November 16, 2006
Does Ministry Fuel Addictive Behavior?
In a recent issue of Leadership, Sally Morgenthaler shared the story of her husband’s sexual addiction that resulted in a felony conviction and years in prison. Through that painful experience, Morgenthaler came to see how pastoral ministry can actually contribute to the addictive behaviors that destroy many pastors and their families. Here is an excerpt from her article.
Religious culture has a hard time with pastors and pastor's families who have flaws. Thousands of pastors serve congregations that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, expect their leaders to maintain (at least for public viewing) near-perfect marriages, near-perfect families, and near-perfect lives.
Granted, certain kinds of church attendees are attracted to "bad-boy" clergy: those who tell and re-tell their stories of wild living, knowing that they will draw certain kinds of people simply because they have lived life on the edge. When a pastor is vulnerable for the right reasons, not just to entertain the masses, but to humbly demonstrate the power of the gospel, it is a positive step.
But let's not be fooled into thinking that "having a past" gives a pastor permission to be human in the present. More than a few congregations function with this unspoken proviso: "Pastor, we love the fact that you've walked on the wild side. It makes you fun to listen to. You're down-to-earth, we're not afraid to bring our neighbors. But your past is just that: the past." Even former bad boys get stuck living on pedestals at altitudes inhospitable for anyone less than angelic.
And it is not only congregations that build pedestals. Many pastors paint unrealistic pictures of themselves. This kind of leader carefully crafts a leadership icon, rather than presenting his God-given, multi-faceted self. This kind of leader sets himself up for failure. The heat of congregational stress, or simply the wear and tear of the mundane, will wear through the veneer to what is really there.
Image building is a dangerous game. And it's at the core of addictive behavior. Addictive family systems are built on image, from the practice of keeping secrets (the "no-talk" rule), looking good to the community at all costs, to living a double life. If a pastor comes into the ministry with an addictive family background or has otherwise developed addictive tendencies, a congregational system that requires him to uphold an impossible, squeaky-clean image is going to function like a match to gasoline.
Whenever pastors try to hide behind this patina, the chances of latent addictive behavior escalating is extremely high. The more impossibly perfect the pastoral image, the greater the need to engage in taboo behavior.
Getting what they owe me
A large percentage of pastors enter the ministry because they want to give people what God wants them to have. However, there is a dark side: when a pastor gauges this primarily by the admiration and esteem he receives in return. To the congregation, he intimates: "I will overwork to emotional and physical exhaustion; I will deplete myself and my family; I will be everything you expect me to be if you give me the requisite status, appreciation, and financial compensation in return."
This unwritten contract is often the people-pleasing pastor's demise. The reason is simple: no pastor can fulfill all of a congregation's expectations. Congregations by their very nature are filled with sinful, unrealistic, needy people who will take whatever the pastor gives and still keep coming back for more. When these people in positions of power begin doling out helpings of criticism instead of admiration, the unwritten contract is broken. The pastor begins to simmer in a potent marinade of entitlement.
At this juncture any addictive behavior begins to look really good. After everything he's done for his congregation, the people-pleasing pastor gives in to the feeling that he more-than-deserves the little piece of pleasure he's beginning to nurse on the side. Co-dependency has its price, and it isn't cheap. When a pastor gets tired of giving and not getting back, he'll find some way to make up the difference. It is only a matter of when.
Unrealized dreams of success
For over two decades, the entrepreneurial, multi-programmed church has been altering what people expect out of a church, and the concept of the church leader has also changed. Pastors must be visionaries, risk-takers, and innovators, as well as spiritual guides. They are expected to be top-of-the-heap speakers as well, their stage skills honed to the highest cultural standards.
Realistically, very few pastors are cut out for this kind of leadership. The average pastor may be at his best as teacher, coach, or theological guide. He might shine as a catalyst: a convener of collaborative vision and process; a facilitator of deep community. If he tends toward the empathetic and intuitive, he may excel as a nurturer, counselor, wound-dresser, or heart-holder. But he is not megachurch material.
Tragically, some of these so-called misfits will turn to an addiction, an escape out of what they see as a no-win proposition: become someone else, fit the mold, or fail. Instead of pushing back on leadership stereotypes that have long deserved questioning; instead of focusing on their strengths and becoming who God crafted them to be, they cave in.
Addiction, whatever the substance or behavior, then becomes a welcome oblivion, especially to those who have visited that oblivion before.