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For Christmas, my kids gave me the Gospel Birds tapes by radio storyteller Garrison Keillor of "Prairie Home Companion." In them, Keillor talks about pastoring, and he mentions that if a pastor stands before the church and says, "I'm a human being just like you," the first questions in the minds of the congregation are Who was she? and For how long?
Their immediate conclusion, Keillor suggests, is that he must have committed adultery. Why else would a pastor admit humanness?
That humorous insight got me thinking about the ways people see us as pastors and up-front Christian leaders. I wondered if most congregations don't assume their pastors are more like Old Testament prophets, who stood apart from the people and judged sin, rather than like biblical priests, who took part in community routines and whose daily behavior and family relationships could be observed. Many people seem to be uncomfortable with even a Christlike priest, as described in Hebrews 4, who can be "touched with the feeling of our infirmities."
I began to grapple with the question: What do we do with our infirmities-our misgivings and fears, our failures and sins? How transparent can a public figure afford to be?
There are dangers, of course, in readily baring all our defeats, doubts, and discouragement from the pulpit. It can be cathartic for the speaker, but a public pity party does listeners no real good. Raw emotion can baffle and embarrass an audience. They feel used, almost as if the speaker had become a flasher. What he's showing may be legitimate and God-given, but in public it should remain dressed.
Indiscriminate expression can also damage a leader's ability to lead.
At times a pastor, like any business executive who's just made a necessary but unpopular decision, cannot publicize his inner uncertainty about the decision. If he waffles publicly, he's perceived as weak. That prompts any natural uneasiness people have toward change to grow into murmuring dissent. Then the workers carrying out the decision will doubt whether the leader really supports them. In order for the decision to stick, leaders have to back it up-firmly-even if they feel emotionally torn. Double-minded statements don't inspire commitment.
Doctors often are not 100 percent sure the operation will succeed, but when it's time for surgery, they must make the incision with a firm, sure hand. A tentative stroke guarantees failure. So, too, sometimes pastors must act with more confidence than they feel.
In addition, there are times when leaders can't express what they're feeling because the emotion can't be explained without revealing situations that must remain confidential. Certain parts of the story can't be bared without hurting or betraying others.
For instance, I don't feel I have a right to talk from the pulpit about my sexual life. That's something my wife and I share. Out of respect for that relationship, I don't invite the public into that setting. Sermons are not for voyeurs.
I'm also careful about illustrations involving my children. I do use family illustrations, but only where the kids look good. If I'm going to use an illustration of weakness, I use myself. I don't feel I have permission to confess other people's sins. Only my own.
So there are dangers in saying too much. But there are also pitfalls in the other direction, when we aren't honest enough in expressing our emotions.
Some pastors, for the best of motives, refrain from expressing what they feel, especially doubts about their faith.
"Preach your convictions, not your doubts," we have all been told. And that's good advice. We do have to preach beyond ourselves-pointing to truths so enormous no human can fully grasp them, let alone live them. But sometimes this leads us to put up a false front.
One pastor put it this way: "In preaching, I have to project an image of sureness or certitude I don't really have. Why? Because in the pulpit I'm unable to offer all the qualifying factors or apply the principles to all the unique situations in people's lives. Therefore I simply say, 'Believe A, B. and C.' Then, in personal conversation or in counseling sessions, I can go into more detail-'but A and B are tempered with the truth of X, Y. and Z.' "
Another pastor said, "I can't share my doubts about eternal security because, like it or not, many people in the congregation are hanging onto my faith. Their theology is still undeveloped. Their assurance of salvation is to some degree secondhand-based on my ability to assure them God is holding them secure. It takes a mature congregation to work everything through firsthand."
Many people, even of considerable stature, quote their pastor. "Well, my pastor feels this way." They're thinking, Pastor seems so secure, so godly, so at ease, this must be right. I'll hang on to it.
Unfortunately, each of those statements adds another brick to the pedestal, which gets higher and higher until we are scared to death to fall off. Yet we realize how shaky this tower is. If the congregation is saying, "What a beautiful faith our pastor has. He has no doubts in the world," then we, and they, are in trouble.
The same is true of other weaknesses. Some vulnerability is important for what it communicates to the congregation. There is a correlation between the amount of healthy self-disclosure in preaching and the amount of counseling the church staff will do. In a church where pontification and advice reign supreme, fewer people are willing to speak to the pastor about their personal failures. As we give glimpses of our humanity, people come and say, "I think you might understand this," and they ask for help.
So there are dangers in being too guarded in expressing emotion, and dangers in being too unguarded. Where is the balance? When do we unload and when do we not? How are emotions expressed appropriately? Here are several principles I've tried to practice.
In public settings, my rule is that self-exposure must have a purpose. I'm not simply going to "express myself." There are other situations for that. The purpose must be to help the listeners, not to help myself. Any of my public statements must be for their benefit, not mine.
At times, it is legitimate to present our struggles to the entire congregation. By showing our own struggles, we identify with our people. But if a sin or weakness is shared publicly, the point is not simply to say, "I'm just like you." The point must be to model faithfulness amid the struggle.
Along with broadcasting our failure, we owe it to our people to express, just as strongly, our determination to do whatever we can to make right the situation. It does no good to illustrate our imperfection. Most of our people know that already; what they need to hear is our desire to honor God in this situation.
One pastor I know has built a strong and vibrant church, and one of his secrets has been taking the "fellow struggler" stance with the congregation. He respects the people enough to be honest with them.
He has dared to say, "I am deeply committed to Jesus Christ, and I'm going to be honest with you about how well I'm doing at it." He is willing to say, "Follow me as I, a sinful human being, follow Christ."
Without fear, he'll occasionally get up in the pulpit and say, "I've been trying this particular approach to Bible study, and it's not working." Or, "I find it hard to maintain myself in prayer; I go to sleep, or my thoughts stray. But I'm determined not to give up. Recently I've begun to write down my prayers, and I try to pray one good, short prayer rather than a long, impressive one."
He's been honest with people; he's shared his struggle. But in the process he has been leading his people, not dragging them down. Both his words and his life continue to point them to God, not his sinfulness. He always reaffirms his desire for a stronger relationship with God.
Several years ago, I noted a change in the preaching of a pastor friend of mine. Every time I heard him, he would speak with what I considered inappropriate candor about sexuality. Every illustration of sin was a sexual sin. His tone was extremely condemning; very little spirit of forgiveness came through.
Shortly thereafter, it was discovered he was involved in adultery.
Looking back, I realize he was exposing through his harshness his own need for cleansing and restoration. But all that came through was judgment.
There's a major difference between representing Christ and trying to be Christ.
At times we're tempted to be Christ, and we feel a compulsion to live as perfectly as he lived. When we see sin in others, we either condemn it or forgive it rather than let Christ do that. We begin to dispense grace rather than participate in it.
I've always been intrigued by Paul's words in 2 Corinthians: "For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them, and has committed unto us the word of reconciliation." How many times we think it's committed unto us to condemn sin, to preach against sin, or even to forgive sins! But it's not. We preach Christ, who reconciles people to God.
The person who represents Christ, I think, is first of all at ease with grace. That is, "Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be." He is overwhelmed with gratitude.
When such a person sees his own sins, he feels appropriate remorse but no compunction to cover them up. He would be first to say, "Yes, I notice them, and so does Christ, and that's the point of the gospel: he loves me even though he sees them." Such a person is at peace with grace.
This attitude affects our preaching. It means we don't tell them how we solve people's problems, but how Christ solves them. We lead them to Jesus Christ, not to ourselves.
I used to see myself as a surrogate Christ, taking Christ's place in the world and ministering as he would minister to others. I have come to the conclusion, however, that I am not a surrogate Christ. He is my model. I don't become him; I represent him. I tell others about him.
But if I bundle up myself as Christ-my time, knowledge, empathy, honesty, and every other noble trait I have-and I offer that to people, it's still not much of a package. It's a poor bargain. How much better to point people to Jesus and let them receive him instead.
If I am pointing people to Jesus and his power to transform lives, I can be honest about how he's dealing with my imperfection.
Emotions that cannot be shared publicly can often be shared privately, which is usually the best place anyway. Many pastors find another pastor who shares their outlook on ministry-and who is willing to share the emotional peaks and valleys, too. Other pastors, I've discovered, have developed different kinds of relationships to maintain their emotional health.
I enjoy reading biography, and I've come across many famous people, among them preachers, who've made confidants of some unusual friends.
Some preachers develop a close relationship with someone from an entirely different background. They somehow stumble across this person with whom they can mentally take off their shoes, relax, and speak unguardedly. Usually these are people who allow them their pastoral dignity, who perhaps hold a station in life as high as the pastor, but who accept the pastor's humanity.
One older pastor I know developed a close friendship with a physician. They initially got acquainted because they'd bought dogs that were litter mates. Then the men began playing chess every Saturday night. The dogs grew old together-into their twenties-and their masters' relationship deepened. The town's leading clergyman and the town's leading surgeon became closest of friends.
The interesting thing was that the doctor was an atheist. He told the pastor many times, "Don't evangelize me. I'm not about to become a Christian, but I enjoy being your friend."
I've often wondered at the dynamic that made the friendship so deep and lasting. Part of it was they both knew the other had a professional image to maintain. The doctor realized he didn't know everything about medicine, despite what the town thought. He'd buried enough of his patients to know he wasn't perfect, but he had to maintain his confidence in the healing process. The pastor certainly knew the feeling.
Part of it was a mutual ability to maintain confidentiality. The doctor knew enough about the pastor's congregation, dealing with teenage pregnancies in the congregation and so on, that he and the pastor developed a deep trust.
The pastor continued to long for a change in his friend's spiritual condition, but other elements cemented their bond. Telling the truth to each other, handling sensitive secrets, maintaining respect for both one another's office and humanity-all were part of this abiding friendship.
Anyone who has a friend like this is a fortunate person. Other pastors I know have found these kinds of friendships in groups where they're seen as peer rather than leader, which is not easy in church groups. They're involved in Rotary or the school board, where they meet interesting individuals who are not necessarily in the church.
One pastor was talking about his friendship with the superintendent of schools and the manager of a local plant. "We're peers," he said, "because we all recognize each of us is trapped in his professionalism. We all sense a need for a sounding board-to know someone at our level but not in our field."
Another pastor was amazed to find how vulnerable highly placed business executives feel. For instance, the executive decision to put a group of people out of jobs is a lonely, lonely decision. Even if a manager saves the company by doing it, he still is a lonely man. He's misunderstood and needs a confidant.
In these kinds of relationships, many pastors have found an appropriate setting to express some of their own emotional load.
There are two sides to being a Christian leader: the proclamational side where we proclaim the power of God, and the confessional side where we deal with our own sins in a more intimate and personal manner. Both are necessary for effective ministry.
My friend Ted Engstrom put it like this: "As a Christian leader, you need to have a Barnabas, a 'son of consolation,' who's a brother with whom you share everything. And you need a Timothy, someone who is following you. This relationship is also honest, but you keep it a bit more circumspect because you know this person is going to follow in your footsteps." Having these two relationships-the Barnabas type and the Timothy type-is good for mental health.
It helps keep us from condemning ourselves to solitary confinement. It keeps us off the pedestal.
I heard a pastor say recently, "I feel lonely. I feel isolated. I feel hypocritical. I feel I'm preaching beyond myself. I feel like I'm claiming things I'm not. I feel like I've created a monster, and I am the monster!"
He needs a Barnabas relationship, an individual or small group with whom he can unload.
From that relationship, he can then touch in an open yet uplifting way his congregation of Timothys, people who look to him for direction. Preaching to people who also feel isolated and trapped by their own lives, he'd have compassion. And that kind of balanced expression, avoiding the extremes of emotional exhibitionism or isolation, creates an environment where we can bear one another's burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.
Jay Kesler is president of Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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