In a recent conversation with people involved in overseas mission, we broached the topic of those “in the field” who seek out therapy at some point for a range of issues. The comment was made that every therapist advises people to leave the field so that they can pursue their healing. The question was raised: can it be possible, good, and appropriate for folks to remain at their post, so to speak, and work out their issues in the context of a very challenging and costly ministry?

I was struck by how this question resonated with me and with various experiences I have had during the last few years. I am most certainly an advocate for seeking help and growth through counseling. In fact, if I had the money I would likely go myself! But I have seen a persistent trend and that is this: counselors who recommend removal as an essential part of the road to healing. In the situations I am familiar with, it has been primarily removal from leadership, removal from church involvement, removal from ministry. As one who is not trained in the area of mental health, I have felt unable to critique this, but I have wondered about its soundness.

I have had lots of friends receive counseling for their marriages, and I have never heard of a counselor who recommended that they remove themselves from each other so that they can pursue their wholeness as individuals (though I am sure there are examples of this and probably times where that indeed is necessary). Even though the daily life of marriage is difficult and painful, it is the journey through that, together, that is the road to healing for these folks. But for ministers in churches, that same principle does not often apply. The idea instead is that one must first get healthy before one can contribute in forms of leadership and service to the broader life of the church. The healing journey is walked alone, divorced from that relationship of finding life through giving up life for the sake of Christ and his church.

I have also seen the trend in my generation of people who “take a break” from service in the church for a host of reasons. I had good friends who, in preparation for their marriage, decided that the first year of their life together needed to be protected and so they would remove themselves from all formal ministry involvement. They quoted the Old Testament passage about husbands not going off to war in the first year of marriage. I found it a puzzling trend that I have seen repeated in other communities and contexts (did someone write a book about this popularizing the idea?).

Similarly, I see people remove themselves from ministry (or be removed) for a host of personal holiness reasons. The Bible is filled with exhortations on holiness and living a life above reproach. There is a special concern for witness and how the church and its message will be perceived. Yet the scriptures are as filled with the stories of very flawed, sinful people being used powerfully for God’s purposes. How do we reconcile that, and where do we draw the lines? Or do we just neuter the Old Testament Bible stories and make everyone heroic figures to emulate and leave out the parts of the story that make them remotely human.

Sexual sin is where I see the most consistency: it seems that if you are struggling with your sexuality in whatever way, you have no place on a leadership team or in a pulpit. But I recently saw two people who were engaged in a very significant struggle within their marriage that stayed at their ministry post WHILE receiving extensive counseling and accountability and prayer. Their ministry prospered and their marriage was healed.

I have no conclusion here, only questions. What does it mean to minister as flawed, broken people on a road, a journey, toward redemption? What does it mean to minister with transparency? Do we believe that our weakness, our creatureliness, our humanity is part of God’s methods, or do we place standards on what is good enough or healthy enough or holy enough for God to use?


  1. I think it depends a lot on what your perceived role is in your church, and I also think that in many churches, “leaders” are handed unreasonably high expectations.

    If you, as a pastor, are expected to be the living embodiment of Jesus Christ, living a perfect life in any way, then it seems reasonable to ask you to step down if you turn out to be human. This is even more true if pastors are expected to be the single moral compasses of their church, the sole interpreters and appliers of scripture.

    If, on the other hand, the responsibility for spirituality and righteousness is shared among the whole congregation and the pastor plays a key role, but not a lonely one, in the search for truth . . . well, in that case, I think there’s probably more room for authenticity.

    But you’re right, there are more questions than answers. If you threw a bunch of hypotheticals at me and asked me to interpret what’s right and wrong, I’m certain that I would say that there’s a right time and place for a leader to step down. I just don’t know that I can define that time and place very easily.

  2. Alright you’ve just struck a chord with me. I removed myself about a month ago from the liturgy team I was on because of personal issues.

    I feel to broken and not strong enough in my faith to be able to stand up infront of everyone in my church in soundness that what I say is what I believe and practice.

    I don’t know when I can go back, or if I will ever.

    But I DO want to share my brokenness in the hopes that others might be strengthen. I’m not afraid to be open about where I am at, I told everyone that I was taking a break for these reasons.

    I feel filled with selfishness so much so that, I don’t think there is much room for the spirit.

  3. Gabrielle,
    To know one’s brokenness is a truly beautiful thing that brings us to the place where we can see our need for a savior.
    I know you have read Henri Nouwen so I know that you have seen how a person who sees and knows their own brokenness in such a deep way as Henri Nouwen did is not excluded from being a blessing to others: in fact, such a person can, like Nouwen, powerfully bless millions.
    I also know that you are a part of a wonderful community, and I trust that you are sharing your journey with people of sincere faith and partnership with you. Submit yourself to their love and prayer and companionship as you walk through the “shadows of the vally of death” (Psalm 23) that are inevitable in our faith journeys.
    Lastly–I am preaching tomorrow and I am feeling more weak than strong right now in my own life. I go to the pulpit tomorrow trusting that the Lord is made strong in our weakness.

  4. Jer,

    Very well said.

    In fact, members of our generation are more likely to be drawn to churches and ministers who demonstrate greater transparency and authenticity in their “talk”. We have been so turned off by the “happy clappy” churches with all the shiny exteriors and polished performances. We prefer the rugged and the real, flaws and all.

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