How Can So Many Pastors Be Godly and Dysfunctional at the Same Time?

Illuminating the blind spots in most approaches to spiritual formation.
How Can So Many Pastors Be Godly and Dysfunctional at the Same Time?
Image: Tolgart / Getty

Pastors can be godly and dysfunctional at the same time. They can be holy and not whole. They can be biblically faithful and psychologically broken. They can be prayer warriors and control freaks, spiritually mature and emotionally repressed. They can sincerely love Jesus yet be addicted to food or porn or pain meds. I know this to be true from experience.

For many years as a pastor, I was godly and dysfunctional at the same time. If you had come to live with me for a week in January 2015, slept on my couch, shadowed me through my day, you would have come away thinking, He’s a godly guy. He loves Jesus. He loves the Bible. He loves the church . He cares about his wife and children and making a difference in the world for Jesus. But you would have also seen that I was dysfunctional.

In 2015 I was granted a three-month sabbatical. Here’s what I had planned: I was going to finish writing one book, start writing another book, read through Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion , memorize the Book of James to preach from it in the spring, and brush up on my Hebrew. When I shared these plans with the elders, one of them wryly said, “You going to do anything else?”

But I wasn’t going to dive right in. I was going to take the first week to rest. It was a sabbatical after all! I made it to Wednesday before I started to come unglued. You may know someone with a serious substance abuse issue, a chemical addiction to alcohol or some other drug. Perhaps you’ve seen a documentary on 60 Minutes about people trying to kick their drug habit and going through withdrawal.

That was me in early January 2015. I went through real, physical signs of withdrawal: irritability, uncontrolled craving, edginess, desperation—not for booze or drugs but for accomplishment, achievement, and getting stuff done.

I was going crazy, like an addict who needed a hit, and I made my wife crazy. On Thursday she leveled with me: “Todd, you have to do something about this!”

I knew just what to do. I went back to work.

That next week, I was up at 5 a.m., went to the YMCA by 5:30, swam 2,000 yards, showered, got to church by 6:30, had devotions until around 8 (because I’m a godly pastor), and then started working. I finished up around 6 p.m. and went home.

I felt better instantly. My brain experienced a surge of satisfaction, like I had just hooked up to my favorite narcotic. The irritability, the edginess, and the sense of desperation were gone. I was back in the driver’s seat.

Two or three weeks later, a friend texted me: “Todd, is that your car in the church parking lot? Aren’t you supposed to be on sabbatical?”

Do you remember the scene in 2 Samuel 12 when the prophet Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”? That was how my friend’s text message struck me. I had been in denial—godly, sure, but also dysfunctional and broken.

A few weeks later, I found myself in a therapist’s office. “Why are you here?” he asked me. “I think I’m addicted to achievement,” I responded. “Tell me about your background,” he said. And that began a conversation and a relationship that helped me see that 25 years of Christian spiritual formation had added layer upon layer of moral formation on top of deeply seated compulsions that still controlled me.

A Lack of Integration

What unites me with a thousand other pastors who are both godly and dysfunctional? A lack of integration.

Many forms of evangelical spirituality fail to foster integration. We prioritize doctrinal instruction and moral development, but we neglect psychological healing. We emphasize the cultivation of character, but we overlook our psychological compulsions, fixations, and emotional reactivity. This type of spirituality will breed dis-integrated pastors whose ministries will sooner or later disintegrate around them.

We see signs of dis-integrated Christians all around us. Why is it that “good” Christians don’t always make very good human beings? They’re faithful to their families, they’re consistent in church attendance, they cut their grass and pay their taxes, and they read their Bibles and pray for the nations. Yet they can also be rigid, self-righteous, xenophobic, racist, sexist, controlling, narrow-minded, emotionally repressed, sexually dysfunctional, bitter, impulsive, and angry.

We need an approach to spiritual formation that fosters integration—that brings together doctrinal instruction and moral development on the one hand, with psychological healing on the other. An approach that brings about not only holiness but wholeness.

In saying this, I’m sounding a note similar to one Dallas Willard sounded several decades ago. Willard’s concern was that Christians weren’t attaining Christlikeness, but not because of a lack of effort. No, everywhere he looked he saw sincere Christians doing the best they could.

Instead, he said, the problem is our deficient theological anthropology. In The Spirit of the Disciplines he wrote,

For serious churchgoing Christians, the hindrance to true spiritual growth is not unwillingness. While they are far from perfect, no one who knows such people can fail to appreciate their willingness and goodness of heart. For my part, at least, I could no longer deny the fact. I finally decided their problem was a theological deficiency, a lack in teaching, understanding, and practical direction. … The gospel preached and the instruction and example given these faithful ones simply do not do justice to the nature of human personality, as embodied, incarnate.

He saw in evangelical Christianity a failure to do justice to the true nature of the human personality, to take seriously that we are not just souls inhabiting bodies or minds connected to brains. No, we are embodied, incarnate creatures. Or to put it bluntly, we don’t have bodies—we are bodies. Our minds and souls are far better integrated than most forms of evangelical spirituality would lead you to believe.

What would a better theological vision of spiritual formation look like?

If we want to move toward an integrated approach to spiritual formation, we need to take three steps.

Step 1: Take the Body More Seriously

Not long ago, I listened to a chapel message given by a well-known pastor at a well-known seminary. The message was about how to make the most of your seminary experience. And his approach was to focus on the essence of the Christian life. It was a moving talk about glorifying God with your education, finding joy in Greek and Hebrew syntax, developing your mind by reading great books, and so on. But toward the end of his message, a thought occurred to me: This is a great vision of spiritual formation. But you don’t need a body for any of it. You don’t have to be a human being to do any of that. It could have been a chapel talk just for the angels who were listening in.

Every approach to spiritual formation presupposes some understanding of the human person. And the dominant theological anthropology of evangelicalism is a dualism of mind-body, inner-outer, spiritual-physical.

Christian philosopher Nancy Murphy, in her book Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?says this: “It is in fact the case that most Christians, throughout most of their history, have been dualists of one sort or another.” And, Murphy notes, we owe this dualism—and its inward emphasis—to Augustine, the great fourth-century bishop and theologian.

Augustine’s conception of the person is a modified Platonic view: a human being is an immortal (not eternal) soul using (not imprisoned in) a mortal body. … From Augustine to the present we have had a conception of the self that distinguishes the inner life from the outer, and spirituality has been associated largely with the inner.

Augustine’s modified Platonic dualism got connected to the apostle Paul’s way of talking about spirit and flesh, and Western Christianity’s understanding of spirituality and spiritual formation has never been the same. His dualistic anthropology naturally leads to a dis-integrated spirituality, an approach to spiritual formation that focuses on the inner person, not the outer person; on the spiritual, not the physical.

But if we want to move toward an integrated approach to spiritual formation, then we need to seriously scrutinize our dualistic anthropology. We need to ask ourselves whether it is the most biblically faithful, theologically sound way of understanding what it means to be human.

Step 2: Take the Brain More Seriously

Once we take the body seriously, we will naturally and inevitably need to think concretely about what it means to take the brain more seriously.

Yet how many of us think brain when we hear the words “spiritual formation”? It’s like that question on the SAT. Which item doesn’t belong: prayer, Bible study, fasting, neural networks? The brain isn’t even a category in conversations about spiritual formation.

But it should be. The brain underwrites everything about our spiritual formation: our thoughts, our feelings, our actions. There is no spiritual formation without brain formation, or re-formation.

Back in 2000, a 40-year-old school teacher in Virginia was arrested for making sexual advances toward his stepdaughter. His wife called the police to come and arrest him. When they arrived, they found he had been collecting pornographic magazines and visiting pornographic websites. He was convicted and required to attend a mandatory 12-step recovery program for sexual addicts. He failed the program, though, because he couldn’t stop making advances toward the other people in the program. So they were going to sentence him to do jail time.

But the day before the sentencing, he drove himself to the emergency room, complaining of a raging headache. Doctors did an MRI and discovered that he had an egg-sized tumor on the right frontal lobe of his brain. When they operated on him to remove the tumor, the lewd behavior and pedophilia went away as well. About a year later, the tumor started to grow back and so did the sexually inappropriate behavior. They operated again, and once again, the illicit desires went away.

A damaged brain can bend behavior, and otherwise moral people can do immoral things if their brains aren’t working right.

My wife, Katie, and I have seven children, three biological and four we’ve adopted from Ethiopia. Raising seven children is a wild ride! We’ve learned a lot about parenting, families, adoption, and ourselves. But we’ve also learned a lot about the brain.

You may know the influential book on trauma written by Bessel van der Kolk: The Body Keeps the Score . Over the last decade of parenting four adopted children, Katie and I have learned that the body keeps the score. Traumatic events in a child’s life—abandonment, emotional or physical abuse, neglect—can scar the body and damage the brain. These experiences embed in the circuitry of the brain, perhaps not as explicit memory like looking at a photo album, but as implicit memory that you re-experience emotionally.

In order to survive trauma, human beings have developed an ingenious yet costly way of coping. We disconnect our minds from our bodies and live in our heads. In order to survive, we dis-integrate our selves.

As parents, we had to realize that to spiritually form our children, especially our adopted children, we couldn’t simply compel them to do the right thing. We had to step back and take their bodies and their brains seriously. We had to realize there would be no lasting spiritual formation without psychological healing—new neural networks created through kindness, care, and compassion.

Katie and I have also realized that, in this fallen world, we’ve all been traumatized. In different ways and to varying degrees, we’ve all been roughed up by this abusive world. We’re all a little bit dis-integrated—even pastors.

If we look just under the surface of our lives, we will see the subterranean reality of psychological brokenness. It looks like compulsions, fixations, obsessions, and emotional reactivity. These are telltale signs that all is not well in your body and with your brain.

In Romans 12:2 Paul calls on Christians to not be conformed to the pattern of this world but to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind [nous ].” I wonder if healing the brain is at least part of what Scripture has in mind in this verse, the renewal of the nous —not just the mind as distinct from the body and the brain, but the whole psychosomatic unity we call the person: mind, will, body, and brain.

Step 3: Take Interpersonal Communion More Seriously

When you have a dualistic understanding of the person, you will naturally prioritize the mind over the body. And you will inevitably put the emphasis on knowing over being known. But what Christians for centuries have understood intuitively, and what a new generation of neuroscientists are helping us see, is that profound personal transformation comes about from being known.

Why is Alcoholics Anonymous the most successful behavior change program to have ever existed? Because every meeting begins the same way: “Hi, I’m Todd. I’m an alcoholic.” “Hi, Todd.” It’s a place where many people, often for the first time, are known by other people for who they really are.

Something miraculous happens when two minds meet empathetically. New neural networks are created, new synapses fire and wire, your brain changes.

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls this the experience of “feeling felt.” This is what happens when you sense that your internal world is being entered into by another person, when that person shares with you what’s going on inside of you. Empathy is the essence of interpersonal communion. Being known—not just by other human beings but by God himself—is the key to powerful personal transformation and spiritual formation.

I like the way Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson puts it in Anatomy of the Soul :

The process of being known is the vessel in which our lives are kneaded and molded, lanced and sutured, confronted and comforted, bringing God’s new creation closer to its fullness in preparation for the return of the King.

Complete and Completely Known

When we talk about spiritual formation, we’re talking about the process whereby a person moves toward maturity in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Spiritual formation is, as Paul puts it in Colossians 1, all about becoming complete in Christ.

“Him we proclaim,” Paul writes, “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (vv. 28–29, ESV).

You might say that the telos , or “goal,” of spiritual formation is to be teleios , or “complete,” in Christ.

We, as pastors, will have a hard time getting to this telos without taking more seriously our bodies, without taking more seriously our brains, and without taking more seriously our interpersonal communion, being known by one another and by our Lord and Maker. “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” Scripture says, “but then face to face. Now [we] know in part; then [we] shall know fully, even as [we] have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12, ESV).

Todd Wilson is the president and cofounder of the Center for Pastor Theologians .

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