Monday, January 21, 2013

for pastors only: my top 5 things pastors should stop pretending to be

This week I read Paul’s injunction in Ephesians 6 to “obey your parents” based on his referencing Exodus 20:12 regarding honoring your parents. Interestingly, Paul paraphrases the commandment with a significant change that could have huge interpretational ramifications. He parenthetically writes that this is the only commandment with a promise, but he changes the wording of the promise, from “so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you,” to “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” I’d never caught that before.

The reason this is significant is because it reflects a view that N.T. Wright has offered in his reading of Romans 4:13 in which Paul again changes the wording of a passage in Genesis. Instead of the promise to Abraham of the land of Israel, Paul expands that to a larger vision: the whole world is the inheritance of the family of Abraham, which now includes Gentiles. Paul says in his Galatian letter that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek and that if we belong to Christ, then we are Abraham’s offspring and “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

Of course this would have significant implications in how we consider the current land of Israel and how we interpret the scope of those covenantal promises. Wright has a lot to say about that; he and others have stirred up no small controversy. But I had never before noticed the same theme being subtly expressed in Ephesians 6:1-3: an expansion from the land of Israel to the whole earth.

But none of this is really my point.

My point is that these inferences require a substantial amount of study, and I have to admit that my time is not limited to simply studying theological stances because frankly, I’m a pastor. And the pastor’s main duty is making sure the mission of the local church is carried out, and primarily that’s finding lost people and shepherding them through the process of seekers to servants. And so we have to lean into the expertise of theologians and biblical scholars we’ve learned to trust. It doesn’t mean that we don’t study; it simply means there are people who only and solely do that as a vocation for the purpose of schooling pastors like me. In many ways, a pastor has to be a generalist. We should best be able to pass on creedal basics and lead and shepherd the local church.

So here are my Top 5 Things Pastors Should Stop Pretending to Be:

1.  Bible Scholar.

Face it: we’re not. Anytime I hear the average pastor or TV preacher say, “A better translation in the Hebrew would be…” or “The Greek verb really means…”, I get nervous. I’ve done my own fair share of hacking Hebrew and Greek based solely on a commentary, concordance, century-old Edersheim material and “Follow The Rabbi”-type websites…and it ain’t pretty. And had people who are intensely schooled in dead languages and Koine Greek call me out. As they should.

While pastors must and should study the Bible, it’s not a full-time vocation for us. We should of course know doctrine, understand the canon and its origins, and be able to disciple people through scripture. But we don’t really have the luxury of spending most of our waking hours studying texts because, remember?—we’re pastors. So let’s stop pretending to be Bible scholars. We can read their work, we can quote them, we should know a few, but we’re not them because we can’t hole up in libraries for hours a day and because we have to be with our people in order to lead them.

2.  Theologian.

The Cliff Notes version is this: Bible scholars study text, theologians study what different voices believe about the text. Trees versus forest. And don’t get me started on Biblical theology or systematic theology. But it requires inordinate amounts of time to recognize the nuances and roots of various theological themes. Not for the faint-hearted.

But the argument is the same as #1. Enough said.

3.  Professional Counselor.

I believe in Christian counseling with all my heart. I’ve been to some. It’s like the old joke: Q. “Do you believe in infant baptism?” A. “Heck yeah! I’ve actually seen it!”

But it’s a black hole for pastors. And here’s why: it will suck the leadership and pastoral life out of you. For one, most pastors don’t have enough serious clinical counseling training and, second, most of us suffer from acute messianic complexes—we think if we try hard enough we can fix anything. But people are complex cocktails of spiritual, emotional, relational, neurological and chemical challenges. And I can guarantee the psyche-vampires will find you out and want to meet with you. Endlessly. And drain the pastoral blood out of you.

Sure, we can do generalized Biblical counseling; we can even cast out a few demons. But take it from me: beyond one or two introductory meetings, you’re probably in over your head. If you really enjoy counseling people—and many pastors do—just make sure you get continuing education and training, network with professional counselors in your area, and realize that your leadership of the church and evangelistic thrust will take a backseat. You’ll have great stories for sermons (uh, if you’re discreet and wait two years before you tell any “anonymous” story), but have less time mentoring and modeling for leaders.

There’s a reason why we do our support and recovery work in the context of groups at the Vineyard…and refer intense one-on-ones out to professionals.

Plus, people seem to get better faster when they pay for it.

4.  The Smartest Guy in the Room.

This is more internal with respect to staff/volunteer/leaders meetings. If you’re the lead pastor, people will naturally turn to you when a decision needs to be made or a confirming or counterpoint view requires expression. That’s your job. But just because you have the position and are potentially the decider, it doesn’t make you the sharpest crayon in the box…and the sooner you realize that, the better. What pastors can be is this: expert generalists. You can and should know a little bit about most things (such as these five roles), but you’re not the expert of any one of them.

Besides, all of us have probably worked for different bosses in different contexts. Did you ever seriously think they were the smartest person in the room? Really? And why would you think differently now that you’re in the first chair?

5. Prophet.

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be prophetic. And I mean the whole range of the prophetic: from classic foretelling to forth-telling, from proclamations about direction…to encouragement…to exposing justice-oriented issues often overlooked.

It’s just that typically prophets don’t make great pastors. They can have an edge that counteracts invitation. A church led by a prophet will typically end up being a small group of spiritual Rambos. And those who lean into a prophetic-stance can be susceptible to becoming authoritative and controlling, copping a my-way-or-the-highway style. Interestingly, church people will easily give authority to a prophetic personality, but when they’re discontent they’ll more-than-likely pull out the “God-card” as to why they’re leaving the church because that’s the style that’s been modeled for them. A dangerous “less-than-transparent and false-authenticity” church culture can quickly develop.

Prophesy, but circumspectly and humbly. And be on guard for spiritual abuse; we can easily fall prey to it.

That’s it, pastors. Now go do your real job.


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I've been trying to put the right words to these thoughts and you've done it for me. I understand the Bible some. I understand people some. I'm not usually an idiot. I sometimes get a word from the Lord that I see unveiled at some point. None of this disqualifies me from pastoring people though serving them. I sometimes get questions/requests about things that are so far outside the scope or call of my vocation that they might as well be asking a pilot to engineer an airplane. Both are vitally important to the big picture, but they are separated vocationally for safety's sake. I love what I do. In that there is the ever present danger of someone wanting to wax eloquent with something they found on the internet, or asking for detailed instruction where I am unqualified. The best way I can do my job is to do it, and not tread where I am surely unaware of/ unprepared for the hidden mines. It takes great big confidence in the great big God we are saved by to defer to the "specialist" in whatever field is called for. I hate talking nuance when my call is to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord. Of course this doesn't give me license to leave a trail of hurt or jaded souls in my wake, but it does allow me to refer and defer when appropriate while maintaining good faith with my local family/ community. For the pastor this requires us to be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus and exemplify what grace looks like; both the grace given freely to us as well as the grace we extend to others. There are rare exceptions of pastors who are masterful scholars, theologians, counselors, etc., but that ain't me. I am learning to embrace this and get on with it; get on with the work of telling the people around me that the kingdom of God is breaking in and that tension, that beautiful tension, is forming the cracks on the surface. The dim glass is cracking and heaven is breaking through. God heals; today. He saves any who would say, "Yes." That's my call. My credential is made up of some study, lots of prayer, relationships, seeking counsel from those who can and waiting. In response to busyness, or in my case the overextension of my calling, I remember the Melville line that Eugene Peterson reminded me of in The Pastor: A Memoir. "To insure the greatest efficiency of the dart the harpooners of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil." Thanks and blessings.

  2. Thank you, Dave, for the good reminder. I'm new at this pastor thing, but I've been the recipient of some of these characters. It sure looks differently from a leader's perspective. I really like the "you're not the smartest" reminder. I had bosses who thought they were, with the expected results. Wise words. Now I'll go do my job.

  3. Loved the points re: counseling. Some of these things I have felt inwardly for awhile but have forgotten some of the reasons why I feel standoffish in some counseling related areas. Thanks for a great article.

  4. Wow, Dave, I haven't read your blog in a long time. Great post, I think, as a pastor, it must be hard to say these things because people expect pastors to be all things to all people.

    Peace and Blessings,