Justin pastored a mid-sized suburban church. He started as the youth pastor, weathered some leadership changes, grew in respect and influence, and was eventually called to lead the church. Justin was a passionate and gifted teacher, the people respected him, he had a beautiful family, and was, by all appearances, a bright young pastor with a great future.
But Justin had a dirty little secret. No, not that kind of dirty. He was eaten up by doubts. Justin wondered how he could be sure he was saved, could he really trust God’s promises, did he really buy all that theology he’d learned in Seminary? Over time his doubts ate away at his passion for ministry. Justin ended up stepping away from the pastorate because he just didn’t think he was qualified any longer.
Everyone doubts – besetting doubts, passing doubts, nagging doubts. The church is full of doubters, whether or not we like to admit it. We doubt God’s promises. We doubt the “joy set before us” because the temptation before us looks pretty appetizing too. We doubt our salvation. We doubt God’s goodness in the face of evil and the trustworthiness of scripture in the face of criticism. Every Sunday normal people with these thoughts file into worship centers and sanctuaries around the world.
And what does that mean? It means the pastor better have all the answers. The Sunday school teacher and small group leader needs to be rock solid. The deacons and elders better brim with confidence. No matter what comes up – crisis, tragedy, attack, debate – they must be Johnny-on-the-spot with the right response. Church goers get to doubt. Church leaders don’t.
Of course church leaders do doubt, as much as all the people you lead, in fact. Justin wasn’t an aberration. The same questions of faith, identity, crisis, culture, theology, and obedience hover and swoop around them. You feel as lost in the fog of not understanding as all they people they’re expected to enlighten. But you can’t let on, not most of the time, not to most people. So you face the specters alone, often suffer, and sometimes fall.
It doesn’t have to be this way. No, the church’s expectations won’t likely be changed in short order. It won’t grow in comfort with a leader’s doubt by next Sunday, but a few practices can both bolster you and strengthen your congregations.
You only need two, maybe three. These are people you trust. You can’t process all your questions in public, on a blog, on Twitter, or with any old church member. But you need someone to process with. More than just processing, though, you need them as a plumb line to tell you when your questions have gone from fruitful to sinful. You won’t see; they will.
Doubts are just questions as long as you have an anchor. Without an anchor they are waves dashing you against the shore. Mark 9:24 offers the quintessential doubter’s prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief.” The first half is the anchor, the expression of conviction, the sermon to self reminding you of who you believe in and why. With the first half firmly in place the second half becomes a guilt-free plea as you explore your doubts. Your confidants will keep you attached to your anchor. Your spiritual disciplines will keep you attached to your anchor. Your reflection and meditation on God’s character will keep you attached to your anchor.
Doubt is not inherently sinful. It is merely being unsure, a lack of understanding. It becomes sin when, instead of seeking truth and a deeper knowledge of God, it seeks to undermine or reject him. If your doubts are in the first category, the truth seeking kind, then they are a tool in Holy Spirit’s hands. Don’t let the long-stigmatized word “doubt” make you feel guilty, unworthy, or distant from God. In fact, those doubts might be taking you deeper into your relationship and knowledge of God than you’ve ever been.
You have an anchor. You have confidants. You see that doubt isn’t sinful. So ask! Search for answers. Let your questions drive your study and even your teaching. (It will give you a unique passion!) What you wonder about is precisely what God will use to grow you and to show you Himself. And isn’t that what you want more than anything?
You still have to lead people. You still face their expectations. But you no longer see your own doubts as a badge of shame. You even see how the doubts of your people can help them grow too, and that is what you want to foster. Start with “I don’t know.” Show them your willingness to not be that Johnny-on-the-spot and that you aren’t the answer vending machine they once expected. “I don’t know” is humble. It honors God because it admits that He is beyond your (and anyone else’s) understanding. It is connects with those you lead because it’s empathetic; “I don’t know” is usually followed by “either.”
Justin wasn’t able to do these things. The expectations of ministry kept him from confiding. He had friends, but only opened up to them once doubt overwhelmed him. He held his anchor, or maybe the anchor held him, but guilt ate at him. He hid his questions and felt that not knowing was a shortcoming. That’s why he left the pastorate. The end of the story isn’t tragedy. Without the pressures of the pastorate, Justin was able to process and grow and rediscover the joy of salvation and confidence in God. But the end isn’t fully happy either because the ministry, that church, lost a good pastor to doubt.
What you will find in committing to these practices is grace. You will see the same grace Jesus showed to the man who prayed, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Imagine that, confessing your unbelief to the very Son of God! And you will see grace begin to trickle down through the people you lead as they see in you and in each other the same questions, the same need for support, the same anchor, and the same hope in the midst of all those questions.
For more on faith and how to respond well to doubts you can check out my book Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith.
This article was originally published at LeadershipJournal.net