transparent selfie

The Problem with Transparent Pastors

Early on in my pastoral ministry, I went to a regular pastors’ gathering where we prayed for each other. After a couple of meetings, I realized the pastors didn’t really share any serious problems. It kind of annoyed me. One week, I shared that my wife and I needed prayer because we had been fighting a lot lately. Some of the pastors looked at me as if I was confessing the possibility of filing for divorce. I realized that for many in the room, there was simply no safe place to share weaknesses. It wasn’t that they were prideful, they just never felt they could genuinely bring their struggles out into the open without being judged, hurt or misunderstood.

The next time I went to the meeting, I decided that I wasn’t going to share any of my prayer requests. I was tired of being the guy with all the problems. When prayer time came around, the usual boring, mundane and disconnected requests filled the air. Then one older pastor interrupted the flow of the gathering. He paused before he spoke, his face looked genuinely troubled. His eyelids were heavy and his brow furrowed as if he were measuring how to speak of a burden too great for words. I thought, “Finally, someone is going to share a real need, a real hurt in this room full of pastors.”

He began to speak slowly, with a measured and deliberate cadence, “I have a burden….I have a deep burden in my heart….a burden for souls!” To be honest, the moment he said “burden for souls,” I felt genuine anger and a fair amount of disgust. Once again, another prayer request that had little or nothing to do with the hurts, failings, faults, struggles and needs that were present in the room. Regardless, everyone gathered around the burdened pastor and prayed for his “burden for souls.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if there were other burdens in that room. Maybe there were marriages struggling to hold it together, maybe there were pastors with children suffering with addictions and sexual brokenness, maybe there were ministers doubting their calling or questioning their ability to hear God’s voice. Maybe there were people in the room who needed to weep or tell someone that they just couldn’t take it anymore.

However, instead of praying for those requests, we prayed for souls. It all felt rather soulless to me. I actually pulled my hand back from the group and prayed silently for a greater transparency to rise up in our gatherings.

I know my description of this event may sound harsh to some. However, it was an important pivotal moment in my life that I often think about when surrounded by people who appear to be less than transparent. It was a frightening moment, when I questioned whether or not I’d ever find a place where I could trust people to be honest with me. I felt alone. The question hit me with brutal force: If no one can admit to their struggles, will this be a safe place if my life falls apart?

Transparency and honesty are tricky realities in life and ministry. We live in a world where many say they want their religious leaders to be more transparent and honest. Yet, when individuals truly share their honest struggles, we often respond in some rather dysfunctional ways. As a less than filtered pastor, I’ve experienced this awkward reality on many occasions.

I’ve seen the fearful look in the eyes of fellow ministers when I’ve confided in them about doubts concerning my calling or certain theological convictions. I’ve navigated the awkward and frequently unhelpful questions and advice that follow my confession that I’m feeling a little depressed or anxious. I’ve felt the tension of someone trying to convince me not to feel a certain way or think a certain way or even be a certain way, when all I wanted was a safe space. When people love you, they sometimes see your testimony of struggle as an invitation to fix you. Instead of just praying for you, they try to lead you to a better place, even if you were not seeking such help or council. In the worst cases, when you share your prayer needs with some people, they will tell you of all the things you did wrong or should have done differently to avoid reaching this place of struggle or vulnerability.

Once, on Facebook, I posted about the struggle of balancing my life as a pastor, radio host, husband and father. I talked about how I felt sometimes as if I was not able to give enough effort to anything. I mentioned that some days, no matter how hard I tried, I was forced to make difficult decisions that separated me from fully abiding with my family. I shared those words as an offering, to possibly encourage other ministers going through similar struggles. Many people were touched by what I communicated. However, within the comment thread, I also received advice from one person suggesting that I needed to do a better job of prioritizing my life so that I wouldn’t experience this ministry tension. Just that one little comment felt like too much to take. I had opened my heart and someone had taken my transparency as an opportunity to judge the worthiness of my ministry offering. I know that person was trying to help me, but the words made me want to shut down and turn inward. There is a cost to vulnerability.

Ultimately, no one is responsible for my vulnerability, transparency and honesty. I must do and say what God has called me to do and say. Regardless of the emotional consequences, for me, authentic seems to be the healthiest way forward. I think it is important for us to remember how difficult it is for some to share their honest struggles. There is a cost to being unfiltered. When we are unfiltered, others will filter our unfiltered lives through their own emotional needs.

There is no guarantee that any place is really a safe place when it comes to sharing our vulnerabilities. It sometimes feels as if it is better to simply stay silent. Even so, I think we must all try to find places where we can speak honestly about the struggles of our lives. We must do this to both find and bring healing to others. It is my genuine desire to facilitate safe places where people can share their hurts and needs to receive understanding and comfort as well as genuine, heartfelt prayer. Ultimately, we all need a safe place to unburden our souls.

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29 Responses to The Problem with Transparent Pastors

  1. Tim June 13, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

    “There is a cost to being unfiltered.” It’s too high a cost for me most of the time, so I decide not to let anyone through my filters.

    What a way to live. Or not live.

    God can come in, though. He’s already in, so it’s not like I have a say in the matter anyway. But I’m glad he’s in. It’s the only way I feel like I actually do live, frankly.

  2. George Gasperson June 13, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    Thanks for shining light onto a needed subject. I’m with you- I’m just not sure many people know what to do with someone who is transparent, at least in my experience. As a result, there are only a couple of people, and I mean a couple, who I can be truly transparent with.

  3. Katie June 13, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

    “I couldn’t help but wonder if there were other burdens in that room. Maybe there were marriages struggling to hold it together, maybe there were pastors with children suffering with addictions and sexual brokenness, maybe there were ministers doubting their calling or questioning their ability to hear God’s voice. Maybe there were people in the room who needed to weep or tell someone that they just couldn’t take it anymore.”

    This is true of any room of folks and until we start facing this truth as pastors, leaders, mothers, fathers, friends, whatever group(s) we belong to, we will continue to encourage the kind of hypocrisy and separateness that turns away so many from the church. I can’t get enough of this post. I’m sharing it with many. Thanks Doug!

  4. Wayne Farris June 13, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

    Well said my brother!
    In Eldridge’s ‘Wild at Heart’ video series he is addressing this topic with a group of pastors, and one of them relays a story. He tells of a time when serving on a particular church staff where he had been feeling much like you described above. Then, one meeting the Sr pastor began the meeting by saying he wanted to be “real” and “vulnerable”, and that he had a “confession and prayer request” to make to the rest of the staff. The man relaying the story is thinking to himself, ‘finally’! … the Sr pastor goes on to say, “I have, on occasion, used the church postage stamps for my personal mail”.

    The frustrated gentleman says, “here I am struggling with my fantasy life and (his words) daydreaming of trysts with the church secretary in the library. And instead of having a safe place to confess and work through those issues, I have this…”

    Thank you for being a model of humility and authenticity in your pursuit of the holy. It is one of the primary reasons I reached out about connecting with you some weeks back… and i still owe you a phone call.
    Keep leading well!

  5. johnh4christ June 13, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

    This is really well stated sir thank you.
    I don’t think I’ve ever attended a church, bible study or small group where as Christians we can be really transparent. This is even more true for Pastors unfortunately. I am not sure this can be changed, though a good gospel and grace environment will help.
    I have found that a couple of close friends who all agree to be as transparent as possible, is perhaps the best hope, with perhaps the exception of attending an out of town 12 step meeting 🙂

  6. Laura June 13, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

    I so relate to your post Doug, and just shared on facebook with my own thoughts. I wrote a book, and in the last chapter, I share a personal example of being transparent in a Christian small group setting – I shared a sin struggle. The response? Others were very uneasy or dumbfounded. Multiple people who have read my book have now mentioned this example I shared, related to it, and have the same frustration about a lack of honesty among believers -and- dreadful “prayer times” about mundane things. Some of us long for more, to truly do the spiritual life together with its ups and downs, but why is this so hard to find? I don’t get it. It seems “natural” to me to be authentic. I am an introvert and perhaps that oddly comes into play. I can be reserved, but I detest “small talk” and crave deeper and more personal discussion. Thanks for this post. I don’t know the answer. Leading by example makes everyone uncomfortable or people respond in dysfunctional ways – as you mention.

  7. Jeannie Prinsen June 13, 2016 at 3:54 pm #

    I think this is a significant struggle, Doug, and I appreciate your writing about it. I’ve been in groups where someone shares deeply and authentically … then someone else responds with a pat answer or a pep talk, and the one who shared feels unheard and hurt and doesn’t come back. And I’ve been in groups where someone is so eager to bring the group to “another level” that they share inappropriately, causing OTHER people to feel uncomfortable and choose not to come back. I guess the question is whether it’s worth that risk. You’re saying it is, and I agree. But it’s not always easy. Jesus knew what that was like: he told his friends he was feeling sorrowful to the point of death, and they responded by falling asleep in his time of greatest need. He took that risk and didn’t hide his feelings, from his Father or from his friends, so it seems like that is the healthy thing to do, ultimately.

  8. pdchurch0121 June 14, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    This is great! Thank you from one “less than filtered pastor” to another. I’ve sat in similar meetings. Frankly, I’ve stopped going. I feel like I’m drowning in shallowness when I attend. Instead, I’ve called many pastors just to offer myself as a safe person to talk to about anything. Not many takers on that. This is such a huge need. I appreciate your openness!

    • fairlyspiritual June 14, 2016 at 10:14 am #

      I would encourage you to keep trying to change the culture. I now facilitate pastor groups that have greater transparency. It takes time!

  9. Nick Jones June 14, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    Great post! Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I was just reading Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus in which he was talking about spiritual leaders not being able to get vulnerable and real with their people. I think that Christian leaders should be more in touch with their brokenness and sin than anyone. It’s a real pity that we throw on spiritual masks to hide our true selves from ourselves and others.
    And it’s an even bigger pity that Christian leaders can be the absolute worst people to talk to about these areas of struggle, shame, and brokenness than just normal people. Keep working to develop the safe places, brother!

  10. George June 14, 2016 at 1:29 pm #

    You nailed it, Doug, as usual! Thanks a ton!

  11. Ralph June 14, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

    Reminds me a little bit of an “accountability group” I was in once. Didn’t need transparency, ’cause nobody ever had any issues. We were quite the ‘holy’ bunch, huh?

  12. Gabe June 14, 2016 at 4:09 pm #

    Spot on post. One of the unintended fallouts, among others, of the reformation that placed the pulpit at the center of the platform was that the preacher needed to be there as well. Hence the descent into preacher-centered church culture. Pastors became the people with all the answers and they rather came to enjoy that status. This arrangement required ministers to live above the fray, as it were. It’s not an inappropriate expectation that ministers live with a robust commitment to holiness but it must be undergirded with humility. Eventually the ministerial culture of distance robbed us of the vocabulary of personal honesty and transparency. My take on a significant problem. Thank you for this piece! I am solidly in your camp.

  13. Cory June 15, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    Thanks for posting! I’m not a pastor but I am a volunteer leader in church who’s in recovery for addiction to pornography. This is a hard subject to be transparent about which is weird because more Christian men struggle with it than don’t. I’ve decided the best thing I can do for my family and my church is be a healthy me which requires me to be transparent and honest. Some admire the honesty and some don’t. Most people won’t admit their issues until they hit rock bottom…some of the people that were not sharing honestly with me before come find me when they hit rock bottom. You are right that transparent brings healing to myself and others.

  14. Dave Jacobs June 17, 2016 at 5:59 am #

    Wow Doug, this is spot on. Conversations about the need for pastors to be more transparent reminds me of that scene in A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson’s character says to Tom Cruz’ character, “You can’t handle the truth!” https://youtu.be/MMzd40i8TfA One of the greatest needs pastors have is to find someone who is safe for them to talk to. Great post.

    • fairlyspiritual June 17, 2016 at 7:58 am #

      Thanks for reading! Yep, that’s a very appropriate analogy.

  15. godiskind1 June 18, 2016 at 6:53 am #

    Gosh, I loved your post on transparency and fully appreciate your views on being on this path of becoming authentic and desiring to bring more safe places for people (ESPECIALLY pastors and their wives and their children) to be able to be more fully themselves. I used to be a pastor’s wife, he is no longer in official ministry. For 19 years I felt trapped and unsafe to speak about my real life, the church leadership culture was very “private” (in my words tho- “polite, right, and uptight 😢)- anyway, now that I’m free from those pressures and that oppressive and silent environment I am beginning to enjoy the freedom and joy of being able to speak about my self and my messy story. I really appreciated your words- I hope “the church” listens, tho I doubt she will- there is simply too much fear, pride, and pressure for most in leadership to be able to😢

    • fairlyspiritual June 18, 2016 at 10:10 am #

      Thanks for sharing. Ultimately the church is just people so there is always hope.

  16. lindamarielofton January 17, 2017 at 11:47 am #

    I was reflecting on our new pastor today. She is a lovely woman — and when I heard she was being assigned to our church, I was thrilled. However, several months into the new relationship, I am wondering if I have ever been around a pastor who was so guarded.

    I can understand why a female pastor would be guarded. I was called to the ministry over fifty years ago when attending church in a denomination that still does not allow women pastors. I have ministered all these years as a lay person – and haven’t even had an easy time doing that… I have been criticized. I have been bullied. I have been hurt. So I understand the need to be careful. And I understand the need to withdraw.

    What I do wonder, though, is this. If Christians were not so judgmental and harsh with those who do not live up to their standards – if we did not demand a certain “perfection” – would it be as difficult to be transparent?

    If I need to talk to someone about deep spiritual matters, I often go to people who are not involved in church. These people seem to have no need to posture for “spiritually” political reasons. And if I have allowed them to BE who they are, they will usually return the favor.

    Oh, how I long for the day when I am with my Savior and loved ones in heaven. Maybe then, I can quit pretending…

    • fairlyspiritual January 17, 2017 at 4:04 pm #

      Thanks for reading and sharing some really insightful thoughts. I guess the best we can do is model transparency and be safe people for other people’s vulnerability.

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