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How Pastors Fall Into the Hannah Montana Trap

When she was younger, my daughter used to watch Hannah Montana on Saturday mornings. It’s a kids’ TV show about a teenage girl living a double life as a superstar. When Miley donned her blonde wig and climbed on stage as Hannah, her fans didn’t realize she was just an ordinary schoolgirl living an everyday suburban life, with all the normal stresses of family, friendships and high school.

Sometimes I think pastors are living a double life. At home, they wrestle with the same stuff everyone does — how to love their wife (or husband) well, how to love their kids well, how to deal with their own stresses, doubts and fears. They have mortgages, mid-life crises and emotional immaturities, just like everyone else. Their theological degrees don’t come with a get-out-of-jail free card, a promise that life will be easy — in fact, statistics will show you that pastors are more stressed, more prone to depression and more lonely than most of the population.

And yet, week after week, they get up on the stage and give it their best shot. They smile, they dress up (or dress down — depends on the church), and they tell us that they have all the answers.

Why? Why is there this mismatch between “ordinary human” and “know-it-all pastor”? Because that’s what the system turns them into. When the venue is set up as a performance hall, the guy (or girl) on the stage is expected to perform for the audience. Hannah Montana’s fans don’t want to know that she’s behind in her homework, or having a fight with her best friend — they want to see her dance and hear her sing. When the church members sit passively in rows, they expect the guy they hired to spend his week studying the Scriptures and listening to the Spirit, and to package it neatly for Sunday morning and present it in a challenging-but-enjoyable format.

How do I know all this? Because I’m the pastor’s wife. For six years, we drove to church each Sunday, psyching ourselves into performance mode despite whatever stresses and morning-time mishaps were on our minds. It wasn’t until we moved out of established church ministry and started gathering as equals in an interactive, participatory community that we could relax and lay aside the act, and start being ourselves.

Meeting in rows sets one person up to be a role model, to have all the answers and to take responsibility for the spiritual growth and well-being of the whole community. Meeting in a circle puts everybody on an equal footing, allows us to admit we don’t have all the answers, and to share the burdens of the whole community as we grow together. Changing the layout doesn’t just reduce the pressure on the pastor — it also empowers the rest of us to discover our voice, discover our gifts and minister to one another as Jesus told us to.