A pastor shared a personal struggle with a group of other pastors at a denominational gathering. Several expressed support, and the group prayed together, but one of the pastors later expressed this caution:
You probably shared because you thought it was a safe place, but I submit to you that it’s not.
Another pastor says,
If you have a struggle with your congregation, don’t expect your conference pastor to help you. The denomination always sides with the congregation–always.
So what’s a pastor or other church employee to do? If you can’t share your heart at a pastors’ meeting or with your denominational leader, where can you go? Is it fair to burden your family? Your personal friends? Do some things just need to remain in prayer between you, your journal, and God? Is any place really a safe place to share your vulnerabilities?
One of my visions for this website is to identify and amplify those voices and resources that speak most helpfully to issues related to church employment. What I’m learning from others, I hope to share here. That’s why today I’m re-printing The Problem with Transparent Pastors by Doug Bursch, who is a pastor, evangelist, and teacher. I’ve connected with him on Twitter and appreciate his perspective at Fairly Spiritual. Here is Doug’s take on finding a safe place to share, reprinted with his permission.
by Doug Bursch
Early on in my pastoral ministry, I went to a regular pastors’ gathering where we prayed for each other. After a couple of meetings, I realized the pastors didn’t really share any serious problems. It kind of annoyed me. One week, I shared that my wife and I needed prayer because we had been fighting a lot lately. Some of the pastors looked at me as if I was confessing the possibility of filing for divorce. I realized that for many in the room, there was simply no safe place to share weaknesses. It wasn’t that they were prideful, they just never felt they could genuinely bring their struggles out into the open without being judged, hurt or misunderstood.
The next time I went to the meeting, I decided that I wasn’t going to share any of my prayer requests. I was tired of being the guy with all the problems. When prayer time came around, the usual boring, mundane and disconnected requests filled the air. Then one older pastor interrupted the flow of the gathering. He paused before he spoke, his face looked genuinely troubled. His eyelids were heavy and his brow furrowed as if he were measuring how to speak of a burden too great for words. I thought, “Finally, someone is going to share a real need, a real hurt in this room full of pastors.”
He began to speak slowly, with a measured and deliberate cadence, “I have a burden….I have a deep burden in my heart….a burden for souls!” To be honest, the moment he said “burden for souls,” I felt genuine anger and a fair amount of disgust. Once again, another prayer request that had little or nothing to do with the hurts, failings, faults, struggles and needs that were present in the room. Regardless, everyone gathered around the burdened pastor and prayed for his “burden for souls.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if there were other burdens in that room. Maybe there were marriages struggling to hold it together, maybe there were pastors with children suffering with addictions and sexual brokenness, maybe there were ministers doubting their calling or questioning their ability to hear God’s voice. Maybe there were people in the room who needed to weep or tell someone that they just couldn’t take it anymore.
However, instead of praying for those requests, we prayed for souls. It all felt rather soulless to me. I actually pulled my hand back from the group and prayed silently for a greater transparency to rise up in our gatherings.
I know my description of this event may sound harsh to some. However, it was an important pivotal moment in my life that I often think about when surrounded by people who appear to be less than transparent. It was a frightening moment, when I questioned whether or not I’d ever find a place where I could trust people to be honest with me. I felt alone. The question hit me with brutal force: If no one can admit to their struggles, will this be a safe place if my life falls apart?
Transparency and honesty are tricky realities in life and ministry. We live in a world where many say they want their religious leaders to be more transparent and honest. Yet, when individuals truly share their honest struggles, we often respond in some rather dysfunctional ways. As a less than filtered pastor, I’ve experienced this awkward reality on many occasions.
I’ve seen the fearful look in the eyes of fellow ministers when I’ve confided in them about doubts concerning my calling or certain theological convictions. I’ve navigated the awkward and frequently unhelpful questions and advice that follow my confession that I’m feeling a little depressed or anxious. I’ve felt the tension of someone trying to convince me not to feel a certain way or think a certain way or even be a certain way, when all I wanted was a safe space. When people love you, they sometimes see your testimony of struggle as an invitation to fix you. Instead of just praying for you, they try to lead you to a better place, even if you were not seeking such help or counsel. In the worst cases, when you share your prayer needs with some people, they will tell you of all the things you did wrong or should have done differently to avoid reaching this place of struggle or vulnerability.
Once, on Facebook, I posted about the struggle of balancing my life as a pastor, radio host, husband and father. I talked about how I felt sometimes as if I was not able to give enough effort to anything. I mentioned that some days, no matter how hard I tried, I was forced to make difficult decisions that separated me from fully abiding with my family. I shared those words as an offering, to possibly encourage other ministers going through similar struggles. Many people were touched by what I communicated. However, within the comment thread, I also received advice from one person suggesting that I needed to do a better job of prioritizing my life so that I wouldn’t experience this ministry tension. Just that one little comment felt like too much to take. I had opened my heart and someone had taken my transparency as an opportunity to judge the worthiness of my ministry offering. I know that person was trying to help me, but the words made me want to shut down and turn inward. There is a cost to vulnerability.
Ultimately, no one is responsible for my vulnerability, transparency and honesty. I must do and say what God has called me to do and say. Regardless of the emotional consequences, for me, authentic seems to be the healthiest way forward. I think it is important for us to remember how difficult it is for some to share their honest struggles. There is a cost to being unfiltered. When we are unfiltered, others will filter our unfiltered lives through their own emotional needs.
There is no guarantee that any place is really a safe place when it comes to sharing our vulnerabilities. It sometimes feels as if it is better to simply stay silent. Even so, I think we must all try to find places where we can speak honestly about the struggles of our lives. We must do this to both find and bring healing to others. It is my genuine desire to facilitate safe places where people can share their hurts and needs to receive understanding and comfort as well as genuine, heartfelt prayer. Ultimately, we all need a safe place to unburden our souls.
So what do you think? If you’re a church employee, have you found a safe place to talk? Need a safe place? If you’re a church member or employer, do you concern yourself with this, or do you feel it’s strictly up to your staff to find a safe place to talk if they need to? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment or use my contact form.
Thank you, Doug, for this helpful post. Dear Readers, please check out his website, Fairly Spiritual, for more on church, ministry, and living a life in response to the call of Jesus.
Next Up: I’ve been wanting to read Why Your Pastor Left by Christopher D. Schmidt, which has been getting 5-star reviews on Amazon.com. Check out Life in the Fishbowl and Why Your Pastor Left.
For more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better,