What if church leaders shouldn’t be church leaders?

shutterstock_293389358Editor’s note: I’m not very happy. Over the last month or so, I’ve heard each from one or two devout Christian friends every week who are no longer attending church because of issues they (or a family member) experienced  with pastors or church staff members. We get these comments all the time on the blog and on the Key Ministry Facebook page. Today’s post isn’t intended to criticize the church but to challenge the church.

My wife and I belong to a very good church. We have several excellent teaching pastors, a senior pastor who is highly respected as an organizational leader based upon his record of accomplishment in both business and ministry, outstanding people in our specialty ministry areas (including family ministry and disability ministry) and many gifted church members empowered to serve both within and outside the walls of the church. A prime motivation for the launch of Key Ministry thirteen years ago was the desire to see other families experience the opportunity to come to know Jesus and grow in faith through removing the barriers to involvement in churches like ours.

I also come across lots of people who have been very involved with church who have been deeply hurt…or are deeply hurting from their experience. Some are pastors and church staff members who have come through he doors of our office together with their families. Others are followers or supporters of our ministry who post comments or send private messages describing their experiences.

Our ministry works with lots of fabulous churches and church leaders in every corner of the U.S. and beyond. At the same time, as someone with the privilege to enter the lives of many, many families both inside and outside of “church world,” I’ve found myself beginning to question whether many/most of our churches are meaningfully impacting the people in the communities they’re positioned to serve.

We have a parallel problem in my line of work in that finding and hiring non-physician clinicians (psychologists and counselors) with the knowledge, skill and dedication to produce the results parents expect when their kids need mental health treatment is an enormous challenge. I know there are lots of people out there in my field or related fields who hang out a shingle and see many, many kids and families who don’t get better under their care.

If it’s tragic that a kid will needlessly suffer for months or years because they and/or their family had a suboptimal interaction with a mental health professional, how much greater is the tragedy when a kid or family has an negative experience with a representative of the church with eternal consequences?

Individual congregations and the church as a whole need to develop a model for helping pastors and church staff members to transition to other vocations for a season…or longer, if appropriate. For that matter, maybe paid ministry work is something that many people could do for a season of life without becoming dependent upon ministry for their livelihood?

From where I sit, we have far too many people doing “professional” ministry when they probably shouldn’t be because they lack the training, education, gift set or experience to support their families by some other means. I routinely hear stories from faithful friends who leave churches after their ministry involvement became threatening to staff who demonstrated insecurity in their positions. We have lots of other people who one led impactful ministries who, for any of the reasons listed below are struggling to have the impact they may have once had…

Burnout/fatigue: What do we do for pastors and other church leaders who become worn down over years by the burdens of ministry? One pastor friend of mine shared that he would regularly get together for dinner with a group of friends in the ministry. At one point, all but one member of their group was using a breathing machine at night because of problems with sleep apnea. Jolene Philo is in the middle of sharing a series on PTSD on this blog. What do we do with our pastors who become traumatized over time by their experiences in ministry? They’re often among the first responders when a family discovers the body of a loved one following a suicide attempt or caring for friends and neighbors following accidents, illnesses or natural disasters. What happens to the caregivers when they become overwhelmed?

Here’s an interesting article with lots of statistics describing the scope of the challenges our pastors face.

Marriage/family issues: I have lots of firsthand experience with this one. For many pastors and church leaders, the pressure to maintain a family that appears healthy on the surface can become overwhelming.

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.

Titus 1:5-6 (ESV)

One of the most disheartening experiences I’ve ever encountered as a clinician involved a family I saw after the father (a pastor) lost his job because his church board interpreted the behavioral issues manifest in their adopted son as evidence that he was unfit for ministry quoting the verses cited above. At the same time, Scripture does tell us that after our relationship with Jesus, our relationships with our spouses and our children are of the highest priority. When a pastor or church leader has a spouse or a child with a serious mental health issue, caring for that person (and other family members) can become an all-consuming endeavor and impact their ability to do their job. How can we help them to be faithful in those places where God has uniquely positioned them at times when the effectiveness of their public ministry begins to suffer?

Spiritual issues: What do we do with church leaders with little faith…or leaders who were never really believers in the first place? In researching this topic, I came across the website of The Clergy Project…a non-profit launched by atheists “to provide support, community, and hope to those current and former religious professionals who no longer hold to supernatural beliefs.” with membership numbering in the hundreds. How are we intentional in reviving the faith of leaders in whom faith has waned?

shutterstock_208411924Moral failures incompatible with leadership: Scripture instructs us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” James’ instruction came at a time when church leaders were, for the most part, “bi-vocational” in that they supported themselves financially through work outside their ministry. Peter was a fisherman and Paul was a tentmaker. When setting aside leadership status in the church means losing one’s livelihood, we’ve created an enormous incentive for leaders to sweep scandal under the rug. When scandal comes to light, incalculable damage is done to the reputation of Christianity…and the church.

I’ve heard recently of two pastors who committed suicide…one in a community not too far from where we live, the other in a different part of the country. From what I understand, both men had been unfaithful to their spouses. When a doctor or a teacher or a police officer experiences moral failure they may encounter a spiritual and/or family crisis, but they typically aren’t in danger of losing their job, professional status and the income that goes along with their job. When a church leader falls, they typically lose everything if they’re not trained for some other line of work. For some, the pressure becomes too much to bear.

One of our readers who is married to a man in ministry messaged me privately about her experiences earlier this month…

My husband was never discipled – he said to me recently he had always believed a woman was just to be used. I figure I was his in-house whore.

The church isn’t doing its job. We are so worried about outreach we aren’t discipling our own people. What a difference it would make if we just truly concentrated and discipled and didn’t do formal outreach at all. The church would triple and quadruple because the people themselves would be sharing the gospel through their lives with their neighbors. I experienced that in a church.

We don’t do it because it is hard work and it doesn’t bring the leaders glory.

The same is true in children’s ministry – that is what I always thought was my real passion – but now God has shown me so much more of how the Church is messing up. I think it fits with disability ministries too. What a difference if we got serious about challenging our people to truly walk with God!

What my husband needed was at least one man to walk through life with him after his confession. A man of God who is the Godly leader in his own home. A strong man who would challenge him, hold him accountable, etc.

I’m wrestling with the question of how we help families impacted by disability to come to know Jesus through the ministry of the local church when so many families who encounter the church come away with experiences very different than my family’s experience. I recently had a conversation with one of the most faithful friends I know who shared that their family is no longer attending church in the aftermath of their most recent experiences.

Our current model of “doing church” isn’t working in many places for lots of people…with and without disabilities. All of us who claim Jesus as Lord and Savior own this problem. What are we called to do?

Addendum: After writing this post, I came across an excellent blog series from Ed Stetzer on laypeople and ministry. Read this, this, this, this, this and this and feel free to comment below on how Ed’s ideas might play out in disability ministry.


shutterstock_24510829Key Ministry is pleased to make available our FREE consultation service to pastors, church leaders and ministry volunteers. Got questions about launching a ministry that you can’t answer…here we are! Have a kid you’re struggling to serve? Contact us! Want to kick around a problem with someone who’s “been there and done that?” Click here to submit a request!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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