Posts Tagged ‘fear in ministry’

The late 1960s band Buffalo Springfield (featuring Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and present-day Calvary Chapel pastor Richie Furay) didn’t last very long, but they had one big hit song to their name: “For What It’s Worth.”

Describing an encounter with police on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, the final verse says:

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you’re always afraid

Step out of line, the man come, and take you away

Those words encapsulate not only how it feels to be caught in a mass protest, but also how it feels to be the pastor of a church in the 21st century.

It is possible for a pastor to love the Lord and his congregation and yet feel emotionally insecure and even petrified at times.

Or as a famous Christian leader once said in an interview, “I’m always running scared.”

As I reflect on my 36 years of church ministry, I can identify at least six occasions when I felt a degree of pastoral paranoia:

First, when somebody came up to me and said, “Pastor, I need to make an appointment to talk to you about something.”

People would usually say that before or after a Sunday service, and my first reaction would be, “Did I say or do something to offend them?”

I’d ruminate over our relationship and see if I could guess why they were coming to see me.

*Were they angry with something I said in a sermon?

*Were they upset with a leadership decision I’d made?

*Were they ticked off at a staff member?

*Were they upset with the way the church was managing funds?

There were times when I tried so hard to guess their concerns that I couldn’t sleep.

But more than 90% of the time, I’d guess wrong.  As Tom Petty sang, “Most things I worry about, never happen anyway.”

They usually wanted to talk to me about their spouse, or their kids, or their boss, or a friend … and they didn’t have anything negative to say to me.

But on a few occasions, someone did come in with guns blazing … and those times … however rare … stayed with me for years.

And they tended to impact every subsequent occasion when someone told me, “Pastor, I need to talk to you …”

Second, when I didn’t hear any encouraging words after a sermon.

Preaching is a funny thing.

Sometimes I’d prepare what I thought was a great message, and hardly anybody would comment on it afterward.

Other times, I’d come to the pulpit feeling dry and uninspired, and I’d receive many uplifting comments afterwards.

In my last church, I spoke to 300+ adults every Sunday.  If just two people said something positive about a message, I felt that I had done my job.

But if nobody said a word, I’d feel like a failure … and would start to wonder, “Am I losing it?”

When I first started preaching, I stood at the door and greeted everyone after the service was done.  I came to hate that time because (a) some people would avoid me altogether, (b) some people would say perfunctory things (“good message, pastor”), and (c) I couldn’t take much time to listen or pray with people.

So after a while, I stopped engaging in the “glorifying the worm” ceremony (in the words of Joe Aldrich) and just stood at the front where I had time to listen to people or pray with them after the service.

Since traffic was flowing out of the worship center … not toward the front … it was natural that I wouldn’t hear most people’s thoughts after a message.

But based on a lack of information, I sometimes wondered, “Could my preaching days be over?”

Third, when someone falsely accused me of wrongdoing.

In baseball, it’s still true that “three strikes and you’re out.”

But in church ministry, it’s increasingly true that just one strike can cause the termination of your position … and your career.

Someone once accused me of doing something that I did not do.

I did something … someone became angry … and then they attached a label to my behavior that completely misrepresented my actions.

The church board became involved, and although they didn’t declare me guilty, it felt like I had a cloud over me for years.

Because if somebody wanted to hurt me, all they had to say was, “Did you know that Jim was guilty of _______________?”

And if I was one of the last ones to hear the accusation … as can happen with pastors … my ministry … and possibly my career … could have been over.

Pastors are aware that people talk about them all the time.

When you’re first in ministry, it bothers you a great deal.  But the longer you’re in ministry, the more you expect to be discussed … and even dissected.

But when you’re slandered … and every pastor is lied about to some degree … the official board needs to use a fair and just process to evaluate those accusations … or they might choose to take the easy road instead.

The easy road involves telling the pastor, “We’re sorry, but even though you may be innocent of the charges going around the church, so many believe them by this time that we don’t see how you can stay and pastor this congregation.”

The knowledge that just one devastating false allegation can end a pastor’s ministry forever is enough to make even the most godly man shake in his boots.

And that possibility can make any pastor paranoid.

Fourth, when an influential Christian leader came to hear me preach.

During my first pastorate, an older pastor and his wife visited our Sunday service one morning.

After the sermon, the pastor’s wife shook my hand at the door and said, “Good diction.”

Good diction?  That was the best she could say?

Around the same time, our district minister … a popular preacher in his own right … visited our church and heard me preach on repentance.

He praised my message up and down … and later told me, “You’re the best preacher in Northern California.”

The truth was somewhere in between.  I was a better preacher than “good diction” but definitely not “the best preacher” for miles around!

As a pastor, if an influential Christian leader was visiting my church the following Sunday, I preferred not to know about it ahead of time.

Because if I did, I was liable to over-prepare my sermon and not be myself.  A pastor does his best preaching when he’s relaxed in the Lord.

The office manager at one of my churches had a father who was a seminary professor.

One Easter, he came to visit, and came up to me after the service and said, “Great message!”

The more “good dictions” a pastor gets, the more paranoid he becomes in the pulpit.

But the more “great messages” he gets, the less paranoid he becomes.

But as every pastor knows, you’re only as good as your last sermon.

Fifth, when I was making a controversial statement in a sermon.

The trend back in the 1980s and 1990s was for a pastor to write out a manuscript of his sermon.

The manuscript demonstrated preparation … and required exact wording.

The trend today is for a pastor to speak without notes, and although I can do that, I prefer to have structure when I speak … or I’m afraid I’ll just ramble on and on.

Over time, I learned that the more controversial the topic, the more precise … and even diplomatic … I had to be with my words … or I might needlessly offend the very people I was trying to instruct.

As my hearers can attest, I never shied away from anything controversial.  Just preaching the Bible is controversial enough!

But I often wondered, “Who might be offended by this sermon?”

During my final year, I gave a sermon celebrating sex inside marriage from 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.  I received a terrific response from some people, but some seniors were so upset with me that they promised to boycott the rest of the series on marriage.

The best pastors are bold when they preach, but when people protest against you for preaching the Word of God … that can make you paranoid.

Finally, when churchgoers told their previous pastor about me.

During my last pastorate, my predecessor visited our church one time, and while we were talking, I discovered that he knew all about the false accusation I mentioned earlier.

I tried to explain what happened from my vantage point, but I’m uncertain how much he believed me.

Then he told me, “So-and-so calls me all the time to complain about you.”

It wasn’t a surprise.  I figured that was the case.

So to what degree could I trust my predecessor and So-and-so after that?

There was a group of people in that church who were more loyal to my predecessor than to me.

Some held leadership positions when he was pastor, but for biblical reasons, I could not let them be leaders.

So they constantly called or emailed him, and when he came to town … which he did a few times a year … they would get together.

And, in many ways, those people were responsible for pushing me out as pastor.

An older man came up to me one time and said, “I drove up to see (your predecessor) recently.  We talked about you!”

What a stupid, insensitive comment that was.

And over time, such comments can make a pastor wonder if there’s a plot to get rid of him.

And in my case, there was … and my predecessor was heavily involved.


This article isn’t meant to be the last word on pastoral paranoia, but merely a starting point.

There are two extremes that pastors must avoid when it comes to paranoia:

If a pastor trusts everybody, his ministry could be over.

John writes about Jesus in John 2:24-25, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.  He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.”

Jesus did not arrive in public and loudly proclaim, “Hey, everybody, I’m the Messiah!”  No, He gradually revealed that information only to select individuals … and only as they were able to grasp it.

He reserved certain actions and words for The Twelve but not the multitudes.  There are things about a pastor his congregation never needs to know.

Share the wrong thing with the wrong person … and your ministry could be history.

But if a pastor stops trusting everyone, then his ministry will eventually die.

A pastor has to trust his inner circle.  If he can’t, his ministry won’t last very long.

Jesus trusted His inner circle … Peter, James, and John … to the point where only they observed Him feeling “sorrowful and troubled” … and only they heard Him say, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:37-38).

For whatever reason, Jesus didn’t want His other eight disciples to witness His emotional distress in Gethsemane.  He was willing to be transparent with only three.

During my last ministry, I trusted very few individuals with my innermost thoughts and feelings.

Several people proved trustworthy, and as far as I know, they have kept my confidences to this day.

But someone else did not.

I remember two extended conversations I had with a key leader.  I shared with him some struggles I was having, and later on, that information was used against me.

Since I shared that information only with him, I knew where the leak originated.

I’m reminded of the old joke about the three preachers who met and decided to confess their sins to each other.

The first preacher said, “I really struggle with alcohol.”

The second preacher admitted, “I really struggle with lust.”

The third preacher exclaimed, “I really struggle with gossip, and I can’t wait to tell others about you two!”

Since all too many of God’s people struggle with gossip, it’s best if pastors share their innermost thoughts and feelings with only a handful of trustworthy individuals … preferably from outside his congregation.


In my fifth year of pastoral ministry, I sank into a deep depression because the ministry was not going well.

My wife was greatly concerned for my well-being.  I was barely functioning.

She told me she was going to find me a Christian counselor.  I told her, “Just find the best-educated person you can.”

She finally found someone with two doctoral degrees.

I drove 35 minutes each way to see him twice a week for four months.

I never breathed a word about my counseling visits to anybody in the church other than my wife.

Christians have a way of panicking when they hear their pastor is hurting.  It’s unrealistic, but many churchgoers need a pastor who is always strong and even superhuman.

And when they hear the pastor isn’t doing well emotionally, they easily imagine the worst.

Years later, after I overcame that depression, I felt comfortable sharing my counseling experience both while preaching and in writing so I could help others to lessen the stigma of going for counseling.

While it was important that I become more emotionally healthy, neither the church board nor the congregation needed to know the process God used to help me become functional again.

That was between the Lord and my wife and me.

Let me ask this question of you:

What else causes pastoral paranoia?

























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