The Cause of and Cure for Pastor’s Guilt


THE DISEASE

If you are a pastor, you've suffered from a debilitating disease. You may not even know that you've been infected. But this illness has crippled your soul and is adversely affecting every aspect of your life, especially your personal spiritual health.

In this post, I want to help diagnose this problem and help you start walking on the road to recovery. 

What is the disease? Two words.

"Pastor's Guilt." 

If you are not a pastor, you are saying, "What?"

If you are a pastor, you totally get it. Just needed someone to name it for you.

Pastor's guilt is the result of believing the lie that we should be omni. 

"Pastor's guilt is the result of believing the lie that we should be omni."

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Omni is typically used as a prefix and comes from the Latin word, omnis, which means "all." 

Just like an omnivore eats all things (meat and veggies), an omnibus carries all things, and an omnidirectional microphone hears all things. 


THE "OMNIS" THAT PLAUGE US

But these are not the omnis afflict a pastor with guilt. Our struggle is with three other omnis: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence

1. Omniscience

This omni means all-knowing. Theologically, we gladly confess that only God is omniscient. But somehow we have been deceived into believing that a pastor's job is to be all knowing as well--to be presently mindful of every issue every member in the congregation is facing, not to mention the issues related to their extended family and friends. 

"We gladly confess that only God is omniscient. Somehow we have been deceived into believing that a pastor's job is to be all knowing as well."

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But we as pastors are finite creatures. We are sheep, too, with every human limitation that humans possess, including a lack of omniscience. We do not have the capacity to know everyone as intimately as we want to know then in order that we can minister to them personally and effectively, helping them with whatever the presenting problem may be.

If you are reading this and not a pastor, note that we said how much we want to know people. The desire isn't the problem. Our challenge is the ability to fulfill that desire

In a former congregation I served, I carried a tiny pocket notebook that included every member, the last time I contacted or visited them, and what their specific needs were. I still recommend some system like that for any pastor who wants to know the sheep in his fold more personally. 

However, when one of the other elders heard about my little notebook, he rebuked me for having to write it all down, saying that as a pastor, "I should know my sheep so well that I didn't have to keep a written file of their needs."

I let that lie become a truth in my heart and began to wither and die as a pastor. I recall that moment as vividly as the keyboard in front of my face right now. 

Pastor's guilt. I believed I was supposed to be omniscient, or get as close as I could to looking like I had the capacity of an infinite God. 

I felt like a complete pastoral failure and left the church within six months.

The tragedy is that I really did love those people. I wanted to know them well. But the burden of expectation of omniscience was just too much to bear. 

2. Omnipresence

This omni means all-present, or the ability to be present in all places at the same time. Again, only the infinite creator God possesses this remarkable characteristic. But it is this second omni that causes pastor's guilt. 

Although ordinary people recognize that we live in a closed universe of space and time, pastors have believed the lie that we are exempt from these limitations. As I plan my weekly schedule, I have a limited number of hours. 

"Although ordinary people recognize that we live in a closed universe of space and time, pastors have believed the lie that we are exempt from these limitations."

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30% of all hours available must be devoted to the rest and recovery we call sleep. Go ahead and try to defy that one. I've often wondered, "Why sleep?" Wouldn't it be great to have a full 24 hours to work. Maybe then I'd get it all done. But that is exactly the problem. Even sleep is a reminder to us of the gospel, that we are limited. We need someone else to work while we rest. 

That leaves 16 hours left per day (not to mention the principle of Sabbath rest we need weekly, the 1 out of 7 days to be refreshed from and for work in our vocational calling). When we factor in time to wake and get dressed and groomed for the day, time to prepare and eat meals, time to keep our bodies healthy with exercise, time to binge-watch Nexflix (seeing if you are paying attention), time to complete household chores, time to invest in family and friend life, we recognize that we must limit our work hours (spending them wisely, focusing on what must be done vs what could be done). 

When planning my week, if I do not have a grip on what must be done (those things in the scope of the biblical calling of a pastor, not the cultural expectations) vs what could be done (by others in the church with the plethora of spiritual gifts God has given to the body), I soon will become overwhelmed.

If I refuse to let the body be the body (the way God actually is omnipresent in the life of the church), I surely will suffer from pastor's guilt, not to mention poor physical, emotional, and spiritual health and an unhealthy marriage and family life. 

Trying to be omnipresent is an attempt to be like God in the wrong way.

"Trying to be omnipresent is an attempt to be like God in the wrong way."

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Jesus never commanded us to be omnipresent. Fully present? Yes. Omnipresent? No.

By definition this means that we must refuse to be everywhere we are asked or expected to be doing everything that is possible for us to do. We can't be everywhere, ministering to all people at all times. 

We must let the body be the body.

3. Omnipotence

To possess this omni means you have unlimited ability to enforce your will and create change. When something is potent, we mean that it works. It has the ability to accomplish the task for which it was created. When we speak of the omni kind of potency, we are quick to affirm that only God is omnipotent.

The why do we live under the expectation of pastoral omnipotence?  Why do we think we can fix people? Why do we think we can force folks to change? 

  • Marriages are going to face hardship. Some don't make it.
  • People are going to get sick... and die. 
  • Folks will lose jobs and experience financial stress.
  • Disgruntled members will leave the church in protest. 
  • Only 3-4% of Christians tithe. 
  • Negative attitudes, lethargic worship, pornography addiction, alcoholism, domestic abuse, materialism.

There is so much we want to see change. Somehow, we feel, as "pastors," that we should have the power to fix these things. 

When people share problem with us (and we want them to), I fear that we don't handle them very well. 

Rather than taking the brokenness to Jesus in prayer, seeking his power to bring change, we take the brokenness upon ourselves. 

It is a brokenness that we were never intended to carry. 

In fact, when we take on the responsibility for changing anything or anyone, we take on the role of the Holy Spirit. 

Looking to ourselves to be the omnipotent change agent in people's lives, we eventually will begin to see how impotent we really are. People don't change. Problems remain. And we feel inept. Powerless.

And we suffer pastor's guilt. All because we can't be the Holy Spirit. 

"Looking to ourselves to be the omnipotent change agent in people's lives, we eventually will begin to see how impotent we really are."

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THE SOLUTION

As pastors, we know that we are not omniscient, omnipresent, nor omnipotent. How then can we get on the path to recovery, living free of the burden to be the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? 

Here are a few ideas. 

1. Study the earth-bound ministry of Jesus. 

Even Jesus lived within the limits of space and time.  He didn't do everything he could have done. He didn't go everywhere he could have gone. Because he lived with a rifle vs shotgun approach to life, he was able to fulfill the specific work the Father gave him to do, where upon a cross he was able to confidently proclaim, "It is finished!"

"Even Jesus lived within the limits of space and time."

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2. Return to an Ephesians 4 model of church life and ministry. 

We need to educate congregations about the biblical role of the teaching pastor, moving from a "pastor serves us" mentality to a "pastor equips us" perspective. Yes, the pastor serves the congregation, but in a limited capacity. His role in serving is to feed the sheep the Word of God through preaching and teaching. He is like the church chef, preparing gourmet gospel meals week in and week out for the spiritual health of the congregation. Whether on Sundays, in special classes, in small home groups, or over coffee, his ministry is primarily a teaching ministry. The church needs this from us so that by our teaching, we may empower the body to be the body, using the variety of gifts the Spirit has given every believer, like parts of a body, to work together for the building up of the church. 

"We need to educate congregations about the biblical role of the teaching pastor, moving from a "pastor serves us" mentality to a "pastor equips us" perspective."

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3. Find your identity in Jesus's righteousness, not your own.

In Romans 10, Paul said that the problem with legalistic Jews is that, rather than receive the gift-righteousness of Jesus, they looked to the law as a means to achieve a man-made righteousness (which Paul would say is garbage compared to Christ's gift-righteousness). My attempt to be an omni pastor for my congregation is like that, only I'm not using the law but ministry success, affirmation, and praise as the foundation of my identity -- my personal righteousness. It is time for us pastors to take out the trash in repentance, confessing our attempts at ministry self-righteousness and receiving the beauty of Jesus's gift-righteousness that is ours through his perfect obedience and substitutionary death.

"It is time for us pastors to take out the trash in repentance, confessing our attempts at ministry self-righteousness and receiving the beauty of Jesus's gift-righteousness that is ours through his perfect obedience and substitutionary death."

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4. Share this post with your church family.

Maybe sharing this post with your church family will be a step in a new direction, where you help folks look more to Jesus than to you, and where you look to Jesus for your identity more than to your ministry. They don't need you or me. They need Jesus.