I’ve had the good fortune of enjoying healthy, positive relationship with my pastors over the years, relationships that have left me with enormous respect for church leaders and the challenges they face daily.
Having befriended a lot of pastors’ kids, I know that pastors and their families are often held to impossibly high standards that leave them constantly striving for perfection and subjected to great scrutiny. That kind of pressure is enough to strain marriages, hurt children, and trigger major burnout. I am thankful for all of the men and women who have persevered to share the gospel under such circumstances.
But lately I’ve been noticing something else. While some pastors are unfairly criticized by members of their congregation, others are overly revered. In conversations with friends and family, I’ve noticed more and more people talking about their pastors or priests as if they could do no wrong, as if they speak for God Himself. I'm not sure if circumstnaces have actually changed, or if I have changed. Perhaps I'm just now noticing - a result of my "posmodern" tenency to doubt and deconstruct.
These are three red flags that I’ve been seeing:
Red Flag One - Pastor as the Only Source of Counseling
I’ve known a lot of people to benefit enormously from pastoral counseling. Dan and I did our premarital counseling with a pastor, and we’ve certainly benefited from his advice over the past six years.
That being said, I think there are some issues that pastors are simply not qualified to address on their own.
I recently heard someone say, “My pastor counsels straight from the Bible...There’s none of this Freudian crap.”
That worried me a little. Freud had some good things to say, actually, and trained psychologists/psychiatrists bring lot of experience and education to the table when someone is suffering. Yes, reading the Psalms can be therapeutic and helpful...but so can cognitive behavioral therapy. It seems to me that Bible verses alone are not going to cut it when something more serious, like hypnosis or even medication, may be necessary.
Furthermore, I’ve known some pastors to give some bad advice...mainly because they are so close to the individuals involved. Sometimes you really need an objective third party to help you sort things out.
Red Flag Two - Pastor as the Only Source of Theology/ Biblical Interpretation
Recently I’ve been corresponding with several different pastors from a variety of denominations. This has been a fantastic experience, as I love talking theology with people who have really studied it! What has surprised me the most about these conversations is the wide range of responses I get when I pose questions or challenges. Most pastors talk to me like a peer, as if my thoughts are valid and reasonable and worth engaging. But a few have a tendency to get defensive or treat me like a child. They avoid answering my questions directly and instead turn the tables, posing litmus-test-type questions and then telling me whether I got them right or wrong.
I think perhaps some are just so accustomed to assuming the role of leader and teacher that they aren’t sure how to respond to someone who has done her fair share of research on a topic. They seemed a little surprised that I didn’t just accept their interpretation of Scripture as the only interpretation of Scripture.
I’ve never been the type of person to just believe whatever a pastor or teacher tells me to believe. For better or for worse, if something doesn’t make sense, I question it. I look into it. Some pastors seem to be used to this; others seem caught off guard.
I would be wary of any congregation in which the pastor is revered too much to be questioned (though questions should obviously be posed in the right way, through the right channels, and with the right timing).
Red Flag Three - Pastor as the Only Example of How to Live
This happens when a pastor’s lifestyle choices are hailed as “the only right way to do things.” I’m thinking of spending habits, marriage relationships, gender roles, political persuasion, entertainment choices, etc. When everyone in a church eats, drinks, and talks like its pastor, something’s not okay.
What red flags would you add?