7 Deadly Diseases of Pastoral Ministry



By Nick McDonald:

Full time ministry is dangerous. The temptation toward spiritual pride is deadly, and it infects the body like nothing else. Pastors suffer uniquely with this temptation. Because people cast their gaze on us, we’re tempted to believe we’re more important, more righteous, or wiser than we are. Spiritual pride is constantly creeping into my heart, and I need to be forced to face my idols squarely on to demolish them. With that in mind, here are 7 dangerous diseases particular to full-time ministers of the gospel:

1. The Island Syndrome. For whatever reason, pastors tend to isolate themselves from accountable community. This is beyond dangerous – it’s stupid. Maybe it’s the fear of losing respect when we reveal our sin; maybe it feels like one too many items on the task list. Whatever the reason, it’s not acceptable. Pastors need a community within which they can confess sin safely. Simon and Garfunkel said, “No man is an island”, but more importantly, the Apostle Paul said, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Cor. 12:21). When pastors isolate their sin, that’s effectively what they’ve done.

2. The Robot Syndrome. Whether because of personal ambition, congregational expectations or a false sense of religious duty, pastors tend to see themselves as mini-supermans. Just recently a brother from abroad shared with our class the struggle he faces in his homeland: pastors are literally expected to die from ministry burnout. He was condemned for resting from the church-planting effort in his country to come to America for training and refreshment. Through Redeemer Church in New York, he found a voice for his struggles: he was burning out, because he was equating holiness with a super-human ability to sustain himself without rhythm and rest.

3. The High-Priest Syndrome. This is especially tempting for those of us with degrees, people pleasing tendencies or shepherding gifts. Though we’d never express it blatantly, we act as though we are the mediator between God and our congregation. Rather than replicate ourselves through non-degreed leaders, or free lay-people to plant churches and lead small groups, we hoard ministry opportunities and train people to treat us like their high priest. Once again, this is bad ecclesiology – “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be”. (1 Cor. 12:17-18)

4. The Copycat Syndrome. It’s a great thing to have a mentor; but it’s dangerous to be a copy-cat. The other day I made a jab at a prominent ministry leader, to which a friend replied (jokingly) – “Don’t you DARE insult so-and-so!” It was a funny moment, because inwardly we both knew our tendency to set super-star pastors on pedestals and proclaim, “I follow Paul! I follow Apollos! (1 Cor. 3:4)”. Rather than make it our goal to copy the ministry of someone we admire, we need to learn what we can while also contextualizing Jesus’ ministry to our particular time and place (imagine what would happen if Tim Keller moved to Minnesota, John Piper moved to 1500’s Geneva and John Calvin moved to New York and no one changed a thing…It would be a ministry disaster!) More importantly, we need to rest in the way Jesus uniquely created us, rather than trying to be justified by becoming like someone else.

5. The Justification-by-fruit Syndrome. How often to you check the numbers? Keep track for the next few weeks – you might be surprised. If you’re a compulsive number tracker, I can guarantee you suffer from justification-by-fruit. “If God uses me in big ways (ways that make me admirable by others’ standards), I must be ‘good’. If he doesn’t, I’m being ‘bad’”. While it’s not wrong to have numbers available, and even to take a cold, hard look at the facts, is there really a good reason to look at the numbers every week? I don’t think so. We can’t continue to preach justification by Jesus while practicing justification by accounting!

6. The Military Syndrome. It’s amazingly easy to justify neglecting our vital ministry to our families in the name of “front-line” battles for Jesus. Because we conflate ministry and spirituality, it’s much easier to get-away with family neglect as a pastor than any other profession – in fact, we’ll probably be cheered on! But one of the core qualifications for eldership is the proper care of our families (1 Tim. 3:5). This doesn’t mean that family life won’t look different as a pastor – it will look dramatically different. But as soon as we cease deep, loving, Jesus-like care for our households in the name of “ministry”, we’ve lost sight of the gospel.

7. The Answer-Man Syndrome. So maybe this is more of a fresh-seminarian problem (what are you lookin’ at?). When people ask a question, we’re chomping at the bit to correct their misconceptions. When they express a personal struggle, we’re just waiting to shove theology down their throat. There are no questions we can’t answer, no theological stones left unturned. It’s arguably easier for pastors to get away with this than anybody else. After all, people are coming to us for advice, right? No – actually, they’re coming because they need a shepherd. Yet no three words terrify us more than, “I don’t know.” Even more terrifying seem to be the words, “I was wrong.” When was the last time you repented for something you publicly preached or published? We seem to think once something’s in print or said from the pulpit, our new job is to defend it like the gospel. Here’s good news for all of us: it’s not. Sometimes the best thing we can do for people is say, “I messed that up. I’m sorry.”

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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