To the Self-Medicating Church Planter

by Dayton Hartman October 4, 2018

The face of evangelicalism is continually being bruised and battered by high-profile scandals and moral failings. Our response to these events ought to be a renewed effort at watching our life and doctrine. The sin of others, no matter how salacious, shouldn’t lead us to gossip but to a healthy fear over our sinful desires taking hold. 

I don’t know all the details as to why some well-known pastors, professors, and Christian authors have fallen into sin. However, I do know what the common denominator is among many who destroy their lives by indulging in sin: they are self-medicating. 

Often, when I counsel those who have lapsed into addictions, cheated on their spouse, or those who have begun living in a self-destructive fashion, there is a common denominator: life became hard, painful, or boring. Discontentment took hold and, in an effort to make life better, they medicated with something that ultimately resulted in sin. 

Church planter, you will be tempted to self-medicate. You will be tempted to find comfort in sin rather than the savior. You will battle discontentment. Be on guard or you will be destroyed. I’ve been fortunate to have mentors who warned me what would come my way, not just in ministry but in church planting. In His kindness, God has allowed me to avoid some of the dangers of self-medication. His kindness was preemptive in the warnings I received. Take heed of these warnings.

People will leave. When the church first launches, excitement abounds and there is nothing but a steady stream of new faces. That is due in large part to the fact that everyone is new in a church plant. Still, the early years of planting lead us to a sense and anticipation of endless growth. Here is the blunt reality, people will leave. People you are close to will leave. Your friends will leave. The first time it happens, you will believe it was a fluke. The second time, it will sting, and you will begin to wonder what is wrong with you. The third time it happens you will begin to wonder what is wrong with them (and by them, I mean anyone who would leave). The temptation in that moment will be to retreat into some form of relational isolation. You must avoid this at all costs. First, you preach about community. So, if you are not living in genuine community, you are a hypocrite. Second, our enemy desires to isolate us because that is when we are primed for a fall. 

People will criticize you. In the early seasons of vision casting, when everyone is enthralled with the mission ahead, it is hard to imagine anyone who is unwilling to follow your lead. Brace yourself, it is coming. People are sinners (including you). People will eventually disagree with you and criticize you to your face and behind your back. Their criticism might be wrong, but it also might be right. As the number of these instances increases, you will likely default to one of two things: 1. Wilting under the criticism and you will begin leading out of weakness rather than strength. 2. You will attempt to cease control by trending toward brash arrogance that positions you as someone who is beyond questioning. If you adopt this latter approach, you will become an abusive leader. 

You will not be famous. Celebrity Christian culture is the worst. Yet, most of us want to pump up our twitter follower count. We want to receive invitations to speak at conferences. We desire recognition. There are thousands upon thousands of church planters in North America. You likely know the names of a few dozen. Yet the ministry of the unrecognized church planter is just as central to God’s plan for the advancement of the kingdom as the church planter who is headlining every conference. Do not treat your church plant as a means to an end for the advancement of your name. You will fail, and you will hurt a lot of people. Remember, the gospel frees us to be ordinary.

When the pain of in the trenches ministry begins to wreak havoc on your soul, you will become discontent with your life, your church, and yourself. You will be tempted to self-medicate with substances (alcohol), with sex (pornography or adultery), and attempts to grab power. Church planters, by necessity, are doctors of sorts. We diagnosis the problem with a given people and place (the problem is always sin – it just takes a variety of forms). We prescribe a solution (the solution is always the gospel) and treatment plan (the treatment plan is how we apply the gospel to the sins of a given people and place). Your discontentment problem is a sin problem. The solution to your problem is the gospel. 

Your ministry is not about endless growth or the accumulation of people who believe you are beyond criticism and it certainly isn’t about the fame of your name; it’s about the difficult task of loving and caring for the sheep Jesus has sought and purchased. Augustine of Hippo once summarized the responsibilities of a pastor this way (a quote I come back to often):

The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weary supported; the gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be given your backing, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved. (Sermon 340.1)

I don’t know what has led to the fall of so many well-known Christian leaders, but I do know what can prevent yours: avoiding the temptation to self-medicate with anything other than the good news of the gospel.