Chuck DeGroat: Pastors Need to Stop Hiding Behind a Public Image

The 17th-century Presbyterian clergyman John Flavel wrote in Keeping the Heart, “There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.”

I’ve found this to be true of many people in ministry. These pastors passed their ordination exams with flying colors. They can quote Barth and Bavinck. They have “hot takes” on cultural issues on social media. They’re conversationalists and the last to leave church on Sunday mornings. But they’re also burning cauldrons of neglected needs that manifest in sneaky and secretive behaviors which will likely cost them their pastoral ministries and maybe their families.

They’re lost pastors, lonely and busy and empty and radically disconnected from any kind of inner conversation with their hearts and with the God who is more near to them than their very breath.

The Glittering Image and the Hidden Self

Something akin to what I’m speaking of is narrated in Susan Howatch’s novel, Glittering Images. In the novel, Charles Ashworth is a conflicted Anglican priest and canon who meets with Jon Darrow, a spiritual director who confronts his false self, what he calls his “glittering image,” that public persona he takes while neglecting a deeper, inner conversation.

As his spiritual director, Darrow does something interesting. He speaks directly to the “glittering” part of Ashworth, saying, “He must be exhausted. Has he never been tempted to set down the burden by telling someone about it?”

“I can’t,” Ashworth replies.

“Who’s ‘I’?” Darrow responds.

“The glittering image.”

“Ah yes,” says Darrow, “and of course that’s the only Charles Ashworth that the world’s allowed to see, but you’re out of the world now, aren’t you, and I’m different from everyone else because I know there are two of you. I’m becoming interested in this other self of yours, the self nobody meets. I’d like to help him come out from behind that glittering image and set down this appalling burden which has been tormenting him for so long.”

“He can’t come out,” Ashworth responds.

Darrow asks, “Why not?”

In a moment of stunning self-clarity, Ashworth says, “You wouldn’t like or approve of him.”

With gentleness and honesty, Darrow responds, “Charles, when a traveler’s staggering along with a back-breaking amount of luggage he doesn’t need someone to pat him on the head and tell him how wonderful he is. He needs someone who’ll offer to share the load.”

Lost pastors can make it a long way on the fuel of the false self. They may be successful, influential, endearing, charming, and smart. But beneath the veneer are people deeply afraid, lost and lonely, powder kegs of unmet and neglected needs. They have stories that have never been explored, pain never acknowledged, violations of others unconfessed.

Take Jim (an amalgam of several actual clients I’ve seen). He was a top seminary student and a star church planter who had just published his second book when his “sexts” were discovered by his wife. He told her it was a foolish, one-time mistake. Then years of accumulated porn were discovered on his laptop, before several women came forward to describe their encounters with him.

Even at this point, Jim thought getting counseling was silly. He reported a healthy family-of-origin, loving parents, and a loving spouse. He characterized his sexual exploits as an “attack by the evil one,” which elicited empathy from his spouse and elder board, who were convinced that he was a special target of Satan because of his fruitfulness as a pastor.

But soon enough, in our counseling sessions, we discovered Little Jim, the eight-year-old version of himself, constant caretaker of his mother’s emotional needs and perpetually anxious about his father’s long business trips and work life secrecy. In the vacuum of truth, Little Jim languished in loneliness and confusion until the age of 13 when, on a rainy April day, his father called to say he’d be staying in Brazil with his lover.

Jim quickly became a surrogate father to his siblings and a surrogate spouse to his mother. But a budding rage and resentment grew in him toward her. He felt simultaneously responsible for her and controlled by her. In the meantime, he fantasized about his father’s exploits around the world. While he chose the path of the responsible good boy, he hid a shadow self, burdened by shame, rage, and loneliness.

Fast-forward to Jim’s mid-30s. His wife is mothering two children under three, their emotional disconnection is going unaddressed, and Jim holds storehouses of unmet emotional needs within himself. The unaddressed resentment toward his mother transforms into fantasies of submission with the women he “sexts” and the scenes he views online, many of which portray women meeting the sexual needs of men at their own expense. In his fantasy world, he is as free as his father, while in real life, he can remain the dutiful church planter and husband. Jim plays out his unaddressed story of trauma in a way that gives him some sense of control over his chaotic interior life, while unwittingly abusing and harming women, sabotaging his own marriage and ministry, and violating the sacred trust of his ministerial office.

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Source: Christianity Today