Recently I sat down with a couple in ministry whose marriage survived a shipwreck. The only reason they were talking to me can only be explained by the gospel. God took what was dying, breathed new life into it, and raised them from the dead. They now join the resurrected Jesus in talking about the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, something only possible when two people meet at the cross. They are both heavily involved as leader and pastor to pastors. I asked the husband this question. “Is it possible for a pastor to lead a healthy church or ministry when his marriage is not healthy?”
I expected him to blurt out, “Of course not.” Instead, he paused, rubbed his chin and leaned back in his chair, and after taking a deep breath he edged toward me and said, “Mitch, I’m not sure.”
“Really?” I asked, knowing his answer resonated with a tension in my heart whenever that question comes up. That tension comes from actually seeing pastors leading what on the surface seems like a healthy church, but knowing things are far different at home. This pastor leads well, limps well, like a soldier refusing to slow his rush into the battle field, but I wonder if it will wear him out, catch up with him. He can’t keep going on like this forever. His wife withdraws from people, and now she pulls back from him.
My friend leaned back again thinking how best to answer my question.
“Well, I wonder if we have to distinguish between healthy and effective,” he mused. “I have seen pastors lead an effective ministry when the home is in crisis, but that’s not healthy, especially when it’s kept hidden and no one knows what is really going on at home.”
I agree with him. Especially the part about keeping it hidden from others.
I do accept that the gospel provides space for wounded soldiers to play a key role in the battle, but this should never justify us ignoring a crisis at home just because a church is busting at its seams. I know of one church who tiptoed around the pastor’s affair for nearly a year, several elders even knowing about it, but refusing to confront for fear of rocking the ministry boat. The pastor’s guard was down, and he slipped into the cesspool of sin during the height of his ministry. Like David, he kept this sin from God and others, and meanwhile the kingdom flourished. But inside it was tearing him apart. Sharing David’s tears he must have cried out, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer”. Psalm 32:3-4)
It did, in time, catch up with him, and the church suffered for it.
Can a pastor lead a healthy church when his home is unhealthy? Sure he can, but he shouldn’t, unless he brings others into his life to help in, even those he serves.
Unless God is at work.
Here’s the paradox. Sometimes, often, I think the most powerful testimony of grace is shown through the thin veil of our brokenness. The gospel allows us to live broken lives, and humbly experience God working through that brokenness. This plays out best where there is transparency and vulnerably and where the pastor and his wife invite those in their community to embrace them in their un-health.
Does the pastor’s home have to be perfect? Can the pastor’s home be perfect?
Absolutely not. We’d all be disqualified. But the pastor’s home needs to be honest and real to those he can trust to bring support. I have a different twist than some on Paul’s admonishment to Timothy that an elder must manage his own household well, (1 Tim. 3:4). To manage his family well means he shows others how to lead even when there is pain and a crisis. He shows his people how to push through the struggles of marriage, and how to pray and plead with God when his teenager is rebelling against everything he believes in. He shows how to love his wife as she struggles through depression, or recovers from a serious illness. The congregation is full of such families, and they need an example, someone to look to, a wounded healer, on how to lead well when the context is not well.
I love the story of a pastor and his wife who fell under such conviction about the state of their marriage, they chose one Sunday, with the support of the elders, to reveal their wound to the congregation. At the end of the service, the wife joined the pastor, and together they confessed to the body their struggle. They asked for forgiveness and asked for the body’s support. An elder prayed, and when he opened his eyes numerous others, single and married, poured out their own pain across the altar. The pastor, his wife and the elders prayed with hurting members, and an honest, vulnerable revival took place.
Can a pastor whose home is hurting lead a healthy church? Because we are all broken and sinful, the healthiest church is made up of honest, vulnerable, redeemed sinners who confess their sins to one another and seek the blessing and support of the body. Perhaps the issue is not that we expect perfect health from a pastor, but that we see him leading in a healthy way, even through hardship. After all, the Gospel stands on its own as a force that can work through any tragedy to point to the power of the resurrection. God can do that, with us or without us. Yet, he receives the greatest glory when these vulnerable-should-have-been-disposed-jars-of clay become the rebuilt containers to display his glory. Let’s not be afraid to let him do that by hiding behind the mask shielding our pain. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (2 Cor. 4:7-9)