When Pastors Doubt
A friend of mine began at a mid-sized suburban church as the youth pastor, weathered some leadership changes, grew in respect and influence, and was eventually called to lead the church. He was a passionate and gifted teacher, people respected him, he had a beautiful family. Justin was, by all appearances, a bright young pastor with a great future.
But he was eaten up by doubts. He wondered how he could be sure he was saved, if he could really trust God’s promises, and if he really bought all that theology he’d learned in seminary? Over time, his doubts ate away at his passion for ministry. He ended up stepping away from the pastorate. He just didn’t think he was qualified any longer.
A church full of doubters
Everyone doubts—besetting doubts, passing doubts, nagging doubts. The church is full of doubters, whether or not we like to admit it. We doubt God’s promises. We doubt the “joy set before us” because the temptation before us looks pretty appetizing too. We doubt our salvation. We doubt God’s goodness in the face of evil and the trustworthiness of Scripture in the face of criticism. Every Sunday, normal people with these thoughts file into worship centers and sanctuaries around the world.
And what does that mean? It means the pastor better have all the answers. The Sunday school teacher and small group leader needs to be rock solid. The deacons and elders better brim with confidence. No matter what comes up – crisis, tragedy, attack, debate—they better be Johnny-on-the-spot with the right response. Church goers get to doubt. Church leaders don’t.
But church leaders do doubt, just as much as the people they lead, in fact. Justin wasn’t an aberration. The same questions of faith, identity, crisis, culture, theology, and obedience hover and swoop around all of us. We feel as lost in the fog of not understanding as all the people we’re expected to enlighten.
Of course, you can’t let on, not most of the time, not to most people. So you face the specters alone, often suffer, and sometimes fall.
It doesn’t have to be this way. No, the church’s expectations won’t likely be changed in short order. It won’t grow in comfort with a leader’s doubt by next Sunday, but a few practices can both bolster you and strengthen your congregation.
Find someone to confide in.
You can’t process all your questions in public, on a blog, on Twitter, or with any old church member. But you need someone to process with. Find two, maybe three, people you trust. They don’t need to be pastors; they simply need to be trustworthy and biblically minded. They need to have your best interest in mind—respecting you enough to correct you, keep your confidence, and point you to Jesus. They should be listeners and responders; if they’re only one or the other you won’t find them much help. Develop a radar for those character qualities and take the risk of opening up bit by bit.
It can be difficult for a pastor to find such confidants, so when you find them, hold on to them, even if it means weekly Skype and long distance calls. Over time you’ll need them for more than just processing; you’ll need them as a plumb line to tell you when your questions have gone from fruitful to sinful. You won’t see; they will.
Find an anchor.
Doubts aren’t an evil force, but they are a powerful one, like water. A boat in a strong current or crashing waves can be crushed, but an anchor holds it steady against the force. So it is with doubts when we have an anchor – they’re just questions instead of a devastating force. These questions can be a current or tide that moves toward a better place.
Mark 9:24 offers the quintessential doubter’s prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief.” The first half is the anchor, the expression of conviction, and the sermon to yourself that reminds you whom you believe in and why. The spirit of “I believe” drives us to hold fast to the character and promises of God even when his actions are opaque. It comes from a developed knowledge of who God is and a fostered relationship with him. “I believe” should be followed by “that God is _______” or “in God’s ______.”
With the first half of the passage firmly in place, the second half becomes a guilt-free plea as you explore your doubts. Your confidants, spiritual disciplines, and reflection and meditation on God’s character will keep you attached to your anchor.
Don’t suppress the questions.
Doubt is not inherently sinful. It is merely being unsure, a lack of understanding. It becomes sin when, instead of seeking truth and a deeper knowledge of God, it seeks to undermine or reject him.
If your doubts are in the first category, the truth seeking kind, then they are a tool in the Holy Spirit’s hands. Don’t let “doubt” make you feel guilty, unworthy, or distant from God.
Those doubts might be taking you deeper in your relationship and knowledge of God than you’ve ever been. Search for answers. Let your questions drive your study and your teaching. (It will give you a unique passion!). You will discover truths and aspects of God that you’ve never seen or have long-since forgotten. They will mean more to you than ever. Then you get to share them! A series that stems from your rigorous and driven search for answers in Scripture will be rich.
What you wonder about is precisely what God will use to grow you and to show you himself.
Embrace the “I don’t know.”
You still have to lead people and face their expectations. But you no longer have to see your own doubts as a badge of shame. You can even see how the doubts of your people can help them grow, and that is what you want to foster. Start with “I don’t know.” Show them that you aren’t the answer vending machine. “I don’t know” demonstrates humility. It honors God because it admits that he is beyond our understanding. “I don’t know,” connects with those you lead because it’s empathetic; “I don’t know” is usually followed by “either.”
But “I don’t know” cannot live in isolation. It is healthy only when you have confidants and an anchor, only after searching for answers long and hard. If you start and end with “I don’t know” you have little or nothing to offer—no conviction, no gospel. By faith and in relationship you can and must know God’s goodness, sovereignty, power, love, and works. You don’t have to understand them, but you must know them and share them regardless of what you have yet to know.
For my friend, the expectations of ministry kept him from confiding. He had friends, but only opened up to them once doubt overwhelmed him. He held his anchor, or maybe the anchor held him, but guilt ate at him. He hid his questions and felt that not knowing was a shortcoming. That’s why he left the pastorate. The end of the story isn’t tragedy. Without the pressures of the pastorate, Justin was able to process and grow and rediscover the joy of salvation and confidence in God. But the end isn’t fully happy either because the ministry, that church, lost a good pastor to doubt.
What you will find in committing to these practices is grace. You will see the same grace Jesus showed to the man who prayed, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Imagine that, confessing your unbelief to the very Son of God! And you will see grace begin to trickle down through the people you lead as they see in you and in each other the same questions, the same need for support, the same anchor, and the same hope in the midst of all those questions.
Barnabas Piper serves as the Brand Manager for Ministry Grid at LifeWay Christian Resources. Piper blogs at The Blazing Center and is the author of the newly released Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy of Faith.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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