The Pastor Mask


It is a characteristic of the modern world that many (most?) of us assume a persona of some sort; a mask that enables us to hide our real selves from the outside world. This is why some have called our era in the Western world the narcissistic age. More than ever before we feel exposed to the judgement of others through the scrutiny of social media and the tyranny of ever-shifting ‘norms’ of how we should look, what we should wear and where we should shop. This results in us adopting a false self to present to the world in order to defend against being rejected or to deny to ourselves the inner sense of shame with which our culture has burdened us. Sadly, in order to conform to society’s expectations many of us opt for a ready-made off-the-shelf mask, a stereo type of what we mistakenly think is an acceptable or ‘normal’ person. We then put a huge amount of our energy into this attempt to appear normal at the expense of who we really are.

One of these off-the-shelf masks is the pastor mask.

What does the pastor mask look like?

The pastor mask is all about superiority and authority. It is characterised by a need to be separate from others in the church. This separation is not literal but is often achieved through appearing so much more competent than others at being a Christian. An intense spirituality or charismatic presence both serve to achieve the same goal here. The authority aspect of the pastor mask is seen in the parent-child relationships it seeks to maintain within the church. The pastor mask tells others what to do and how they should live. It tells people off for not being good enough and it rewards those who accept its authority. It is important for the pastor mask that its relationships are all one-up relationships, where others are not addressed mutually, but as though they were in a one-down position from them. Perhaps a better way to describe what the pastor mask looks like is to describe what it doesn’t look like. In a nutshell, it doesn’t look vulnerable.

Why is it there?

It is important that we understand that the pastor mask is chosen for very good reasons. It is not selected for cynical or wicked reasons, rather it seems to those of us who pick it off the shelf to be absolutely necessary. We need it in order to defend against the exposure of our vulnerability to ourselves or to others. Where we are defending against knowing our own vulnerability then it is usually a profound sense of shame from which we are hiding. This sense of being bad, unacceptable, undeserving of life is clearly hugely difficult to live with and putting on a mask enables us to carry on with life without having to experience the emptiness, exposure and condemnation that comes with shame. Instead of being exposed to our own shame the pastor mask actually gives us the opportunity to be admired by others, looked up to and even loved by them.

Where we are primarily trying to keep our vulnerability from the gaze of others then this too may form of shame. This, however, is a shame from which we have been unable to escape from ourselves, so the best we can hope for is to keep it from others. Our vulnerability may also be experienced as anxiety, usually social anxiety. Having grown up with the belief that others cannot be trusted social interaction is difficult at best and impossible at worst. A mask enables us to mingle with others without ever having to expose our true faces to their condemnation.

How does it work?

In order to protect us from our own vulnerability the pastor mask takes to itself as much power over others as it can. The Welsh philosopher Bertrand Russel in his book, Power, identifies a number of forms of power and two of these, namely, priestly and kingly power, seem particularly relevant to the pastor mask. I once heard a minister assure a younger man who was just starting out in the ministry that God would give him the right words in any difficult pastoral situation. This is characteristic of priestly power, which depends on the possession of some secret or mystical knowledge. This exclusive knowledge gives its possessor great power over those who rely on its dispensing in order to find their way through life. It is only right to add at this point that the most likely possessors of priestly power in modern society are psychotherapists and counsellors! The French philosopher Michael Foucault writes, “The Christian West invented that astonishing constraint, which it imposed on everyone, to tell everything in order to efface everything, to express even the most minor faults in an unbroken, relentless exhaustive murmur which nothing must elude, but which must not outlive itself even for a moment. For hundreds of millions of men and over a period of centuries, evil had to be confessed in the first person, in an obligatory and ephemeral whisper” (Power, M. Foucault, p.166). It strikes me that in a world where the influence of the church has declined the modern day confessor is the psychotherapist or the counsellor.

Kingly power works by means of separation. The king in the ancient world was other; he was untouchable, so much so, in fact, that in many cultures it was a crime to even look at him. This untouchability is replicated in the church through the intense piety and high spirituality of the minister who has donned the pastor mask. Through our apparent ‘closeness’ to God we are removed from the congregation who don’t experience themselves as being ‘close’ to God at all. In some churches a high clericalism is encouraged where the minister is seen as ‘anointed by God’. Language like this encourages the impression of the otherness of the minister, a special status that translates into power over the lives of congregation members.

What effect does it have?

If this pastor mask is brought to a pastoral/therapeutic context without any self-understanding then problems will ensue. The power dynamic created by this mask will serve only to reinforce the negative self-image of the person who comes to us seeking help. At best this will result in the individual who came to us for help seeking our approval by telling us how wonderful we are and how wonderfully helpful we have been even though we haven’t really helped them at all! In the psychotherapeutic world this is called over-adaptation and is a characteristic of passive behaviour, behaviour that is actively encouraged by the pastor mask. At worst a person will be exposed in a new and more painful way to their own shame. The alienation, self-loathing and emptiness that are shame’s attack dogs will be awakened and set on the individual with renewed viciousness.

What needs to be done?

For a start, pastor masks need to stop being sold by the church. The myth of the superior and invulnerable pastor must laid to rest in favour of a genuine application in the life of the church of the great doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

For those of us who have already bought our masks, we need to learn to take them off. This, of course is easier said than done, because the reasons we put it on are very compelling: we desperately want to escape from or hide our vulnerability. But instead of fleeing from our vulnerability what we really need to do is to accept it. Only when we accept our shame and our anxieties can we then allow others to see them, and only then do we no longer need a mask.

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3 Responses to The Pastor Mask

  1. All good points! The only observation I’d like to offer is that there is often a high expectation, even a demand. from others for pastors to maintain a certain image/persona in order for them to accept your leadership. Breaking people from these habits is immensely challenging and some just can’t cope – of course, such folk then blame the pastor for refusing to collude with their dysfunctional idealised image of a pastor. In addition to this, the desire to please those we lead is a very real temptation especially when our livelihood rests on the local church continuing to affirm our ministry as a pastor..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jacquibrooks says:

    Oh my gosh Owen, you could just as easily have been talking about police officers.
    As I was reading this post it spoke of how I used to be in my previous career. Wearing the mask of authority and influence and often fear. Whilst at the time I was unaware I was wearing a mask, I now know that it was permanently on not only during my work hours but also socially; Defending my perceived vulnerable self.
    Having spent many years examining by my Self through psychotherapy I amuse myself when I look back at this ‘strong’ person – she was actually very weak and the mask was actually only exacerbating her vulnerabilities, alienating her more from herself, others and the world.
    It is only by finding the courage to search inside that I can now say my life is closer to being true and open to seeking truth. My heart is only now open to an honest spiritual awakening – my earlier attempts to connect with a ‘faith’ were coming from what you described as that Parent/Child perspective where I was hoping someone would take my pain away, where I could sit back passively and have it magically wished away.
    I think this post needs to be read by everyone in a position of perceived power because we all have a duty to examine ourselves if we truly want to support others.

    Liked by 1 person

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