How to Deal with Your Shame as a Leader


Many pastors and leaders live lives that are filled with shame.

The problem is, many don’t know it.

Shame shows up in a number of ways:

  • Drivenness.
  • Working too much.
  • Compulsions to drink.
  • Compulsions to exercise a lot.
  • Isolation.
  • Overindulgences.
  • Feelings of disappointment and emptiness.

The list goes on and on.

Left unchecked, many pastors find themselves moving in and out of shame.

In Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God, John Piper says shame comes from three causes:

  1. Guilt. This is the one many of us know well. The addiction, the hidden sin, the abuse we don’t talk about, the affair, the divorce, the poor parenting, our failure at work and in life. Many pastors carry around the guilt of hidden sins, hidden failures and hidden hurts. Many pastors have no one who knows them or gets close to them. We carry around guilt for ourselves and often without thinking, for others. When guilt becomes public knowledge, we have shame. Now we are known for what we have feared.
  2. Shortcomings. Shortcomings and failures are something all of us experience. Some of them are real and others imagined. Some are life shaping, and other shortcomings we simply shrug off. It is the ones that are life shaping that lead to shame. When our frame of mind says, “You are a failure, you aren’t good enough, you aren’t beautiful, strong enough or worthwhile”, we experience shame. Many pastors feel like they don’t measure up. Either they tell themselves or their congregation tells them they aren’t good enough, or they feel like they are failing God. This last one many pastors know well, and it shapes how they preach and interact with God personally. If you are driven like I am, you carry a sense of failing God because your church isn’t larger.
  3. Improprieties. These are the experiences in our lives where we feel silly, look stupid or are embarrassed. We make a mistake, and it feels like everyone knows about it. This can be saying something in a meeting, a misstep in a sermon, missing a key opportunity or sitting in a meeting and feeling out of our element. When this happens, most leaders won’t admit a weakness or a need for help, which leads to shame.

Without knowing it, many leaders pass their shame on to the people they lead. For example, if a pastor carries around shame, this will come through when he preaches. He will pass on to his congregation the shame he carries. He will paint a picture of a God who shames us instead of frees us.

If a pastor feels like a failure in his marriage or because his church is not going as he expected or isn’t as big as he expected it to be, he will pass this to his congregation. He will push harder, burn out those around him, give the impression that God is only impressed with numbers and the success of something instead of faithfulness on the part of the individual.

Here are six ways to move forward from your shame as a leader:

1. Name your shame. This is a crucial step for anyone, but especially for leaders.

We are so used to simply helping other people, being there for others, listening to them and helping them identify their shame that we often overlook our own. We need to step out of leading and helping mode and shepherd our own souls.

What shame drives you? What shame do you carry around?

Is it a hidden sin or addiction? An abuse you can’t forgive? Have you been hurt by another leader or person in your church?

I remember struggling with whether or not I was a good pastor or cut out to be a pastor. I’ve often been envious of others who were so good at shepherding others and helping them in that way. I still remember someone telling me they thought I wasn’t a good pastor, and that reinforced the shame I’ve carried for most of my life. That I’m not good enough.

For me, naming it has been incredibly helpful. When you name it, you are able to start the process of freedom.

If you can’t name your shame, it will continue to have power over you.

2. Identify the emotions attached to it. Many leaders try to stay away from emotions or they rely too heavily on them. Emotions are crucial, though. They show us not only what we are feeling, but what dominates us. Our emotions are able to override our thinking and judgment many times.

Don’t believe me? How often do you do the exact opposite of what you want to do? Most pastors who fail morally know they shouldn’t do something, but their emotions get the better of them.

What emotions are attached to your shame? If you don’t identify them, you will fall victim to them.

3. Confess the sins that are there. What sins are involved will depend on what your shame is. If it is something like abuse or abandonment, you don’t have a sin in that. Someone else sinned, and you are dealing with the brunt of that. You have to face that, though.

Are there sins on your part to confess? Are you holding yourself accountable for the sins of someone else?

Many leaders do, and many are driven by the sins of others. We do this to prove someone wrong, and our shame continues to keep a strong hold on us.

Maybe your shame drives you to drinking, overwork, overeating, bouts of anger. In this case, you have sin to confess, things you must face.

4. Grieve the loss. Many leaders will struggle with this. The dream that you have in your head for your church, your life, your marriage may never come to fruition. Will you continue to lead and follow God?

As leaders we don’t handle loss well. We have trained ourselves to not feel because we have people leave our church, a fellow pastor betrayed us, an elder lied to us, our spouse trusted someone, only to be betrayed. Because of this, we have closed off our hearts from feeling. This is one way we last in ministry, but it keeps us from actually ministering.

If you can’t grieve a loss as a leader, you will be stuck. You will become callous, you will keep people at arm’s length, you will protect yourself from getting hurt, and ultimately you will miss out.

The strongest leaders are the ones who can talk about loss, feel loss and move forward.

5. Name what you want. Leaders can name what they want for their church or organization, but will often struggle to name it for themselves. This is a good and bad thing.

It’s good because it keeps leaders from being self-serving.

It is bad because many leaders aren’t sure what they want or desire.

Many leaders (and this is a struggle for me) are not sure if God wants to give them the desires of their hearts. Many leaders struggle to name the place they want to be, how they’d like God to use them or the hopes they have for their lives and families.

Dreams for pastors tend to be about numbers and platforms (not always bad), but rarely do we think in terms of purpose and fulfillment.

6. Identify what God wants you to know about Him. The antidote to our shame is the truth of who God is. If your shame is that you are unlovable, the antidote is the truth that God is love.

For me, as I read through the gospels, I am blown away by how slowly Jesus moved and how little He seemed to do to move the mission forward. From a type-A, entrepreneurial perspective (me), He didn’t do a lot. Yes, He taught, prayed, shepherded, spent time with people, but I’m blown away by how slowly He moved. Right now, this is what I need to know about God. That Jesus walked through life and enjoyed it. He had fun. He had long meals, took naps, spent time with His Father in prayer, took fishing trips with His friends.

For many leaders, we spend so much time trying to help others move forward that we rarely work on our own hearts to move forward. But, and here is why this matters, your shame follows you around until you face it.

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