, is what wrecked their ministries. Moral failure was the symptom, but isolation was the underlying disease.

“It is not good,” the Lord God said, “for man to be alone.”

If this was true in Paradise, it must also be true—even more so—in our current, fallen world.

For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has protected me from moral collapse. Knowing my own weakness and isolating tendencies, sometimes I marvel at how this could be the case. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, could collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…”

Maybe this is why Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I relate to this advice because…

Being a pastor is hard.

Once in my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor, which included this excerpt:

God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.

The writer was a promising young pastor—still in his thirties—of a large, influential church. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through Scripture, prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.

Some of those ‘demons,’ it turned out, were high-powered members of his church, whose expectations of him were impossibly high.

As the details became more public, it became clear that this man was not only depressed, but isolated. This was especially true in his church.

He had plenty of adoring fans.

But he had few, if any, actual friends.

In his suicide note, he said that he felt trapped. He was depressed, but he couldn’t tell anyone because he thought that it would ruin his ministry. He had come to believe that pastors weren’t allowed to be weak. Nor were they allowed to be human, like everybody else.

I am one who, like this pastor, has experienced anxiety and depression. Impacted by his tragic story and also the transparency of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, I have chosen to be more open with my congregants about my afflictions. And guess what? They embrace and identify with me more when I do this, not less. “Today, Scott, when you told us about your affliction” one church member said, “today is the day that you became my pastor.”

Sometimes I wonder if, in the end, it will be my weakness and not my preaching or writing or vision, that God ends up using to advance his Kingdom. Because of this, I also wonder if we pastors ought to become less concerned about building an image and accumulating followers, fans, and ‘likes,’ and instead focus our energy on cultivating a few healthy, transparent, accountable, and loyal friendships. Jesus had his twelve, and also his three. If he needed this kind of community, how could we ever think that we do not?

I know that many pastors say it’s impossible to let your guard down with the members of your church. “It’s too risky,” we say. But the idealist in me—or perhaps, better said, the realist in me—refuses to believe this. Considering the collapse of my five, famously isolated friends, I would rather risk transparency than risk the alternative.

For the alternative, at least to me, is a much greater burden to bear.

Editor's Note: This originally published at Scott Sauls' blog