The Insecure Pastor
By Samuel D. Rima
After serving as senior pastor for 10 years in a medium-sized urban church on the East Coast, Tim was eager to entertain the advances of a committee from a larger church in the Midwest. Tim had been recommended to the chairman of the committee by one of his seminary classmates who thought he knew Tim relatively well. As Tim and the committee successfully navigated the usual rituals of a pastoral search process, Tim began to feel a vague sense of uneasiness. Even though he had been waiting for this kind of opportunity since leaving seminary, he worried about whether he was capable of leading a larger, multiple-staff church. Rather than acknowledge his concerns and share them with his wife, Judy, or the chair of the committee, Tim convinced himself that his uneasiness was unfounded and decided to project an air of absolute confidence in his ability to provide leadership for this new church more than triple the size of the previous congregation he had served.
During the final stages of the search process, Tim gave detailed answers to questions concerning how he would manage the 15-member staff with the assurance that he and the staff would work together like a well-oiled machine. He handled congregational inquires concerning how he would oversee the $3.5 million budget and increasingly problematic space problems with creativity and aplomb.
Despite his nagging doubts and concerns, even Tim was beginning to believe this new leadership challenge would be a piece of cake. After all, half the battle, he had convinced himself, was making others believe he knew how to lead at this advanced level, even though he was riddled with self-doubt and feelings of personal insecurity.
Tim believed that expressing his concerns and being transparent about his feelings of insecurity would only foster a lack of confidence in his leadership. So, rather than approach the new position with healthy humility and communicate that he was willing to learn from the more experienced staff members and truly work as a team in this new leadership venture, Tim settled on the never-let-them-see-you-sweat approach.
Tim was called to the church with a strong congregational vote and immediately set out to make his mark. Three years into his new ministry, Tim found himself in an extremely challenging position as senior pastor. Based on the leadership books he had been reading, Tim decided to hire an executive pastor to run the church and be the primary interface with, and supervisor of all the staff. This allowed Tim to insulate himself from hands-on management of his staff. He would devote himself to preaching and writing, and delegate congregational care matters to the pastor of congregational care. To address the space challenges the church faced, Tim launched a compelling effort to convince the leadership and congregation that the church needed a new sanctuary, family life center, and office/classroom complex. Not only would this massive building project meet their current facility needs, it would also serve to attract new members to the church who would then be able to help pay for the $12 million project.
Even though there had been significant pockets of congregational resistance to the building plans and the ensuing capital campaign, Tim would not allow anything to defeat his dream of building an even larger facility that would allow him to become pastor of the state’s only megachurch. Many of those uncomfortable with the plans believed that the current membership would not be able to service the $5 million debt the church would need to take on to build the new facility.
Among the resisters was a popular staff member who had been on staff for 10 years. As pastor of student ministries, Doug had a significant following comprised of parents and grandparents of the many students he had helped during the previous decade. Even though Doug was willing to move ahead with the church, he made it known that he was not in favor of the building project. He believed the debt would cripple the church’s ministry as they pinched every penny to service the debt. Even though Doug had committed not to share his views publicly or to undermine the project, Tim believed Doug’s failure to fully support the project was a direct repudiation of his vision and leadership as senior pastor.
Doug’s refusal to embrace the building program reinforced Tim’s secret feelings of insecurity as well as his personal doubts about exercising leadership in a significantly larger church. Moreover, Tim interpreted Doug’s lack of support for the building program as a lack of personal support for him as both a person and a leader. Thus, Tim could not allow himself to live with Doug’s position. He required total, enthusiastic support from every staff person — anything less was seen as a challenge to him personally.
Tim felt that Doug needed to either fully embrace the program, and his leadership, or resign. Tim justified that to allow him to remain on staff was a threat to the staff team. Rather than personally deal with Doug regarding the issue and negotiate an appropriate solution to the situation, Tim met with his inner circle — the executive pastor and the senior associate pastor — to form a strategy to remove Doug from his position. During the following year, as the building program was in progress, Tim and his inner circle began to look for any signs of insubordination or poor performance they could use to legitimize their removal of Doug.
After nearly a year of trying to build a case against Doug, Tim believed the time had arrived to force Doug from his position at the church. Tim decided that the best way to handle Doug’s removal would be through the executive pastor, Andrew Long, Doug’s direct supervisor.
The disciplinary document that Tim and Andrew drafted, and that Andrew presented, came as a complete shock to Doug. His last two performance reviews, performed by Andrew, had been exemplary. The list of petty complaints that comprised the discipline document left Doug confused and angry. He was told that failure to sign the document, acknowledging the legitimacy of the charges, would be grounds for immediate dismissal.
As word of the effort to remove Doug was leaked to the congregation (not by Doug), many people began to express their own anger and pent-up frustration with the direction in which the church had been moving since Tim had become senior pastor. Because Doug refused to sign the discipline document, the board sent a letter to the congregation informing them of a meeting at which Doug’s removal for insubordination would be voted on, just one month before the grand opening of the new facility.
The congregational letter resulted in a massive backlash. The congregation began to focus attention on Tim’s leadership style that many believed to be dictatorial, rigid, and highly impersonal. Rather than supporting Doug’s removal, people wondered how Doug’s situation could have become so bad without their having been informed earlier. The meeting that had been called to discuss and vote on Doug’s removal turned into a referendum on Tim’s leadership.
The congregation’s response to the situation was an even greater threat to Tim’s feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence. With the new buildings scheduled to open within 2 weeks, Tim found himself struggling with severe depression, contemplating resignation from the church, and wondering whether he was even fit for pastoral ministry.
When Personal Insecurity Becomes a Public Problem
Tim is not the only leader who has experienced the pain that can result when a personal dysfunction, such as acute insecurity, is ignored and instead covered over with the mask of confidence and self-assuredness. In fact, leaders we perceive to be exceptionally confident and in command are more often than not compensating for a deeply rooted sense of inferiority and insecurity. We often see this same dynamic operational in the lives of comedians, actors, and models. Some of the most beautiful models, when interviewed, express feelings of insecurity regarding their appearance. Some of the funniest comedians admit that their larger-than-life public persona is an attempt to compensate for deeply rooted feelings of inferiority and a way to deal with their pain from childhood teasing and trauma. The same can be true for those who aspire to positions of leadership, whether in political, business, or religious realms.
Not only can personal insecurities lead to attempts to compensate by projecting the image of a confident, in-control public leader, but they can also become so consuming that people become driven in their efforts to prove to themselves that they are okay and worthy of the love and esteem of others. These efforts often lead to illicit, secret relationships. Through physical or emotional acts of intimacy, people hope to prove to themselves that they are attractive, intelligent, desirable, or loveable — contrary to their own personal feelings and self-talk. Unfortunately, such attempts never fully assuage their feelings, leading to additional and often increasingly risky behaviors.
Such was the case with Jim Bakker, founder and leader of PTL ministries. From outward appearances, he seemed to be a highly confident, charismatic, and competent leader. Unknown to most people, Bakker’s grand leadership projects and charismatic public persona were being driven by an acute sense of personal insecurity rooted in his childhood and adolescent years. Despite the apparent success of his ministry, none of his achievements were enough to silence the inner voices that continually reinforced his low self-regard and deeply rooted sense of insecurity. Eventually, his reckless search for affirmation led to a public failure and media frenzy that still influence the way the public views Christian leaders.
A more recent episode of public leadership failure involved Ted Haggard, pastor of a megachurch in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and president of the National Association of Evangelicals. In a statement he released in the immediate aftermath of the debacle, he wrote: “The public person I was wasn’t a lie; it was just incomplete. When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me. As a result, I did things that were contrary to everything I believe.”
Similarly, when pastors attempt to mask their personal dysfunctions and present their congregations, or the public, with a manufactured image, they are presenting an incomplete picture of themselves. Some pastors tuck away the parts of their personalities that pain them and cause them shame. The longer these personality flaws remain in the shadows of their lives, the more the darkness grows and begins to dominate their lives because more and more psychic energy is required to keep these issues from being publicly known.
In addition, as in Haggard’s case, more and more energy is focused on these risky behaviors that is hoped will satisfy and alleviate the unmet needs that dominate one’s life. But all too often, one’s failure to deal openly and honestly with his feelings of insecurity or other personal dysfunctions often ends in personal and/or corporate catastrophe.
Signs That Signal Insecurity
How do we know if we, or someone whom we know, might be struggling with hidden insecurity? Individuals who struggle with personal insecurity are, at some level of their consciousness, aware of their problem. But because they often have spent so much energy masking their true feelings and compensating for their problem, rather than constructively confronting it, they may have lost the ability to objectively identify the problem any longer. In fact, they may have convinced themselves at some superficial level that they feel okay about their lives, but that is rarely the case. One traumatic event that threatens them at some level will cause the repressed feelings to surface again. What are the different manifestations of personal insecurity? What are some of the signs that a problem needs to be addressed?
Pastors who struggle with deep feelings of personal insecurity are often concerned that people in their churches might silently doubt their leadership ability. They then become paranoid that people are conspiring behind the scenes to undermine their leadership or certain projects they are promoting. As a result, as with the case of Tim, these pastors have a difficult time allowing staff members or even parishioners to maintain a vital role because paranoid pastors are fearful that someone might lead a leadership coup. Thus, perceived dissenters must be removed, and often such removals are orchestrated through clandestine and hurtful means.
Another indicator that a pastor is struggling with insecurity is his jealous reactions toward other staff members. One pastor of a large church refused to allow any staff member to preach in his absence. Instead, he insisted that his Sunday sermon be videotaped and shown to the congregation on Sunday morning. This jealous reaction stemmed from a previous occasion when a staff member had preached in his absence and had received rave reviews for his sermon. Jealousy can also be related to a pastor’s paranoia that people might like another staff member better than they like the pastor.
A pastor who is struggling with feelings of insecurity may also exhibit compulsive behaviors, such as giving special attention to his personal appearance and dress. To mask feelings of insecurity, the pastor may give an inordinate amount of attention to his outward appearance. Having immaculately pressed suits and well-cut hair that always seems to be perfectly in place can be an obsessive concern for the leader struggling with feelings of insecurity. By compulsively focusing on his appearance he is attempting to control the external aspects of his life to compensate for his inability to control the internal aspects. As a result, these leaders often spend excessive amounts of money and time in pursuing the clothes and grooming habits necessary to maintain an immaculate appearance.
In addition, compulsive leaders frequently are perfectionists and extremely demanding of others. This is because they perceive everything in the organization to be a reflection of them personally. Thus, everything must be done to perfection. How long must a person work to ensure that everything is done to perfection? Forever. Absolute perfection is not attainable. But this is the reason many compulsives are also workaholics who demand the same of others.
Although narcissism is most commonly manifested in a person’s excessive self-admiration, self-centeredness, an overestimation of his own appearance — as well as a need for the expressed affirmation of others — these manifestations are, paradoxically, rooted in feelings of self-loathing, insecurity, inferiority, and vulnerability. For a narcissist, everything in life and ministry revolves around him — he needs to always be at the center of attention. The narcissist does not like to share attention or admiration with anyone. He will strive to keep other staff members out of public view so there are fewer opportunities for them to be noticed or appreciated. The narcissistic pastor is only too willing to accept praise for the work of other staff members who rightly deserve the praise because, after all, he is the senior pastor who made it all possible.
Although these are not the only possible signs of a potential problem, they are among the most prominent and potentially destructive. A pastor must proactively and purposefully deal with the root problem of his personal insecurity to prevent his actions from escalating out of control and creating a public failure that could jeopardize his ministry and a congregation.
When Insecurity Leads to Instability and Chaos
When a leader’s attempts to cover up and compensate for his personal insecurity are not dealt with directly and decisively, it almost always leads to sickness and instability within the church or organization.
It is virtually impossible for a leader suffering from paranoia to develop deep, intimate personal relationships within the staff or congregation. His fear is that information exchanged during the relationship, should it go sour, could be used against him to undermine his leadership or bring him down. Thus, it is better to remain aloof and superficial and avoid developing interpersonal relationships. This fear frequently leads a senior pastor to isolate himself from others and to work within a cocoon of tight secrecy with one or two trusted associates. This leaves other staff members feeling devalued and out of touch with their leader, which can lead to a plethora of other staff related problems.
When a pastor struggles with jealousy rooted in deep personal insecurity, his staff will feel stifled and unable to exercise the full spectrum of their spiritual gifts and strengths. Insecure pastors rarely engage in mentoring others or training staff for new responsibilities for fear that staff members might become more gifted and competent than they are. This can easily result in an ethos of stagnation and frustration among the staff and leaders.
A senior pastor’s compulsivity can result in personal burnout as well as rapid staff turnover. When the senior pastor requires staff to work unreasonable hours in the impossible pursuit of perfection, many staff members find it unbearable and resign. In these settings, it is common for the staff to experience consistently low morale as well. Rapid staff turnover, low morale, and a senior pastor who is continually pushing himself to the ragged edge of his energy and emotional reserves is a recipe for organizational ineffectiveness, if not disaster.
Finally, living and leading with a narcissist is incredibly difficult because everyone is expected to cater to him and meet his needs before doing anything else. Narcissists use people. The narcissistic leader sees his staff as the means to accomplish his personal vision and goals. People are a resource to be used to accomplish his plans, which are usually designed to elevate and enhance his image and reputation.
The symptoms and behaviors that swirl around the insecure pastor have the potential to create not only instability within the church, but also extreme chaos if the problem is not dealt with decisively.
Taking Steps Out of the Darkness and Into the Light
What can a pastor do if he begins to sense that some of these symptoms might be descriptive of his life or leadership? How might lay leaders in a church approach a pastor who seems unaware of the destructive dynamics of his personal insecurity? Let me suggest a few basic steps one might take to deal with this dark side of leadership.
The first step out of the darkness is recognizing the problem and owning it. As long as everyone allows the insecure pastor to live in denial, nothing will ever change — except for the worse. The insecure pastor must be willing to identify the problem, recognize the behaviors in which he has engaged in an effort to compensate for his feelings of insecurity, and then own the problem. This is the primary prerequisite for bringing about change.
In the second step, the insecure pastor must discover and explore the roots of his feelings of insecurity. He must take time to explore and examine the past. This can be an emotionally painful process, which is why leaders avoid it and engage in compensating behaviors. Because this process can be complex and painful, I recommend engaging the services of a spiritual director, counselor, Christian psychologist, or therapist. It is vital that the pastor take this step and pursue it until he has attained the necessary learning, understanding, and personal growth needed to lead him out of the darkness of denial and self-deception and into the light of God’s grace.
The third step out of the darkness is recognizing that the power of Christ can be perfected in a person’s personal weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). When we recognize our weaknesses, embrace them as a part of wholeness, and bring them out of the shadows of our lives so God can redeem them, we eliminate their controlling effects in our lives.
The fourth step is finding our true identity in Christ. The previous three steps will be difficult if not impossible to take if a pastor does not understand his true identity in Christ. He must understand that God loves him completely as he is — even with his dysfunctions — and that God has allowed these to exist in his life so He can facilitate spiritual growth toward wholeness. In Christ, believers are holy and blameless. This is our spiritual position. But believers do not always live out the wholeness Christ made possible because of dysfunctions that result from sin. However, when people fully embrace who they are in Christ, they are provided with the confidence to process their dysfunction(s) in emotional safety. They can then integrate their dysfunctions into their lives, rather than continue to hide them in the shadow side of their personality because of their shame.
For the insecure pastor who has learned to mask or hide his insecurities and compensate for them in unhealthy ways, there is hope and the real possibility of becoming whole in Christ and allowing his dysfunctions to become the rich spiritual soil from which his most effective ministry might come. May God help pastors to live and lead from places of wholeness and freedom, rather than guilt and shame.