The trouble with PMC (Pastoral Messiah Complex)

Have you ever put together a piece of complex furniture? Think IKEA or a Sauder bookshelf. There are usually around 376 pieces and 27 steps. Have you ever made it to step 27 and piece 376, just to realize that you did something wrong way back in the very beginning? What happens in that moment?  First, you typically say something your mother would disapprove of.  Why? Because you can’t just make a tweak or simple fix on these things.  The end result was conditioned on the early steps being done right.  You’re forced to disassemble all your hard work and go back to the very beginning.

This is what my pastoral ministry life has been like. I’m in my 15th year of full time ministry and over the last couple of years I’ve had to go back to the very beginning and re-engineer much of what I’ve learned to do in “leading” and “pastoring”.  It’s easy to learn to do good things the wrong way. It can be devastating to discover you were doing it wrong.  I know this feeling because I’ve experienced it. I believe it will be helpful for me to share my discovery here, because I’m confident others have made or are making the same mistake I did. So, let’s learn together. So here goes:

For years I’ve struggled with PMC (Pastoral Messiah Complex). If you’re in leadership, especially pastoral leadership, you’re susceptible to this very toxic spiritual and emotional health hazard. The trouble with PMC is that we are rarely aware that we suffer from it, until much too late.

How does PMC come about and what are the symptoms?

In my experience, here is how it usually happens: You find yourself in a position of leadership. Maybe you teach on a regular basis, or have some positional authority (title) and relational authority (people have observed you). Because of this, people begin to ask you for advice.  They want to meet so that they can “run something by you”.  People in your church – even friends seek your advice, counsel and wisdom.  They see you as a confidant. You give sage wisdom and insight on a number of things – many of which you are far from mastering: Marriage, parenting, finances, decision making etc.

It gets worse when they thank you for it.  “Brad, your advice/teaching/wisdom really changed our lives!” reads the email or text. At first, we’re grateful for the encouragement, but eventually we begin to think, “I’m pretty good at this”. Before you know it, we have a full-blown Pastoral Messiah Complex.  Symptoms include the following:

  • We believe we have the answers. Well, not all of them, but probably most of them.
  • We get frustrated when some people expect us to persuade them on some point. We lack the patience it requires to convince people of our vision or plan. Questions annoy us.
  • We stop listening well and we rarely ask questions. Our Pastoral Messiah Complex leads us to make quick assumptions (of which we are confident in) and offer our solutions.
  • Our ideas are finished products. We don’t invite critique or alternative input.
  • We need to be the ones up front doing all or most of the talking. After all, people are looking to us.
  • You feel the need to come up with answers and solutions to challenges that are out of your depth. “I’m not sure” isn’t in your vocabulary.

Here is what is so dangerous about the Pastoral Messiah Complex:

1) It’s rooted in pride.
2) People learn to follow us instead of Jesus.

Pride is so corruptive and corrosive. It destroys everything it touches. Marriages, Elder teams, Churches, Businesses, Sports teams – everything.

Here is where PMC hurts pastors most: We disciple people to follow us instead of Jesus. We think we are making disciples of Jesus, but we are really making disciples of ourselves. There are plenty of signs this is happening.  Consider this question:  How many times has someone you’ve invested in drifted off from following Jesus when you were taken out of the equation? You left a church to pastor elsewhere, your role changed, the small group ended or whatever.  All of the sudden the drift happens. The people you were leading disappear.

Sometimes this happens because people make poor decisions. However, in my own life I have seen a number of times it happened because I unintentionally taught them to find the answers to life in me and not in Jesus. When they had a question about the Bible, I answered it instead of teaching them how to find the answer.  Consider the primary evangelism strategy at most churches I’ve been a part of:

“Invite your friends and family to ______ series!”
“Bring a friend with you next week to ______. It’s going to be life changing!”

Translation: The guy with the microphone has the answers.  Not only does he have the answers he is the one best equipped to give those answers to everyone.  Look, we don’t for a minute think of it like this. I’m confident it’s not our conscious motivation.  However, unconsciously we’ve bought into the Pastoral Messiah Complex.

It’s a serious problem. It hurts the Kingdom. It diminishes the gifts of others. It leads people to a false hope.

It’s an even greater problem the better you are at it. It’s the garden where celebrity pastors are born.

So what do we do about it? That’s a great question. I don’t have all the answers. <- See what I did there.

But I will share what I’m learning in a Part 2 post.

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