What I Learned on Sabbatical: Lesson 4

In my previous posts I began a series of blogs on lessons I learned while taking a 6-month sabbatical from pastoral work. Start at Lesson 1 to read the following post in context, and catch the rest of the series with the links below.

Lesson 4: Your Church Needs a Sinner for a Pastor

Reaching the point of burnout in the ways and for the reasons described in my prior posts did not happen behind closed doors. It happened as I lived with, and in, my church community. As such, they had the distinct privilege of seeing my sin firsthand and feeling its impact on them directly. If Emmaus Church was not aware of it before, that spring they learned their pastor is a terrible sinner.

Though this conclusion should not have been shocking, there is a sense in which it was for all involved. While we know the theological truth that we are all sinners, there is a false and unspoken expectation amongst pastors and congregants alike that pastors are sinners in a different way than the rest of the congregation.

But they’re not.

And when we are forced to see the truth, it can be rather frightening.

It is frightening for the pastor to have the depths of his sinfulness exposed to those he is called to lead. It is one thing for the pastor to be seen by his congregation as a “sinner” in general; it is quite another for the pastor to be known by his congregation for the very specific sins in heart, speech, and behavior for which he is actually guilty. The pastor wonders:

 Will they still follow me? Will they trust me? Will they answer my weekly call to repent and believe? Will they respect me?

It is equally frightening for the congregation to see that the human to whom they have entrusted the care of their souls is not just a “sinner” but is, in fact, just as much a sinner as they are. Congregants tend to love pastors who are vulnerable enough to share the specific sin issues they have had in the past, so long as those past issues are just that: past issues. It is comforting to know your spiritual leader was once just like you. It is not so comforting to know your spiritual leader, in many ways, is still just like you. The congregant wonders: 

How will he help me achieve victory over the sin and temptation in my life if he’s still losing to certain sin and temptation in his life? Why should I submit to the spiritual authority of someone who doesn’t have his own spiritual life together? What does it say about me that the person whom I have trusted to lead me to God and speak on behalf of God has failed God so obviously? 

At the time when a pastor’s true sinfulness is exposed, it can feel miserable to the pastor and to the church member alike. Yet, in truth, it is anything but miserable. It is actually one of the best things that could ever happen for your church or mine. Every church needs a sinner for a pastor for at least two reasons:

1. First, every church needs a sinner for a pastor because the pastor’s job is to teach and model how to live the Christian life. Since, as Martin Luther rightly said, “All of life is repentance,” a pastor can only teach his congregation to live the Christian life if he himself is living a life of repentance in all of its pain and joy. This necessitates that the pastor is aware of the sin in his heart, speech, and behavior. It is not enough for a church to be led by a pastor who says “Jesus’ power is enough for you in the face of temptation,” or “Jesus’ blood is enough for you when you yield to temptation.” The church needs to be led by a pastor who fights to believe those same truths in his own life Monday through Saturday. In short, the best pastor a church can have is the pastor who knows he personally needs the gospel just as desperately as he says the congregation does.

@@The best pastor a church can have is one who knows he personally needs the gospel as desperately as them@@

2. Second, every church needs a sinner for a pastor because every Christian needs to be reminded that Jesus is their only hope. In every church I have been in, this has been one of the hardest and most important truths for members to learn. Church members have a tendency to place their pastors in a different category of Christians. While fellow church members are expected to stumble and sin in their pursuit of Christ, pastors are expected to commit only the most “respectable” of sins – and even these should be either well-justified or well-hidden. Though this belief is rarely admitted, it is often revealed. For example, when a church member sins, the congregation sees this as an offense against God for which the church member can receive forgiveness and mercy through Jesus. Yet when a pastor sins, many in the congregation see this a personal offense against them for which not only the pastor, but God himself, must answer.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

The sin of a pastor does not reveal a failure of God; it actually confirms the faithfulness of God as it reminds us that every Christian is a sinner saved by a righteousness outside of themselves, pastors included. The sin of a pastor only further illuminates the truth of Jesus’ words: HE is The Good Shepherd who has never sinned and never will. Pastors are not called to be Jesus. We are called to point people to Jesus. Sometimes, we have the privilege of doing that through our holiness and obedience, of which Jesus is the source. Other times we do that through our brokenness and sin, to which Jesus is the cure.

@@The sin of a pastor does not reveal a failure of God, it confirms the faithfulness of God@@

Your church needs a sinner as a pastor. This does not mean that a pastor or his congregation should be content with the sin in his life. God does require that those who serve as pastors exhibit a high level of Christian maturity and victory over sin (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7). What it does mean is that a pastor should not hide those areas in which he truly is a sinner and a congregation should not want a pastor who is without sin. They already have one in Jesus. What they need now is a pastor who runs to him and brings the church with him as he does so.

Question for Reflection for Ministers: Imagine that this Sunday you would have to confess to your congregation every sin you currently struggle with in your heart, speech, and behavior. What fears arise as you think of this? What does this reveal about your theology and leadership?

Question for Reflection for Church Members: Imagine that this Sunday your pastor confessed to your church that he struggles with the exact same sins that are a struggle in your life. How would this affect how you think about God? The church? Your pastor? What does this reveal about your heart and expectations?


Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook