I’m told that pastors in a past generation were advised not to share anything personal. “Tell stories – but not about your own life.”
I’ve even heard some say they expected a call to ministry meant they couldn’t have friends. They needed to keep a professional distance. The same way your psychologist shouldn’t golf with you.
When I spoke to a seminary class a few months ago about discipleship groups that share about their faith and lives – areas of celebration and areas of struggle – someone asked, “The pastor doesn’t share in those groups does (s)he? I’ve been told it’s not good for my congregation to see that much of me.” So maybe it’s not just a past generation that has heard these things…
But the example I find in Scripture is quite different. What remains hidden of Jesus’ life to his disciples?
Jesus says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
Paul even has the audacity to say, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). And he tells Timothy and Titus to set an example with their lives, too (1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:7).
Two questions for pastors…
1 – Are you prepared to say with the boldness of Paul, “follow my example”?
What would happen if those you lead actually lived as you live?
What if they treated their families as you treat yours? What if they handled money and generosity the way that you handle yours? What if their efforts in sharing the gospel, the way they dealt with anger, the way they forgave, looked like yours? What if they prayed the way that you pray?
If you said to those you lead, “follow my example!” and they did it… what would your congregation look like?
Some churches would triple their budgets. Others would go broke.
Some would be full of a spirit of love and forgiveness and hospitality like they had never known before. Others would be so full of rage and malice that you might be scared to walk into the room.
What would happen if your people lived as you live?
Now this isn’t to require your every action to be perfect – exactly as Jesus would do it.* It isn’t to expect that you’ve never done anything you didn’t later realize was wrong. But when you do something less than perfect, what’s the response? What’s the next step? Is it the same next step you hope your people might take when they injure or offend, when they do something out of selfish ambition or vain conceit?
2 – Would your people know how you live if you asked them to follow?
Have you shown them how you are following Christ? Do they know the spiritual disciplines you keep? The ways that you’re showing compassion to the afflicted, justice to the marginalized, advocacy for the oppressed? The ways that you’re witnessing to others and inviting them into the life of the Church?
Have you shown them those areas where you fall short? How you’re seeking improvement and God’s grace?
Do they know how you use your money? How much you spend on yourself and how much you give away?
Do they know what your family life is like? Have your people seen what life is like in your home? Not just your best face at the Christmas open house — your real family life?
I see two primary hesitations from pastors for letting people in this much.
The first hesitation is a fear of what people will see. That itself can come in two forms.
A – The more obvious form: broken and neglected homes, scant or non-existent spiritual disciplines, lavish living and meager giving, rage and anger… For these leaders, the message is, “Do as I say, and I pray you don’t find out what I do.”
If this is you, you need to resign. Tomorrow. Or at the very least,
request require that your people give you some leave time to get things together. (If they won’t allow that, then you need to resign.)
This is for the sake of your people. Can they go on growing even with a fraud for a leader? Well, they can. By the grace of God. But if discipleship has so much to do with that call to “follow me,” then whatever you’re giving them isn’t true discipleship.
Even more, this is for your sake. It’s for the sake of your soul. My hunch: you already know you need to back away and get things together. The reason you’re not: shame, anxiety about income and career, the lying voice in your head that your people are still better off with your message and leadership, even if you’re not living it. Or perhaps the lying voice has you convinced that you can fix these major problems without taking a break.
Sadly, I believe a number of people have taken this road all the way to their destruction. There were warning signs. They knew they needed to get out. But they just couldn’t pull the trigger because of those reasons above. And when everything was revealed, it was too late for them to recover (not because of an absence of God’s grace, but because of how much they had hardened their own hearts).
B – The other form: the leader who thinks (s)he needs to be perfect in action. This is the person who doesn’t want anyone to see the blemishes for fear that they’ll lose respect — or that it will give others an excuse for falling short. They don’t want people to see or know that they have bouts of anger or depression, or that they don’t have an amazing prayer life. They have few friends – superficial ones, at that – for fear of what others might see.
If this is you, I think your people could gain a lot from seeing that you’re human. Either they already know it and they’re tired of your charade, or you’re painting such an unrealistic, unstruggling, perfect picture for them that they’re going to give up because of how far short they fall from it.
And it might give you relief to admit that you’re not that caricature of a person who never had a struggle or weakness.
The second hesitation is a fear of coming off self-righteous.
This person can’t imagine having the audacity to say, “follow my example.” How pompous and self-righteous! And it can be. But it doesn’t have to be. Otherwise Paul couldn’t tell people to follow his example. Right?
If this is you, I think you need to ask yourself what you really believe — about God, about yourself, about your people.
When Christ called us to follow him, did he mean it? Did he mean it when he said, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”? Did God mean it when he said, “be holy as I am holy,” and when he said, “I am the Lord, who makes you holy”? Do you truly believe God calls us to holiness and makes us holy?
Do you believe you can, by the grace of God, live a life holy and pleasing to God? Do you believe your people can?
Then dump the concern about self-righteousness and claim it! Tell your people that by the grace of God, you are following Christ. Enough so that they should follow you. This also shows them that you believe they can follow Christ and live lives that are holy and pleasing to God.
Briefly – a third hesitation. (I know, I said two…) A call to ministry may mean a call to public life for you, but does that require your family’s lives to all be public, too? Well, no. I hear that telling embarrassing stories about your spouse and children in public is a bad idea. On the other side of that, my wife has embraced with me some of this felt need to keep our lives public. It’s great to be in that together. This will be a much more legitimate tension to manage than the first two hesitations, which I think we just need to get over…
So what if you took down some of the “private” walls in your life? What if you shared your life more openly with more of your people? What if you shared your honest struggles, how you’re working through them, and asked for prayer?
And what if you shared what you’re doing to try to be faithful? What if you (gasp!) shared your family’s budget — the whole thing — with your people? Share some stories of how you’re trying to live a life faithful to God. Don’t paint false, idealized pictures. Just tell the truth.
I’m becoming convinced that a call to ministry is a call to public life. I think any of us, as leaders, need to be able to show others our lives and be so bold as to say, “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
With that, I’ll end this on a different note: I’ve made some big claims here about living publicly. Is there anything you’d like to ask about my personal life? Use the form below. I’ll do my best to give an honest answer, and if I think any question is inappropriate or unhelpful for some reason, I’ll at least try to give you my honest rationale for not answering.
* By the way, I do think you can be perfect. But it probably looks different than our typical definition. More on that another day…
2 thoughts on “A call to ministry is a call to public life”
Man, if I had had your courage years ago I would have had a happier life/wife/family!!!!!! Thanks for further confronting the Elephant!!!!!!
Amen to all. How about using parenting as an example? Your children will see – and tell – everything about your personal life. Fern Nichols, founder of Moms in Touch, coached us, “Children do not need to see you are perfect. They only need to see God’s grace at work in your life.” What freedom that gave me, to apologize, to be real. My son is 27 and married now. He is a godly man who knows how to be honest with himself and others. He also learned discretion and discernment. There were things to be kept in the family for the sake of the ministry, so as to not cause others to stumble. Love rules and never fails.