Jump directly to the Content

Perils of the Professionally Holy

Spiritual work often makes us more susceptible to spiritual sins.
Perils of the Professionally Holy

Many church members suppose if they were pastors, their battles with temptation would decline. Pastors, however, find just the opposite. Most of the old temptations don't disappear. Worse, they discover the pastoral life is filled with new opportunities to sin, in ways more subtle but no less corrosive to life in the Spirit. Mark Galli, who pastored in Mexico and California, pays close attention to his own mutating motives as a pastor and gives us others' thoughts about pursuing pastoral holiness.

Pick a century, any century, and you'll find lots of good advice given to pastors. In the sixth century, for instance, Pope Gregory "The Great" wrote a whole book for pastors called Pastoral Care, in which he outlined the ideal pastoral lifestyle, or what some might call pulpit-committee utopia.

The pastor, he wrote, "must devote himself entirely to setting an ideal of living. He must die to all passions of the flesh and … lead a spiritual life."

All well and good if you stick to generalities. Gregory doesn't.

"He must have put aside worldly prosperity; he must fear no adversity, desire only what is interior. … He is not led to covet the goods of others, but is bounteous in giving of his own."

Certainly. Well, most of the time anyway.

"He is quickly moved by a compassionate heart to forgive, yet never so diverted from perfect rectitude as to forgive beyond what is proper."

Let's just say we manage this delicate balance, uh, every so often.

"He does no unlawful act himself while deploring those of others, as if they were his own. In the affection of his own heart he sympathizes with the frailties of others, and so rejoices in the good done by his neighbor, as though the progress made were his own."

No tasty resentment of spiteful elders? No gossip or jealousy of Pastor Homogeneous at Mega-Growth Community Church?

"In all that he does, he sets an example so inspiring to all others, that in their regard he has no cause to be ashamed of his past. He so studies to live as to be able to water the dry hearts of others with the streams of instruction imparted."

Yeah, and the Pope is Protestant.

Yet Gregory is right. This is precisely what it means to be a pastor or Christian leader, because this is what it means to be a Christian. It's only reasonable to expect teachers of Christian virtues and leaders of Christian congregations first to model Christian behaviors.

The call to pastoral holiness, then, is right. It's reasonable. It's also ridiculous.

Not because Christian leaders are slothful, though sometimes we are. Not because we don't care, though sometimes we don't. No, most of the time, we fall short of holiness because we strive so diligently for holiness.

Bonaventure, the great Franciscan leader, put it this way: "The devil is most eager to worm his way in where he recognizes that people are trying to live virtuously; he wants to seek out the innocent man and destroy him just where he was hoping to give himself to God's service."

This is especially true of those involved in "full-time Christian service." In his book The Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson writes, "The moment any of us embarks on work that deals with our fellow humans at the core and depths of being where God and sin and holiness are at issue, we become at that same moment subject to countless dangers, interferences, pretenses, and errors that we would have been quite safe from otherwise. So-called 'spiritual work' exposes us to spiritual sins."

Spiritual Sins

Christian leaders usually fret about the sins that stroll down the center of Soul Boulevard:

"I need to forgive the chairman for those remarks."

"If I were more disciplined during the week, I wouldn't have to come in on my day off."

"Can't I counsel an attractive woman without fantasizing about her?"

Fleshly sins—anger, sloth, lust are at least obvious. No mistaking what's going on here. These are SINS.

Spiritual sins, though, come disguised as virtues—virtues we Christian leaders long to attain. But they are sins nonetheless. I'm talking about hypocrisy and pride.

Take hypocrisy, which comes in a variety of forms.

In some cases, for instance, we start calling evil good. Gregory the Great said that with pastors "vices commonly masquerade as virtues. Often, for instance, a niggard passes himself off as frugal, while one who is prodigal conceals his character when he calls himself open-handed. Often inordinate laxity is believed to be kindness, and unbridled anger passes as the virtue of spiritual zeal."

We've all seen "prophetic" preachers who are just angry young men. Some who dally at men's breakfasts and women's coffees ("I just love to be with my people") are merely procrastinating necessary paper work. Others who lock themselves in their offices, scrutinizing commentaries ("Just honing my gift of teaching"), are simply avoiding hospital calls.

Euphemisms are another form of hypocrisy. Since real Christian leaders never get angry, we can go for months without calling it such. The chairman of the board has undermined my proposal for a new midweek youth program. Afterwards, flushed with emotion, I say, "I'm not angry with the chairman, just concerned about the youth." Or "I'm just grieved for the chairman's attitude." Or "I'm burdened for the future of the church." Right.

Euphemisms quickly slide into lying. In a sermon, I say, "I just read Prayer by Richard Foster, and he says …" In fact, I skimmed only the first and last chapter searching for a sermon quote.

I say, "I couldn't reach you today." Actually I never tried, so of course I couldn't.

I say, "I think you would make a wonderful fifthgrade Sunday school teacher." I really mean, "You'd make a wonderful, warm-bodied babysitter for a class I'm desperate to staff."

The pressures to be holy, to lead righteously are so enormous that we sometimes start practicing a double standard—the ultimate form of hypocrisy.

One youth minister tells about hearing a speaker at a youth convention who gave a well-reasoned sermon arguing that the Bible is without error not only when it talks about faith, but also when it speaks about history, geography science, or any subject. The speaker didn't qualify the statement; he allowed no exceptions.

The call to pastoral holiness, then, is right. It's reasonable. It's also ridiculous.

Later in a small-group session with leaders of the conference, the speaker was asked if you could really claim the Bible is authoritative on all scientific matters. The speaker replied by talking about the parable of the mustard seed, which Jesus described as "the smallest seeds you plant in the ground" (Mark 4:31).

"We know, of course," the speaker said, "that a mustard seed is not the smallest seed. The celery seed is smaller. We know that. You have to use common sense when you read the Bible. God is just saying in that parable that a very small thing becomes a very big thing.'

The group sat in stunned silence, says the youth minister. The speaker didn't realize he had contradicted what he had argued in his sermon. Suddenly, there were qualifications and exceptions.

When asked about the apparent contradiction, the speaker said, "You cannot tell the general population those kinds of things. If common people feel you have doubts about one part of the Bible, they might perceive the Bible is not accurate."

Many clergy feel that part of the "holy" side of their calling is to pose as an authority figure, to state things categorically even when they themselves have questions and doubts. Some proclaim a tithe and give only 5 percent ("But my whole life is given to God"). Others condemn gambling and then buy lottery tickets ("Well, it's not as if I'm poor and can't afford it; it's just a harmless diversion for me.").

And so grows the spiritual sin of hypocrisy.

The other spiritual sin is pride. Like hypocrisy, pride often looks and feels like commitment, devotion, and sacrifice for the kingdom; like hypocrisy, self-righteousness takes many wily forms.

Holier Than Them

One October, our Worship committee meeting began on a sour note: the senior pastor of our Southern California church fumed while he waited for tardy committee members. The Los Angeles Dodgers were battling in the World Series, and the committee members were—he just knew it—catching the last few innings of game three.

"These people!" he sighed to me, an intern at the time. "I like baseball as well as the next guy, but if I can take the trouble to be here on time, they can, too."

In a few minutes, the members drifted in, chattering about this hit and that catch. "Do you mind if we get started now?" the pastor snapped.

This incident and others convinced me this pastor thought himself superior to his parishioners. He tried to be patient with their interests in sports and crocheting and drag racing, but it was clear that since his priorities were kingdom priorities, he was more committed to Christ than they were.

I looked down on this pastor (snubbing the spiritual snob!) until I became a pastor. Members went skiing on winter weekends; they chose the garden club over prayer meetings; they thought themselves sacrificial when they tithed 2 percent of their income. Some days, I was furious.

Noticing the difference in commitment isn't the problem; it's getting angry about it that signals self-righteousness. Most pastors are, in fact, more committed than church members to the church, and for good reasons: one, they wouldn't have entered the pastorate otherwise; two, pastors get paid to eat, sleep, and breathe the church.

In the course of my ministry, then, I noticed people's lesser commitment, and my usual response was understanding ("These people have their own callings, and being on this committee is just one facet"), and compassion ("I bet after working a full day, it's no fun to come to a church meeting").

When I became angry about the difference, that should have signaled a problem in me, not them. And the problem more times than not was pride and self-righteousness .

I also noticed a holier-than-them attitude creeping within me when I thought about my colleagues in ministry.

In my first call, I served as an associate pastor of the largest Protestant church in the city. Without my knowing it, I began to equate the social dynamics of my setting (dynamic demographics, oodles of programs, sophisticated parishioners) with the spiritual dynamics of ministry.

I once took a drive to the country and passed through a small, small town with only one church. I was depressed as I left and tried to figure out why. I discovered I pitied the pastor of that church. He ministered to the same, simple people for years on end (no one was moving into this community!). He could offer few dynamic programs to his tiny congregation. He had no hope of church growth. How does he keep himself motivated for ministry here? I wondered. Poor guy.

It took me a few years—and a move to a small church—to realize how patronizing I had been. I couldn't imagine that ministry could be effective except based on my suburban assumptions. Unfortunately, I felt I was on the cutting edge of Jesus' work in the world. Pity the rest of the church.

Since then, I've become more sensitive to the patronizing comments of pastors of large churches: "Ah, yes. My favorite years in ministry were when I served that rural church in Sycamore, Illinois." (Then why didn't you stay in small-church ministry?)

"The pressures in the large church are so enormous. Sometimes I long for the simple days of pastoring a smaller church." (Ergo: "Now I'm sophisticated and adult-like, and someday you will be, too, if you work as hard as I do.")

"I admire those brothers and sisters who labor in the small vineyards without much recognition." (In other words, "You're good little pastors.")

I once interviewed a pastor of a large church whose view of small-church pastors ("Bless their hearts. I love them," he said repeatedly) could be summarized in three words: those poor jerks.

After my move to a small church, though, I noticed the opposite self-righteous dynamic take effect. Suddenly, pastors of large churches were success driven; they were infatuated with numbers and graphs and indifferent to people and their spiritual needs; they strove to build organizations rather than kingdom communities. Et cetera, et cetera. I, of course, ministered out of purer motives.

Regardless of size of church, we're pretty good at finding ways to put ourselves above others. This is an especially strong temptation when we hear that another pastor has fallen morally, let's say, committing adultery. Our initial reaction is shock: "I can't believe it! How could he have done that? He seemed like a man of integrity."

For some, this is the healthy shock of recognition. Just as another's death suddenly reminds us of our mortality, another's adultery dramatizes our moral weakness. When a colleague falls, some of us fall to our knees, begging God to keep us from such sins.

For others, shock comes because a mentor has fallen. They may be saying, "I thought better of this colleague, whom I've always looked up to." This may lead to a new appreciation of the doctrine of sin. Or it may lead, as it did for me once, to despising the fallen mentor: "All these years I looked up to him while he was doing that. That fraud!" In my bitterness, I assumed I would never do such a thing.

For others still, shock is an act, especially if a prominent minister has fallen. Underneath the righteous facade runs a smug and triumphant jealousy, which somehow justifies our relative righteousness. I know whereof I speak. The old moral insight remains valid: hearing of others' more blatant evils tends to make us feel good. Unfortunately, this is especially true of those whose very identity and calling is tied to living holy lives.

Possessor of Gnosis

Pastors spend a lot of time with knowledge, with truth. We read about the doctrine of God's sovereignty; we ponder biomedical ethics; we scrutinize God's revelation in Holy Scripture. You would think that an intense acquaintance with truth would nurture humility. Sometimes it does, often it does not.

Helmut Thielicke, the great German theologian and pastor, speaks of the dark side of knowledge when he addressed students of theology:

"Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other man who does not know this and that. I have greater possibilities and also greater temptations. Anyone who deals with truth—as we theologians certainly do—succumbs all too easily to the psychology of the possessor. But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is selfgiving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself."

Though this temptation is stronger in the early years of ministry, I'm not convinced we're ever through with it. It doesn't help that church members defer to you when, in casual conversation, the subject concerns the Bible, morality, or theology: "Pastor, you're the expert. What do you think?" Nor does it help that, in fact, we know a lot more about these "sacred" subjects than do our people. We're acquainted with truths that should make living the Christian life easier.

It's not the fact of our greater knowledge that's the problem, but the posture we assume as a result. Take a related example: table manners. It bothers me to eat with a man who chews with his mouth open. If I'm loving, my attitude is, He doesn't know what he's doing. I wonder how I can gently tell him? If I'm haughty, I think, Boy, is this guy ignorant. What a slob! When it comes to spiritual knowledge, our congregations can become to us either lost sheep who need a gentle shepherd or just stupid goats.

Worse still is to use knowledge as a weapon, to show people, especially opponents, their utter ignorance, at least compared to you. If someone tries to argue a fine point from Romans 9, I can trounce her with, "I see what you're saying. But C. K. Barrett wouldn't agree, nor would the great Ernst Kasemann. I will grant you that C. E. B. Cranfield is ambivalent here. But I think the most incisive argument comes from Karl Barth's classic theological commentary … " Game, set, match.

Thielicke notes, "Truth is employed as a means to personal triumph and at the same time as a means to kill, which is in the starkest possible contrast with love. It produces a few years later that sort of minister who operates not to instruct but to destroy his church. And if the elders, the church, and the young people begin to groan, if they protest to the church authorities, and finally stay away from worship, this young man is still pharisaical enough not to listen one bit."

The Ground of All Ministry

Perhaps the most subtle form of self-righteousness is described by Eugene Peterson, in his book The Unpredictable Plant:

"In our ministerial vocation we embark on a career of creating, saving, and blessing on behalf of God. … It is compelling work: a world in need, a world in pain, friends and neighbors and strangers in trouble—and all of them in need of compassion and food, healing and witness, confrontation and consolation and redemption."

Because we are motivated by Christ, by his grace and forgiveness, because our goals are defined by kingdom values, it rarely occurs to us that in this spiritual work anything could go wrong. But something always does. For some reason, in our zeal to fulfill the agenda of our Savior, we forget our own need of daily salvation.

"At first it is nearly invisible, this split between our need of the Savior and our work for the Savior. We feel so good, so grateful, so saved. And these people around us are in such need. We throw ourselves recklessly into the fray."

Our ministries begin to deteriorate from there, says Peterson, so that it isn't long before we end up identifying our work with Christ's work, so much so "that Christ himself recedes into the shadows and our work is spotlighted at center stage. Because the work is so compelling, so engaging—so right—we work with what feels like divine energy. One day we find ourselves (or others find us) worked into the ground. The work may be wonderful, but we ourselves turn out to be not so wonderful, becoming cranky, exhausted, pushy, and patronizing in the process."

In substituting our power for the power of the Holy Spirit, our goals for the goals of Christ, our all-too-human work for the work of God, we've succumbed to pride—at its most subtle, perhaps, but also in its most malevolent disguise.

Graceful Attention

Hypocrisy and self-righteousness, then, are the special sins of ministry, so it shouldn't surprise us that these were the sins that most concerned Jesus. When he criticized religious leaders—really the only people he was severe with—he never chastised them for sloth or lust. Instead, he pointed to their hypocrisy and pride, the dangerous sins.

Part of the reason they're dangerous, of course, is that spiritual sins are not easy to defeat. They cannot be attacked directly. The more we make humility our aim, for instance, the more we're tempted to become proud of the humility we attain. One step forward, two steps back.

There is a more excellent way. The key, at least according to the church's best spiritual guides through the centuries, is graceful attention to our souls. Some have called it spiritual direction, others contemplation. In any case, as Eugene Peterson notes, it's the antidote to pride, and its cousin, hypocrisy: "The alternative to acting like gods who have no need of God is to become contemplative pastors."

Contemplation includes prayer and worship, but more centrally, it means taking time regularly to pay attention to what God is doing within and around us. To practice it effectively requires two things.

First, we need to find time to be alone, no small achievement for the modern pastor. Still, it is a minimum requirement. In his classic, "The Imitation of Christ," Thomas a Kempis writes, "Whoever intends to come to an inward fixing of his heart upon God and to have the grace of devotion must with our Saviour Christ withdraw from the world. No man can safely mingle among people save he who would gladly be solitary if he could."

Later he adds, "Our Lord and his angels will draw near and abide with those who, for the love of virtue, withdraw themselves from their acquaintances and from their worldly friends. It is better that a man be solitary and take good heed of himself than that, forgetting himself, he perform miracles in the world."

Second, and even more critical, we need to practice a graceful contemplation. The spiritual sins are not conquered with gritted teeth. The harder we try to conquer them, in fact, the more we'll despair. A baseball player doesn't break out of a slump by swinging harder and harder.

Instead, contemplation, in the classic sense, is a graceful attention to our lives. For instance, let's say I've made a vow, as I often have, not to live a hurried life. I want to manage my days so I have time for prayer and for people, and for the many interruptions that may be divine opportunities.

A phone call one afternoon, though, leads me to teach my son's mid-week Bible study class. Sunday, I agree to join a task force planning the new Christian education wing. The next week, I promise a friend I'll help him move.

Soon, I've packed my schedule as I always pack my schedule. I find myself rising early not to pray but to get to work. I don't chat with co-workers but stay huddled in my office. At home, I snap at my children and am cool with my wife.

Then I remember: I wasn't going to do all this! So I start browbeating myself: You idiot! How did you get talked into all these commitments? What were you thinking? Now you're hurried, you're impatient, and you're angry. Some Christian!

I've become impatient with my impatience, and angry with my anger. I had somehow imagined that I could, by a mere act of the will and in a few weeks, conquer a lifelong pattern. That's pride multiplied.

Instead, graceful attention means gentle recognition. Gentle because we're noticing something that a gracious God knew all along. Since he didn't condemn us for it, neither do we need to condemn ourselves:

"Well, Lord, I see I've packed my schedule again, and there is hardly time for prayer anymore, let alone the important people of my life. This was certainly foolish. Forgive me. Help me to sort out exactly why I do this. Help me to accept my foolishness and your grace."

Only when grace is the first and last word of contemplation, can the scars left by spiritual sins be healed. James I. Packer, in his book "Rediscovering Holiness," writes, "Pride blows us up like balloons, but grace punctures our conceit and lets the hot, proud air out of our system. The result … is that we shrink, and end up seeing ourselves as less--less nice, less able, less wise, less good, less strong, less steady, less committed, less of a piece--than ever we thought we were. We stop kidding ourselves that we are persons of great importance to the world and to God. … We bow to events that rub our noses in the reality of our own weaknesses, and we look to God for strength quietly to cope."

Two Areas to Contemplate

Everything is open for graceful contemplation, for the omnipresent God can meet us anywhere in our lives. We can examine our motives and desires. We can reflect on the language we use to describe our ministry to others. But in particular, here are two areas worth examining regularly.

1. Pastoral activities. In The Minister and His Own Soul, Thomas Hamilton Lewis, writes, "The minister's daily routine, so comforting, so helpful, so blessed to his people, may be his own spiritual vampire. The surgeon becomes increasingly insensible to suffering in his intentness upon removing it. And that is well for the surgeon and for us. But it is not well for a minister to become dulled in his spiritual sensibilities by ministering so constantly to keep alive the sensibilities of others."

The most troublesome state comes when a pastor, "praying so much for others finds his prayers not moving his own soul, preaching so much to others and bringing no message to his own soul, serving constantly at the altar and failing 'to offer up sacrifices first for his own sins.' "

As a fresh graduate from seminary, having just arrived in the community I was to serve, I met the local Episcopal priest. I was taken aback.

He denigrated preaching: "Don't get your hopes up, young man. It doesn't make much difference."

He made fun of one of his parishioners in the hospital: "Maybe he'll learn a little humility."

He made jokes about Communion, which I won't repeat.

As I was to discover, he was a pastor who administered efficiently the many programs of his church. He visited his people regularly in the hospital. He was a fine preacher. But he had pastored so long, had done these holy tasks so often, he was oblivious to the sacredness of his calling.

Pastors spend a lot of time with the holy: reading the Bible, performing baptisms, serving Communion, praying here, there, and everywhere. The old adage applies: familiarity breeds contempt, more so when it comes to handling things holy.

The only way to throttle familiarity is to pay attention afresh to what has become familiar. Many pastors, therefore, periodically use their own messages to inventory their spiritual lives, or their denomination's prayer books and liturgies as devotional guides. Others meditate on the sacramental elements of water, or wine and bread. Others contemplate the mystery of words, how such intangible things can connect people and God.

2. God's presence. When we start paying attention to what is going on in and around us, we start to become aware of God. All contemplation is, in the end, a fresh discovery of God's activity in one's life.

"Spiritual direction is the act of paying attention to God, calling attention to God, being attentive to God in a person or circumstances or situation," writes Eugene Peterson. "A prerequisite is standing back, doing nothing. It opens a quiet eye of adoration. It releases the energetic wonder of faith. It notices the Invisibilities in and beneath and around the Visibilities. It listens for the Silences between the spoken Sounds."

One warm summer night, I laid awake, restless, and lonely for my wife and children, who were away. Rather than picking up a book or writing or watching late-night TV, my first three lines of defense, I went outside and lay on our lawn. I started to pray but then decided just to pay attention to what was going on around me.

I decided to look up. I spend most my day just looking at my level and below. I see doors and windows and people and cars and the bottom half of buildings. So I consciously tilted my head and looked up. I saw the branches of our maple tree swaying, swaying against a sky dotted with a thousand stars.

I decided to listen. I spend most of my day in my head, listening to my own agenda whirl away, or at best, hearing the words of others. Now I listened to the wind, to rustling leaves, swooshing, brushing, rushing here and there.

I decided to feel, which I rarely have time to do. The warm air glided over my skin. Grass tickled my neck. Firm ground pressed against my back.

Suddenly, and for no more than a few seconds, mystery and beauty were manifest. The universe seemed so fragile, like a glass ornament, yet so wonderful, like a best present of all. I felt insignificant. Yet love pulsed, through me, around me. The glory of God. I lay there for many minutes, nearly in tears.

I relate this experience not because it's unusual, but precisely because it is so very usual. Not that it happens to us everyday, but most Christians have had these little epiphanies. The great spiritual teachers of the church tell us that though we cannot control such encounters, we can lead lives—of graceful attention—that can prepare us and make possible such epiphanies.

Paying attention is more than an exercise in moral vigilance. It is not the making of resolutions and willful activity. It is mostly making room for God, and making room for love. The first commandment is not to obey God or to be righteous. It is to love God, which means first to be loved by him.

Only then will we have the courage to contemplate our hypocrisy and gently probe the pride that snakes its way into our souls. Only then will we obtain eyes to see God in, with, and under us, even the ugly us. Only this love makes the moral demands of ministry bearable, even joyful.

"Love is a great and good thing," writes Thomas a Kempis, "and alone makes heavy burdens light and bears in equal balance things pleasing and displeasing. … The noble love of Jesus perfectly imprinted in man's soul makes a man do great things, and stirs him always to desire perfection and to grow more and more in grace and goodness."

In the end, the right, reasonable, and ridiculous call to pastoral holiness is mostly the call to know and share this love.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

Homepage Subscription Panel

Read These Next

When Service is Selfish
When Service is Selfish
Codependent behavior might be as close as your church.
From the Magazine
Reading God’s Word like a Poem, Not an Instruction Manual
Reading God’s Word like a Poem, Not an Instruction Manual
The Bible teaches us, says Matthew Mullins, but its method of teaching always entails more than information and guidance.
Editor's Pick
Visitation Is Still Our Vocation
Visitation Is Still Our Vocation
We may face new challenges, but the heart of our calling remains the same.