“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
It’s possible your pastor(s) is lying to you. Yes, you read that correctly. Your pastor is most likely not telling you the whole truth.
Maybe you’re conflicted right now about the way you should react to such a statement. “What?” you ask, “why would you say such a thing? Pastors don’t lie. They can’t. They shouldn’t. They are supposed to be role models and practice what they preach.”
Yeah, sure. But it’s more complicated than that.
Before you throw any stones my way, give me a few minutes to explain. I’m writing this in their defence. If you disagree once I’m done, well, you can throw stones if you must but I don’t recommend it. Stones hurt. You can tell me why you disagree.
First, a couple disclaimers. Notice I did not write that “all” Pastors might be lying. Also, and very importantly, I’m thinking mostly of the good women and men who’s life work is to Pastor. I’m not referring to hate-filled and often bigoted pastors we hear about from the religious right. They are an easy target and I would venture to say they may very well be lying the most and possibly intentionally. However, it would be to lazy to point the finger at them and let the “normal” pastor off the hook.
I’m referring here to the regular/ordinary pastor. Big church, small church or no church. Celebrity or not. Good at it or not. People doing what they believe they have been called to do.
This is not about exposing and accusing pastors. Rather, it’s about drawing out the issue and encouraging pastors to snap out of it as well as helping the church be aware of the part we personally play in creating that toxic culture as well as how we, you, can help break it.
I was a pastor for 15 years and I know this to be true. I know it to be true in part because I experienced it myself but I wouldn’t be writing about it if I believed my experience was unique. I have read about, met, known and interacted with enough pastors/ex-pastors to write about this confidently.
Ok then, what are they possibly lying about? The degree with which this is true will vary greatly from one to the next and will depend on age, background and the current stage of life and church they are in. But they are quite possibly lying, or withholding truth that doesn’t need to be withheld, about reality. Especially their own reality. Why is this?
A number of years ago I would meet monthly with a group of pastors from our denomination. We met to exchange notes, ideas and chat. One day as we were talking I shared why I felt it was important for pastors to be vulnerable in our preaching and gave a personal example of a recent sermon I had delivered.
I was very surprised when one of the pastors, the most senior and influential, looked at me and said that I should never do that. It struck me as very odd yet it fit 100% with the pastor culture. I think most pastors function with that sort of mentality and pressure in the background. Apparently being to vulnerable could cost my credibility and authority. As much as I hated the idea of losing anything, what I hated even more was the picture painted in my mind at that moment by that pastor. Fake it t’ill you make it? Put on a show, a mask? Pretend? Or maybe I am wrong to think this way and I’m not fit to be here? The hairs on my arm stood when he said that to me and I would never forget those words.
My comment in that meeting was that as pastors we needn’t be vague about our own personal dance with faith. We needn’t keep a high level approach in the likes of “sure I’m not perfect and I have arguments with my wife sometimes,” but to actually open up on a Sunday morning and say, for example, “hey church, today I feel like crap. I have this sermon but I’m just note sure I can deliver. I had a tough week and this morning got into an argument with my wife. I’m distracted. I’d like to say I have it all figured out and that we kissed and made up but I can’t.”
Why do this? Because it connects to reality and while you’re up there “preaching the word” and telling people how to live the gospel, you’re also down there on the dance floor figuring it all out at the same time as everyone else. Don’t just tell us how to apply the gospel to our reality while making us believe you’ve mastered it yourself. You haven’t. Show us how you are applying and failing to apply it to your reality even today. When pastors open up a bit more about their life, it’s often about things that happened in the past. Like, it happened to me to but that was a long time ago. Let me tell you about it. It’s helpful and can be relevant but less risky, does not have the same impact and not exactly what I’m getting at today.
I’m not recommending that pastors start putting out all their dirty laundry for all to see. You don’t lose your private life just because you are a pastor. However, there is something that needs to be held in tension. Life, for all of us human beings is a sort of dance. There is a dance going on and pastors and church leaders need to be on the dance floor along with everyone else. Watching others dance from the sideline is not healthy. You start to get rusty and stiff and critical of the way others dance. You enjoy the label of dance instructor while refusing to let others dance with you and you with them. Sure you might step on someone’s toes or sometimes people might accuse you of dancing to much. They might not like your dance moves. They might even change their opinion about you and seek to replace you with a better instructor. Still, I think the pastor should dance like there is no tomorrow.
I am encouraged as I hear more and more pastors, even in my own church, take that step of vulnerability and thereby elevating their ability to truly and relationally connect. It’s a whole other level. It’s not easy, but the reward certainly outweighs the risk.
Why is it so difficult for pastors and Christian leaders to be consistently vulnerable and truthful about their own faith journey in real time? Next time I’ll explain four reasons why I think many are stuck and hopefully provide suggestions on how to move forward.