Do people really want their pastors to be perfect? That seems to be the prevailing opinion in some of the ministry circles I’ve been involved with. While no one has said those words precisely, the message is communicated in the unspoken expectations – things like how a pastor should dress, speak, live, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I think that we should all strive to live like Jesus Christ and to embody the message of the gospel to the world, it’s just that so many people I know in ministry are mask-wearers. Ministers often become chameleons, knowing just what mask to put on in the right situation. At the same time, however, they don’t really know who they are at the deepest level of their being. Check out this passage from Rudy Rasmus’ book, Touch: Pressing Against the Wounds of a Broken World (p. 200-201).
I learned a lot from the recovery community about being transparent. Step 1 is admitting our sins, wounds, and destructive behavior. Step 4 requires us to take a “searching and fearless moral inventory” to identify harmful attitudes and actions so we can repent, and Step 5 challenges us to admit our failures to God, ourselves, and another person. I don’t expect anybody to go to the extremes I am willing to go in my leadership style, but maybe it would be helpful to share a few commitments I’ve made to be authentic, transparent, and trustworthy:
- I often tell the congregation or individuals what I’m struggling with that day – not after I’ve resolved and sugarcoated it.
- I have no secrets, except those others have shared with me about themselves.
- My wounds are visible to all. Some of my hurts have healed and scarred over, but a few are still open and bleeding. I tell people the unvarnished truth.
- I don’t see myself as a CEO at St. John’s. I’m more of a gang leader.
- There’s no doubt that I’m still in process. I don’t expect perfection in this life, only step by step progress by the grace of God.
- I never talk about a topic unless I’ve experienced it myself.
- I speak the brutal truth to others, and I expect them to speak it to me. My dad used to say, “It’s a whole lot easier to tell the truth, because you don’t have to remember what you said.”
- When I mess up (which is often), I try to admit it to God and to the people I offended as quickly as possible, no matter how embarrassing it may be.
If you’re a pastor, I sincerely believe that God is calling you to take off any mask you might be wearing to protect yourself, and He wants you to bean authentic leader. He’s asking you to do what I do quite often: go to God with an honest heart and pray, “Lord Jesus, show me if I’m wearing a mask, and help me be more authentic, transparent, and warm.”
Reading this made me long to be a little more brave in my own ministry. While I would never advocate for Sunday mornings to become group therapy for the pastor from the pulpit, maybe ministers should stop trying to protect their congregations from finding out the truth – that we are human just like everyone else.
It reminded me of a conversation that took place in my hermeneutics class. As we talked about interpreting scripture for the contemporary age, we agreed that meaning/interpretation comes from the dynamic interaction of the text (with all its history, biases, etc.) with the interpreter (with all his/her history, biases, context, etc.). In many communities of faith, the pastor is the only one given the communal authority to give the “authorized interpretation” for the community. Yet, as outlined above, many of the variables that might influence a pastor’s reading are hidden from the congregation (due to a lack of transparency mentioned above).
I would argue that the scripture was written for a community of believers and can therefore only be interpreted within a community of believers (for an interesting take on this idea in the contemporary church, see Free For All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community by Tim Condor and David Rhodes, 2009). Therefore, if each person in the community is accompanied by his/her own “baggage” every time that we come to the text, and that this baggage will inevitable “color” his/her reading, it is important for the community to claim its baggage in order to discern the voice of the Spirit from the voice of our own opinions and biases.
Even more than that, however, as theologian Stephen Fowl argues that without complete transparency, the community lacks common language and “verbal resources” to be able to interpret scripture. He writes:
“Paul’s discussion of stealing in Eph. 4:28 stands as a profound challenge to the common life of any Christian community. The challenge is to counter the tendencies in modern American life to individualize and privatize large sections of our lives, including our wealth . . . Without a common life . . . in which the ways in which Christians get and hold wealth are much more accessible to each other, Christians will also find it much more difficult to engage in the other practices Paul describes in this passage: truthfulness rather than triviality, anger that leads to forgiveness rather than bitterness, gracious words which build up as opposed to vacuous compliments which support one another’s self-deceptions. Without such a common life, Christians will have almost no verbal resources when they try to engage scripture in the ways they must if they are to fulfill their ends in the world.” (Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, p. 173-174)
So where does all this come together? As pastors, teachers, and worship leaders, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. Are we willing to lead by example? If our own past history, struggles, failures, successes, and so on will inevitable guide our interpretation of scripture, then we need to be daring enough to invite the congregation into our lives in such a way as to be able to distinguish between the voice of the Spirit and our own. We need to invite others into a “radical and rigorous honesty” with one another that acknowledges and intentionally seeks to tear down walls of separation in the community formed by the individualization and privatization of our faith (this must include not only our convictions, but our doubts, failures, and struggles as well). Only in this way will we be able to claim the beloved community’s role as the rightful interpreter of our sacred texts.