Todd Wilson: How Can So Many Pastors Be Godly and Dysfunctional at the Same Time?

Todd Wilson is the president and cofounder of the Center for Pastor Theologians. Taken from Tending Soul, Mind, and Body ©2019 edited by Gerald L. Hiestand and Todd Wilson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426.

Pastors can be godly and dysfunctional at the same time. They can be holy and not whole. They can be biblically faithful and psychologically broken. They can be prayer warriors and control freaks, spiritually mature and emotionally repressed. They can sincerely love Jesus yet be addicted to food or porn or pain meds. I know this to be true from experience.

For many years as a pastor, I was godly and dysfunctional at the same time. If you had come to live with me for a week in January 2015, slept on my couch, shadowed me through my day, you would have come away thinking, He’s a godly guy. He loves Jesus. He loves the Bible. He loves thechurch. He cares about his wife and children andmaking a difference in the world for Jesus. But you would have also seen that I was dysfunctional.

In 2015 I was granted a three-month sabbatical. Here’s what I had planned: I was going to finish writing one book, start writing another book, read through Calvin’sInstitutes of the Christian Religion, memorize the Book of James to preach from it in the spring, and brush up on my Hebrew. When I shared these plans with the elders, one of them wryly said, “You going to do anything else?”

But I wasn’t going to dive right in. I was going to take the first week to rest. It was a sabbatical after all! I made it to Wednesday before I started to come unglued. You may know someone with a serious substance abuse issue, a chemical addiction to alcohol or some other drug. Perhaps you’ve seen a documentary on 60 Minutes about people trying to kick their drug habit and going through withdrawal.

That was me in early January 2015. I went through real, physical signs of withdrawal: irritability, uncontrolled craving, edginess, desperation—not for booze or drugs but for accomplishment, achievement, and getting stuff done.

I was going crazy, like an addict who needed a hit, and I made my wife crazy. On Thursday she leveled with me: “Todd, you have to do something about this!”

I knew just what to do. I went back to work.

That next week, I was up at 5 a.m., went to the YMCA by 5:30, swam 2,000 yards, showered, got to church by 6:30, had devotions until around 8 (because I’m a godly pastor), and then started working. I finished up around 6 p.m. and went home.

I felt better instantly. My brain experienced a surge of satisfaction, like I had just hooked up to my favorite narcotic. The irritability, the edginess, and the sense of desperation were gone. I was back in the driver’s seat.

Two or three weeks later, a friend texted me: “Todd, is that your car in the church parking lot? Aren’t you supposed to be on sabbatical?”

Do you remember the scene in 2 Samuel 12 when the prophet Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”? That was how my friend’s text message struck me. I had been in denial—godly, sure, but also dysfunctional and broken.

A few weeks later, I found myself in a therapist’s office. “Why are you here?” he asked me. “I think I’m addicted to achievement,” I responded. “Tell me about your background,” he said. And that began a conversation and a relationship that helped me see that 25 years of Christian spiritual formation had added layer upon layer of moral formation on top of deeply seated compulsions that still controlled me.

A Lack of Integration

What unites me with a thousand other pastors who are both godly and dysfunctional? A lack of integration.

Many forms of evangelical spirituality fail to foster integration. We prioritize doctrinal instruction and moral development, but we neglect psychological healing. We emphasize the cultivation of character, but we overlook our psychological compulsions, fixations, and emotional reactivity. This type of spirituality will breed dis-integrated pastors whose ministries will sooner or later disintegrate around them.

We see signs of dis-integrated Christians all around us. Why is it that “good” Christians don’t always make very good human beings? They’re faithful to their families, they’re consistent in church attendance, they cut their grass and pay their taxes, and they read their Bibles and pray for the nations. Yet they can also be rigid, self-righteous, xenophobic, racist, sexist, controlling, narrow-minded, emotionally repressed, sexually dysfunctional, bitter, impulsive, and angry.

We need an approach to spiritual formation that fosters integration—that brings together doctrinal instruction and moral development on the one hand, with psychological healing on the other. An approach that brings about not only holiness but wholeness.

In saying this, I’m sounding a note similar to one Dallas Willard sounded several decades ago. Willard’s concern was that Christians weren’t attaining Christlikeness, but not because of a lack of effort. No, everywhere he looked he saw sincere Christians doing the best they could.

Instead, he said, the problem is our deficient theological anthropology. In The Spirit of the Disciplines he wrote,

For serious churchgoing Christians, the hindrance to true spiritual growth is not unwillingness. While they are far from perfect, no one who knows such people can fail to appreciate their willingness and goodness of heart. For my part, at least, I could no longer deny the fact. I finally decided their problem was a theological deficiency, a lack in teaching, understanding, and practical direction. … The gospel preached and the instruction and example given these faithful ones simply do not do justice to the nature of human personality, as embodied, incarnate.

He saw in evangelical Christianity a failure to do justice to the true nature of the human personality, to take seriously that we are not just souls inhabiting bodies or minds connected to brains. No, we are embodied, incarnate creatures. Or to put it bluntly, we don’t have bodies—we are bodies. Our minds and souls are far better integrated than most forms of evangelical spirituality would lead you to believe.

What would a better theological vision of spiritual formation look like?

If we want to move toward an integrated approach to spiritual formation, we need to take three steps.

Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today