Over Spiritualizing: Pastor as Person

“Most of the problems pastors experience in the parish are not caused by the pastor forgetting he or she is a pastor. Most difficulties pastors face in the parish arise when the pastor forgets that he or she is a person.”

-Gary Harbaugh


For those of us in Christian leadership (as should be the case for all Christians) there is the goal of seeing everything through the lens of Scripture and our faith. Our hope is that by doing so we will then perceive events accurately and respond in a Godly fashion. Being imperfect beings, we do not do this perfectly.

One of the ways we as Christian leaders can get off course is called spiritualizing or perhaps a better term is over-spiritualizing.  What is over-spiritualizing and what is the problem? Over-spiritualizing is a form of intellectualizing where we over-extend the intended meaning of a text or presume God’s intention in a situation with the outcome being an avoidance of a normal human reaction. For example, one of the most common texts used in this way is 1 Thessalonians 4:13b, “so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” To oversimplify, some in Christian leadership argue that this verse means we do not need to grieve period.

We have worked with those in ministry who have lost loved ones, even children, and have not grieved and make the argument that they do not need to grieve because of the hope we have as Christians in eternal life. To be clear, as Christians we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, yet we grieve. Not because we don’t have hope but simply because we miss the person here and now.

In many other situations besides grief, we as Christian leaders take a verse or spiritual truth and try and use it as a pole vault to leap over the pain and journey of healing from a loss or wrong or disappointment. While God’s word should always be our foundation, our guide, and our hope it was never meant to help us avoid reality – but live well in reality.

Why do we over-spiritualize? One reason is that there is a lot of pressure, internal and external, on the Christian leader to have a victory story. When a preaching pastor loses someone to death they are permitted to speak about their own grief at the funeral and perhaps the next Sunday but then are expected to move on. When a Christian leader appears to move on quickly they are often applauded for their faith. Unfortunately, what others are seeing and the Christian leader is experiencing is often shock. Then when the real pain of loss and grief begins to surface they are left to deal with it on their own. A second reason is that many of us in Christian leadership see a lot of Christians floundering in the sea of their feelings and are trying to lead them to the more stable land of God’s truth so we are fearful of losing control ourselves. Again, this amounts to a lot of pressure to show how God’s truth is being lived out in our life. A third and very basic reason is that pastors are people and as such are naturally pain avoidant. We can use Scripture as a get out of pain free card. Scripture is clear that in this life there will be trouble. A fourth reason that Christian leaders can over-spiritualize is that it is not safe in their context to be real and broken and admit that they have pain, doubts, and struggles.

At Marble Retreat we value Christian leaders and affirm their desire to live sold out for God. We full heartedly agree with the goal of living out Christ-likeness in their families, ministries, and communities. We believe that living authentically as a Christian leader means at times and seasons we will be in grief, troubled, discouraged, and in pain. And we believe that through the ministering of the Holy Spirit, the work of the Holy Scriptures in our lives, the communion with Christ, and the comforting of the body of Christ we can all walk through the valley of the shadow of death and know that He is with us and will bring healing to our hearts, souls, and minds. We do not need to skip from A to Z but can authentically walk through our pain and watch God make beauty from ashes and dancing from mourning.

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