How Real Should Pastors Be? - Word&Way

How Real Should Pastors Be?


Years ago, when I was commuting to seminary with a couple of other pastor-buddies, one of them said, “I’m not sure I can live with all the expectations put on a pastor.” He then told us why. He had placed an announcement on his church bulletin board, sharing the news that a former pastor and his wife had just adopted a little girl. My colleague observed an elderly church member looking at the announcement admiringly and overheard her say to a friend, “I think that’s how all pastors should have their babies.”

Doyle Sager

Doyle Sager

Granted, that event occurred many years ago and perhaps such prudishness is in our rearview mirror. But the question persists: Will congregations allow their pastors to be human? And will pastors themselves be real in ways that are healthy and appropriate?

If any clergy person is ever tempted to enjoy the status of a demi-god, think again. The Book of Acts records the mission of Barnabas and Paul to Lystra in modern day Turkey (Acts 14:8ff). Following the healing of a lame man, the crowd sought to deify Barnabas and Paul, crying out, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (v. 11). Wisely, the two missionaries protested such exaltation and insisted they were human. Later, some Judeans came from neighboring towns and nearly stoned Paul to death (v. 19) — a reminder that we can go from gods to goats in the blink of an eye.

Why did the lady in my friend’s church need to believe that her pastor never had sex but instead went to the local Pastors’ Baby Warehouse and picked the cute one in aisle five? Though the Lystra audience was not a gathering of Christ-followers, the human urge is nearly universal — putting leaders on a pedestal.

Several decades ago, pastors began to push back against such pedestal placement. John Claypool and others began to preach confessionally. When such preaching was done well, it snapped the listeners into reality. Their pastor was a fellow traveler, not some phantom who swept down out of the ivory palaces once a week. In addition, such honesty, when handled appropriately, created a new climate of vulnerability in which others could tell their stories.

But as is always the case, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Problems arose when confessional preaching was offered carelessly and deteriorated into emotional striptease. The worship focused on the troubled soul in the pulpit and not on God. Nadia Bolz-Weber once offered some wise counsel: “I preach about my scars, not about my wounds” (“Preachers on Preaching” podcast, episode 25). The difference between a wound and a scar is time. Time allows healing. And healing provides a crucial distance between the crisis and the sharing of it.

Yes, pastors need to be careful what and when we share. But having said that, we need to remember that preaching is “truth through personality” (Phillips Brooks, “Yale Lectures on Preaching, 1877”). Aren’t there times and ways that we can be authentic without being exhibitionist? Can our pulpit offerings be seasoned with time, sensitivity and perspective?

And all of this begs another question. Could there ever be a time when the pastor is gut-level transparent with the congregational leadership and chooses not to preach on a difficult Sunday? Such occasions arise. What if the pastor has been awake all Saturday night arranging bail for her teenage child? What if a devastating medical diagnosis intruded into the pastor’s home last Friday? What if caring for an aging parent has taken every ounce of the preacher’s energy this week and left them spiritually numb? Would the world stop spinning if the pastor said to church leaders, “I’m in a great deal of pain. I’m on empty; I’ve got nothing. You take it this Sunday”?

How real should pastors be in the pulpit? Perhaps that is an intentional conversation clergy and churches can have early in the call process and then repeat occasionally during the pastor’s tenure. Congregations have a right to expect their pastor to be real and that clergy will respect appropriate boundaries. In turn, pastors have a right to embrace their humanity and for their churches to remember that the Word became flesh, not marble.

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Doyle Sager is lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.