Tuesday, April 7th, 2020 - Soul Food Cafe

Why holy people do unholy things


Hard to be Holy was ahead of its time when it was published 20 years ago. Now it’s more relevant than ever before! The new extended edition offers profound insights into the current church crisis with the findings from the Royal Commission and a constructive proposal on how to move forward towards a transformational church.

Why do holy people do unholy things? This is the burning question asked by the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in Australian faith-based institutions.

Dr Whetham is a clinical psychologist who did his PhD research on the loneliness of church leaders. He is also a counsellor to church leaders and co-founder of Soul Food Café (www.soulfood.cafe), an organisation that was created to address systemic change for future generations of church leaders and congregations. The new Royal Commission edition of Hard to be Holy is his response to the difficult question asked by many.

It’s ‘hard to be holy’ when you’re a church leader

This may sound strange given that church leaders specialise in God, Bible and church. Indeed, most of their daily work is dedicated to imparting the mysteries of God. So how is it possible that many of our spiritual leaders are burnt out and sometimes abusive? Dr Whetham said, “The short answer is the pedestal effect”.

Why holy people do unholy things: the ‘pedestal effect’

The pedestal effect is the separation between the church leader and congregation which, in turn, leads to an imbalance of power in relationships. Dr Whetham said “By promoting the pedestal, the institutional church perpetuates the stereotype that church leaders are mostly God-like, coping well and okay being lonely. However, nothing could be further from the truth!”

  • 3 in 4 of all Australian church leaders experience significant or borderline burnout. 
  • International literature suggests church leaders are lonelier than the general population. 
  • Rates of sexual intercourse with parishioners are approximately 2 to 3 times higher than their secular counselling counterparts. 

What’s of more concern is child sexual abuse. In December 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia found that a total of 7049 allegations were made against faith-based institutions and of those 727 were referred to the police for possible prosecution.

“At last, an utterly honest book” 

Hard to be Holy is a confronting book that takes a good look at the church and wider community. The first half of the book addresses the church crisis and explores the untold stories of church leaders; stories you don’t hear from the pulpit (see next page). Dr Whetham said “Sadly, although church leaders know the Bible many do not know themselves and this makes them prone to burnout and abuse. This is called impairment in ethical codes”.

The second half of the book explores opportunities that exist in the community. “We currently have a mental and spiritual health crisis that demands a more relevant outward-looking church. Soul Food Cafe aims to reduce the church ‘pedestal effect’ by providing community-based support and training for people inside AND outside the church. Our Journey of Discovery course is designed to help people on their path of personal growth, discovery of the soul and deeper relationships”.

‘At last, an utterly honest book which recognises that the church is in crisis, and its pastors too... The authors’ skills as interviewers are abundantly revealed in the sympathetic rapport they achieve with their subjects. This is an important book full of fruitful encouragement to take risks for God.’ 
    – James Murray, Religious Affairs Editor, The Australian

‘I cannot think of two people better placed to talk to us ministers about how ‘hard’ it is to be ‘holy’ without the sustenance of open and reciprocal friendships with the people of our congregations. For that is what they very cogently argue in this excellent book.’        

    – Rev Tim Costello AO, Lawyer & Baptist Minister

The untold stories of church leaders – stories you don’t hear from the pulpit

Church leaders have a unique job description that few people fully understand or appreciate. Leaders are often expected to be all things to all people and available at all times to provide pastoral care to the whole congregation. The reality is church leaders are only human; they often work alone and are misunderstood, have few close friends and typically struggle with the Godly expectations that people have of them. Here’s a sample of their stories.

“One of the greatest pressures to come to bear on my life, has been people’s expectations. I’m expected to meet people from the first stages of their life in baptisms, right up to the last days of life at funerals. Expected to be able to share in all types of emotions, everything from funerals to weddings. Frequently these emotions have to change very quickly… So that’s one of the big demands, having to emotionally share in people’s lives.” – Bill, 52

“I haven’t managed to establish any close relationships outside the church at all. So I’ve got no friendships, and largely that’s because of the nature of the job. By the time you finish you are so tired, the last thing you want to do is see another person, and yet you need some people to replenish you at times… I don’t know whether people have an idea of just how untogether most of us are.” – Andrew, 34 

“There is a certain sense of loneliness being in a role. The more I continue in the role of a minister the more I understand that no one who hasn’t done it really knows what it is like, and that straight away puts you in a fairly lonely place. Another bad thing is I don’t think that I can say that I’ve got any really close friends in the parish that I can unburden myself to.”  – Sean, 36 

“It’s been such a long time since I heard from you God. It’s my fault... I don’t make time... The guilt, the pain. I’m running in circles not knowing where to go... I don’t see any way out, forward or backwards... I need to END IT!!

No friends... no one to talk to! No one to share my heart with who can understand me without condemning me or telling me I need to get with the program or else... This has to stop... I need to END IT!!

Is there a cure for whatever I got? Is there a medicine that can take it all away and breathe life back into a dead soul? Please, no more cognitive discussions... please no more intellectual debates... please no more programs or coaching tips... please no more self-discipline guidelines and books and articles and stuff!!! NO MORE... I need to END IT!!” – Tony, 48


Dr Paul Whetham is a clinical psychologist and Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society’s Clinical College. He was previously the Director of the Masters in Counselling program at the University of South Australia and has co-written Psychology textbooks for South Australian and International secondary schools. Hard to be Holy: From Church Crisis to Community Opportunity (Royal Commission Edition, Whetham & Whetham 2020) and the Soul Food Café (www.soulfood.cafe)  were both launched this month.

For more information, contact Dr Paul Whetham. 

Email: [email protected] 

Phone: 0435 171 365


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Soul Food Cafe

Soul Food Café is a training company that offers workshops that aim to explore the deeper things of the mind and soul, and create community-based peer support groups.

The organisation was created to address systemic change in churches for future generations of church leaders and congregations. 

Urs Burkart
M: 0409354358
W: www.soulfood.cafe


Religion, Church, Cardinal Pell, Royal Commission into child abuse, Catholic Church



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