When Ron Swor talks about how pastors need to shake off the got-it-all-together expectation that can be put on them by others and admit that sometimes they struggle just like everyone else, it rings a bell. Literally.
Opening up about his own struggles at North Pacific District pastors gatherings that he hosts at New Life (Canby Foursquare Church) in Canby., Ore., he places desk bells at the tables for breakout small-group times. If there’s something you need help with, participants are told, ring the bell.
“The whole time, you hear these bells going off,” he says, choking back the tears. “Everyone is alerted that someone else needs help, and it creates this affinity among leaders and pastors that I don’t think they have felt before.”
Ron hopes that the openness he models and advocates may save other leaders from the pain he and his family have gone through. While pastoring a thriving church, for several years he secretly nursed an addiction to painkillers. He found that the medicines prescribed for athletic injuries from his youth didn’t just ease the physical hurt, but also took the edge off some of the emotional wounds of difficulties in his own and church family.
Shrugging off concerns of those closest to him, he avoided the escalating problem for several years until things came to a head in 2013. There followed a “hard but good season” in which Ron and his wife, Annette, pressed into healing individually and as a couple. That process included time with Foursquare pastoral care leader Chuck Shoemake at the Center for Spiritual Renewal (CSR)—East in Christiansburg, Va., one of two free counseling and retreat centers for Foursquare credentialed ministers.
In addition to CSR, attending recovery group meetings was a crucial part of Ron’s road to freedom, impacting his understanding and experience of God through the candor he found in those settings. “My image of the Christian pastor had been that we come in riding on a white horse to save you,” he explains. “I was in no shape to help anyone when I went to those meetings, but there were others there who did not even know Christ who helped save me by speaking the truth.”
“Some Christians are like Zacchaeus, he observes—they look longingly at Jesus but from a safe distance, hiding behind the leaves of a tree.” – Ron Swor
In due course, when he finally returned to leadership at the church—which he and Annette had still attended during their recovery—Ron spoke openly about everything. “I made a decision that because I was lacking in vulnerability in my life, I had to go the other way,” he says. “If I don’t, I am going to end up in the same situation.”
That stance sees him continue to “tell on myself”: Several times a year, when it’s appropriate to a message he is sharing, he will declare, “I am an addict.”
While Ron’s transparency has given others permission to admit and face their own struggles—the church now hosts a weekly recovery group on campus—not everyone has appreciated his vulnerability. Some who preferred what he calls his former “large and in charge” personality have left.
Some Christians are like Zacchaeus, he observes—they look longingly at Jesus but from a safe distance, hiding behind the leaves of a tree. But Jesus sees them, knows all about them, and wants to be welcomed into their most personal spaces, he says. “What are the camouflages we use to hide from Jesus?” he wonders.
“I made a decision that because I was lacking in vulnerability in my life, I had to go the other way. If I don’t, I am going to end up in the same situation.” —Ron Swor
Though he is committed to walking in vulnerability, he admits that it still doesn’t come easy. “I still feel like a rookie,” he states. “Vulnerability is not my strong suit, but I understand the kingdom value of it, and I have to keep fighting for it.”
Hitting the desk bell he has in his own bathroom each day helps: “I have to remind myself every morning that I need help.”