On the danger of pedestals – Part 2

Recently I wrote about the danger of people in churches projecting idealized images onto their pastors. This is not only unhelpful for the people, it’s dangerous and damaging for the leader. (See part 1 of this series here). So now the question is, what can we do about it? What is the answer?

Humanity. Let the leader be human.

A recent meditation from the recovery book “Today,” from Hazelden publishing has this to say about pedestals:

“Sometimes we expect far too much of the people around us, and because no one can ever live up to those expectations, we are almost always disappointed. But wouldn’t it be better if we just let go, and let people be who they are? Then we’d be able to see them as they are – with all their beauty and goodness in which we take joy, and with all their faults, which we can also see in ourselves.

“When we have put someone up on a pedestal, sculpturing them to fit our needs and desires by smoothing out the rough edges and creating new curves here and there, we cannot see the real person underneath our work. All we see is the illusion we have created. That is denying the person’s real identity and is disrespectful. It’s much better for our friends and for ourselves if we drop our expectations and illusions, and accept them all just the way they are.”

We like the pedestal too much

For most pastors, what makes ministry such an obstacle to recovery is this issue of being on the pedestal. Many of us like it too much. Many of us get so attached to having people look up to us that we have a hard time facing ourselves honestly. And if there’s one thing we need to do in recovery, it is to face ourselves honestly. We have to get honest about our resentments. We have to get honest about what we are looking for, and what we are actually doing with our sexual behaviors. We have to get honest about how deceitful we have been. We have to get honest about how unsatisfied we are in our marriage. And we have to get honest about how lonely we are.

And as if that’s not enough, we also have to be vulnerable. We have to get off the pedestal. Being on a pedestal creates a mindset where we are reaching down to help all those poor, needy people around us. This creates a skewed mindset: “I’m strong, and my job is to help these other weaker people around me.” But sometimes we are one of those needy people that need help from others. As pastors we are good at helping others, and we are awful and letting others help us.

My story

After my problem with pornography became public in our church, a number of people reached out to my wife and me. They sent notes, made calls, and some even brought meals to my wife when I was away at treatment. I had conversations with guys in the church who would earnestly ask me, “How are you doing?” I was the one who was supposed to be asking them that question!

On one hand it was great to get this kind of support, but on the other, it was really uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to be on the receiving end of people’s care.

I’ve faced a similar dynamic in the support groups I’ve been in. These groups have been an important part of my recovery journey, but I have had to learn to be authentic in these groups. For me that authenticity means being honest about my insecurities and ungodly thoughts and feelings.

It’s easy for me to take the lead in groups like this and help other people, but sometimes I am the messed up one who needs help. For a long time I would censor myself when I would speak up in our group meetings. I wouldn’t say what I was really feeling if I thought it was too disjointed, or might seem selfish or petty. I had to face the fact that I was censoring myself because I was still trying to be on that pedestal. I wanted the guys in my group to like me and respect me, and I was afraid they wouldn’t if they knew how messed up and small-hearted I am.

Now I see things differently. I realize that both things can be true of me: I can be helpful and I can also be needy. I can be funny and happy, but I can also be pathetic and self-absorbed. I can be all those things and still be loved. Instead of having people look up to me, I can have them walk beside me.

Instead of keeping the people around me at arms length – and being able to “reach out and help them” from my pedestal – I now have fellow-strugglers that I share with. Turns out that this is what both of us needed all along.

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