Paul Prather

Why is it so hard for ministers to practice what they preach?

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No one who’s spent much time among clergy — or been a man or woman of the cloth — believes ministers are especially holy people.

From megachurch leaders who abuse their staffs to small-town pastors who engage in backstabbing church politics to gain bigger parishes, ministers don’t have a stellar track record as moral exemplars.

Skeptics looking on from the outside usually attribute such failings to hypocrisy. To them, ministers are just fakers who talk a good game and act sanctimonious, but in fact are wolves intentionally using their gullible flocks for their own ends.

As one who is an ordained minister, as well as the son and nephew of ministers, who has spent most of my 60-plus years among the clergy — and who knows them better than sometimes I’d like to — I find the skeptics’ judgments of hypocrisy sophomoric.

The truth is more complicated. Most ministers are absolutely sincere. They want to serve both God and their parishioners. They try hard to get it right.

But they fail. Occasionally they fail spectacularly. They fail because they’re human. Being human, they’re by definition flawed and wounded.

I bring this up not because of any recent or impending scandal I’m aware of, but because I happened across a “Christianity Today” piece on the subject, titled “How Can So Many Pastors Be Godly and Dysfunctional at the Same Time?”

It’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Todd Wilson called “Tending Soul, Mind, and Body: The Art and Science of Spiritual Formation.”

Wilson is president and co-founder of the Center for Pastor Theologians, a Chicago-based ministry that seeks to better mesh theological training with parish ministry.

“Pastors can be godly and dysfunctional at the same time,” he observes. “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.”

In Wilson’s telling, he was a successful pastor while simultaneously a workaholic and control freak. He finally saw how far off the mark he was.

He’s spent 25 years trying to figure out why so many ministers, like him, exhibit disconnects between the virtues they preach and the lives they lead.

He argues this split is caused by a lack of “integration,” something that afflicts clergy and lay people alike.

“We see signs of dis-integrated Christians all around us,” he writes. “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.”

Wilson says the problem can be traced, at least partly, to historic Christian theology.

In the fourth century St. Augustine appropriated the Greek idea of a dualism between the mind and the body, the inner life and the outer life, the spiritual and the physical. In that dualism, the inner, spiritual self is all that matters. The rest is dross.

Believing this, Christians have given short shrift to the physical. We over-spiritualize matters that may indeed have profound biological components.

Wilson thinks we need to recognize we’re made up of bodies and brains as well as souls and spirits, that they influence one another in ways not understood in ancient times.

For instance, he learned from his adopted children that “the body keeps score. Traumatic events in a child’s life — abandonment, emotional or physical abuse, neglect — can scar the body and damage the brain. These experiences embed in the circuitry of the brain, perhaps not as explicit memory like looking at a photo album, but as implicit memory that you re-experience emotionally.”

Simply ordering an abused child to change his behavior does no good. As parents, Wilson and his wife had to admit there would be no spiritual growth among their kids until they helped their bodies recover and their brains rewire themselves.

“Katie and I have also realized that, in this fallen world, we’ve all been traumatized,” he continues. “In different ways and to varying degrees, we’ve all been roughed up by this abusive world. We’re all a little bit dis-integrated — even pastors.”

For him, ministers become physically, psychologically and spiritually integrated as they recognize the damage they’ve suffered and quit over-spiritualizing that damage itself and the cures.

They can’t use religion as an anesthetic like Oxycontin (or misuse Oxycontin itself, for that matter) to mask their pain. They have to embark on a process of consciously monitoring their behaviors and rewiring their thoughts, one increment at a time.

The way I would say it is that we have to do the work, however much discomfort it entails and however long it takes. We must be honest with God, ourselves and others.

We are spiritual beings, yes, but we must also wrestle endlessly with the flesh, because it’s as real as the spirit.