Monday, November 17, 2014

When Pastors Play God

In recent weeks, much has been written about the ongoing saga of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, particularly the accusations leveled at embattled pastor, Mark Driscoll, who finally resigned his position. The alleged actions for which he came under fire included bullying in meetings and other contexts, having the church pay a company to help put his book on the bestseller list, telling a room of people that "I am the brand," and pushing out other pastors in his church network that raised these issues to begin with.

All of these actions signal an incredible narcissism; a need to protect one's position atop a great mountain removed from scrutiny and second-guessing, with questionable tactics employed to keep oneself there or to be elevated higher.

When you declare "I am the brand" in a church context, you've replaced God with yourself.

Of course, it's easy to level criticism at someone like Driscoll. He's a public figure who easily dug himself into holes with his rhetoric. The fact that many others internally have finally been calling him on such things is perhaps the truly amazing part of this story.

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who serve churches of 50, 100, 200? We may not go around declaring that "we are the brand." We may not have books on the bestseller lists through dubious means. We may consider shouting down opponents during board meetings to be unthinkable and unprofessional (though perhaps still tempting at times).

But that doesn't mean that we're not immune from such dangers. There are more subtle ways in which pastors may move themselves into the spot reserved for the divine. They are ways we may not usually add to such a list, but may lure us gradually into a false sense of self.

First, there are the ways we may make ourselves the center of all church programming and ministries. There are those instances when we feel the need to plan, approve, or be involved with every meeting or event that happens within the congregation. Sometimes the desire for this is communicated by the church, and we may buy into it thinking that nothing can be accomplished without our input or presence. Not only does this set us up to be micromanagers and poor delegators, but it ends up affecting boundaries and self-care. When we travel too far into this mindset, we end up sacrificing family or time off because The Church Needs Me.

Then there are the ways we take on the needs and pathologies of people in pastoral care situations. Whether the need is spiritual, financial, emotional, psychological, or medical, we may be tempted to become one's personal case worker, answering every "emergency" phone call at all hours, dropping whatever else we are doing for every cry for help. It starts with a single payment from the emergency fund, and we may begin interpreting our or the church's mission to help people as a mission to be on-call for one particular person all the time, because They Need Me.

We don't end up saying "I am the brand" in these situations, but we might as well. Because whether we insist on micromanaging an entire organization or just one person, it is our brand on which we are insisting: our brand of ministry, our brand of administration, our brand of worship, our brand of life management. We are called to help lead in these areas, and indeed we are expected to do so. However, we are also called to collaborate; to affirm and encourage the ideas and abilities of those with whom we serve, or the expertise of those better informed to deal with the issues individuals face. We are, after all, called to "equip the saints for the work of ministry," as Ephesians puts it. That eventually involves giving up control and oversight of some tasks, and entrusting others with the work instead.

Whether we pastor a church of thousands as a best-selling author and sought-after speaker or a modest rural church only the immediate community knows about, the dangers are the same. They just manifest differently.