Fear of Heights: Pastors, Missionaries, and the Dangers of Pedestals

The statures of thirteen saints adorn the roof of Montreal’s Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde.

According to the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, Simeon Stylites was the first “pillar hermit,” spending much of his life perched atop a column (stylos is Greek for pillar). Simeon began this practice to escape the constant crowds of pilgrims who sought his prayers, disrupting his personal devotions. His original pedestal held him around nine feet off the ground, but over time it was replaced by ever-taller versions, until it was some 50 feet high. Simeon remained on his pillar for 36 years, until his death.

While Simeon seems to have thrived living above the masses, most church leaders today find life atop a pedestal difficult at best. But that doesn’t stop many Christians from elevating them to greater and greater heights, and sometimes those leaders get quite comfortable with the view from above.

This is one of the topics addressed in this month’s issue of Christianity Today. The headline on the front cover is “New Life after the Fall,” referring to the seven-year recovery of Colorado Springs’ New Life Church following the scandals and resignation of its founder and pastor, Ted Haggard.

In a companion article, “Letting Pastors Be Real,” Mark Galli interviews Dale Pyne, president of Peacemakers Ministries, on how churches can help keep their leaders from falling. While Pyne’s advice is focused on pastors, I believe that it applies to missionaries, as well—not only concerning their pastoral role overseas, but also in their relationships with sending churches and supporters. Here is some of what he has to say:

  • Putting pastors up on pedestals, says Pyne, creates “minigods in our minds and hearts.”
  • We don’t hold pastors or missionaries accountable when we think we don’t know enough to address their adherence to “fundamental issues.” Pyne says he’s lost track of how many times he’s heard elders say, ‘I wanted to say something, but I thought, Who am I?'” If a pastor wants to “address or confess [a sin], his place on the pedestal sometimes facilitates pride and fear of man. So they die in silence and pain.”
  • When it comes to attendance, there is pressure on church leaders to “inflate or puff the numbers.” But Pyne says that “if we start managing shepherding by the numbers, we’re going to lose shepherding, and we’re going to focus on the numbers.”
  • “Jesus was perfect,” says Pyne, “pastors are not.” This is, of course, true for missionaries, as well. If either aren’t humble and honest, they “create distance and discourage connection.”
  • Pastors—and missionaries—need “a high-integrity accountability relationship with one or several spiritually mature individuals” to address personal issues. “And they must trust that the relationship is a confidential one.”

Pyne ends with a call for transparency. Here again, as in most of his responses in the article, pastor can be replaced with missionary. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned by everyone in Christian leadership and service:

If we’re too busy denying and protecting and putting on a church face, then the congregation perceives that the pastor has it all together. We say to ourselves, Wow, I am so far from that pastor. I am unworthy. Why isn’t God working in me the way God’s working in him? The people start to elevate them. It’s not all about the pastor, but that transparency releases the congregation. It helps the pastor be real. And releases the congregant to accept who they are and pursue hope in Christ.

(“St. Simeon Stylites the Elder,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917 edition, New Advent; Mark Galli, “Letting Pastors Be Real,” Christianity Today, December 2013)

[photo: “Don’t Jump!!” by Sue Richards, used under a Creative Commons license]


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