Bo Sanders over at Homebrewed Christianity engaged me yesterday on Twitter over comments I was making to the effect that pastors shouldn’t protect their congregations from difficult ideas, concepts, or justice issues – in fact, they should do the opposite. He was most interested in my tweet that said, “I cannot think of one instance where Jesus withheld hard truths or talked around a subject out of “pastoral concern”.” He summarized the whole conversation very well in his post.
Then he went on to emphasize his contention that comparing contemporary pastors to Jesus is comparing apples to oranges. This is what I want to respond to.
If comparing Jesus to pastors is impossible/unfair then the first person guilty of it is Jesus who called himself “the good shepherd/pastor“. Jesus continually emphasized his expectation that his disciples would imitate him in everything, said he actually anticipated them doing greater things than he was doing, and called on them explicitly to pick up their crosses and follow him. Not surprisingly we see the apostles repeating the same instructions to imitate Christ, have the same mind as Christ, and even to die like Christ as Stephen, Peter, Paul, Andrew and others literally did.
Of course, the call to imitate Jesus is incumbent on all baptized Christians, not just pastors, but pastors set themselves up for extra scrutiny, by taking on a role structurally similar to Christ’s occupation – guiding/teaching/caring for disciples of Christ.
Now, I completely concede the point that these structural similarities are limited and there is a vast chasm of contextual difference as well. 21st century America is not 1st century Palestine. Graduate educated professional ministers with health-care and pensions are pretty dissimilar from an informally trained unpaid lay-rabbi. All true. All good reasons to take extra care in our analogies, and do a lot of contextual interpretation, but certainly not reason enough to just drop the comparison.
But here’s the best part, even if I concede to Bo that the comparison between Jesus and contemporary pastors is untenable, my contention that pastors shouldn’t protect their congregants from big ideas, concepts and challenging justice issues stands. It is bad guidance, bad leadership, and even bad spiritual care to protect people from inconvenient or offensive truths.
As a disclaimer, I’m not talking about nonsense like “tough love” or “loving the sinner/hating the sin”. Nor am I advocating zealotry that is really about one’s own need to be right rather than a genuine desire to serve. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it absolutely has to be said. But when called on to speak (as pastors often are), by all means speak with conviction and humility and tell the entire truth to the best of your ability no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
Speaking AS a pastor, it is my genuine conviction, and experience that you are of best service to your congregation when you regularly speak uncomfortable truths. Establishing the precedent that you will do so from the very beginning of your relationship actually makes this much less painful than you imagine. On the other hand, once you have established the precedent of tiptoeing around difficult subjects it is almost impossible to go the other direction with credibility. We tend to give our congregants too little credit for being mature, and too much power over us so that we fear even the possibility of their being upset.
Consider this: if we aren’t truthful with our congregations on things we think are controversial or challenging, why should they believe us when we tell them we love them?