Throughout my faith journey I can recall many authors, teachers, friends, and pastors who have influenced my spiritual walk in a positive way. There are authors like N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, and Dallas Willard who helped me to connect the dots of spirituality and theology. There have been people in ministry who God has sent into my life during difficult seasons who have really helped me to know Christ. And through it all there have also been friends who have wrestled with God, trials, and heartaches with me along the way. Yet this list is incomplete because it fails to recognize the positive impact of bad pastors in my life. That’s right, the positive impact of bad pastors.
I think most folks would prefer to grow in their faith when life is good, when the bills are paid, when the kids are healthy, when relationships are peaceful… but the truth is, as with Israel of the Old Testament, that the last place for spiritual growth is when things are going well. Growth in our faith comes in the context of trials, questions and conflict. A faith that has not faced discouragement, loss, and disillusionment is not really faith at all but naïve idealism. Like it or not it is within trials and confrontation that we grow to know and become more like Jesus.
Throughout the history of the Bible and of the Church as well faith is never an easy road. This goes for Abraham who had to believe God when everything else seemed contrary to his understanding of reality. This was also true for Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers, accused of rape, and locked in prison for years. The same was true of the apostles who not only had conflict with Rome but with one another. I am convinced that even David would have never turned out to be the celebrated king of Israel had he not faced 10+ years of being hunted by Saul—10 years of wrestling with God and his call on David’s life. As Gene Edwards so insightfully noted in Tale of Three Kings, God used Saul to get at the Saul inside of David.
In my own journey it has been my experiences with conflict, legalism, manipulation, disillusionment and so on that have actually forced me to reevaluate much of the theology and practices in the church. All of my black and white ideas about faith as well as my ideals about ministry and the church needed to be broken, as well as my own confidence in them. This breaking didn’t come in times of peace and blessing but in conflict and tears, in times when I wanted to write the church off entirely. And yet it was in those very times that I began to experience the Pastoring of another. It was also through these times that I realized my issue wasn’t the Saul out there but the Saul within me.
Since I have been a pastor I have heard so many discouraging stories from people in my congregation recounting issues with former pastors concerning moral failure, legalism, abuse of power and so on. I have to admit that after hearing so many stories like these that I have at times begun to feel very scared that I might somehow become another one of these pastors that will bring further hurt into the lives of these believers. Not too long ago I was discussing this fear with a friend of mine who is a counselor. He asked me to reflect on the some of the bad experiences I’ve had with folks in ministry, whether pastors, or other ministers that I had looked up to who had fallen from grace. The question he then posed was what difference it had ultimately made in my faith. The truth is that as long as I have kept my heart open to God’s work, He has actually used even bad pastors to work his purposes into my life. Looking back I believe that had I not had some of those very difficult experiences with folks in ministry early on in my faith I would not be where I am today.
In the end I take comfort in the words of Jesus, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). I am sure as my journey continues, now as a pastor myself, that I will be considered by some to be a bad pastor (that is likely the case even now). While I hope I will never fall into sexual immorality, or become an abusive leader, I know that at my best I will still end up hurting some people along the way. While I will endeavor to be a good pastor my hope is that I can lead people to know the one true Pastor and Shepherd and that even when I do stupid or hurtful things that folks will listen to and follow Him. I trust this will be the case because it has been true in my own journey. Though human pastors have failed me, though people in ministry have let me down, one Shepherd has been leading me, guiding me, and protecting me through it all.