There’s quite a bit of discussion in the news these days about pastors. Some stories are good, but far too many of them are bad: pastors who abuse, and more commonly, those who turn a blind eye to others’ abusive habits. For every heartwarming story of the pastor who serves quietly and humbly until retirement there are the pastors who fall prey to the temptation of money, or sex, or just plain, unadulterated power. For every Divinity School Endowed Chair or exemplary Missions Fund namesake, there are heartbreaking stories of pastors who lose their faith after toiling in the trenches for decades. We too often hear of pastors who shepherd the majority of their flock with wisdom and mercy—much like Solomon—and yet fail their own families, continuing in that Davidic line. Pastors of every stripe and creed, from every denomination and non-denomination around the globe, are not immune to the threat of tumbling from the pulpit in disgrace and shame.
There are many dynamics at play in the downfall of a pastor. As churches grow and the world (seemingly) becomes more complicated, the pastoral role—especially for those with a midsized congregation—necessarily becomes more demanding. There is indeed nothing new under the sun, for each generation has its specific iteration of those temptations common to humanity. Village gossip at the well gives way to social media in our pockets. Abusers always find ways to groom and harm the most vulnerable, aided by modern technology. As the world speeds up, so do the needs and struggles of congregants. As faithful men and women find themselves increasingly overconnected and yet under-resourced, seminaries and other sending organizations are struggling to equip their candidates. It is no small challenge to foster an operations-savvy, theologically sound, and somehow still relatable pastor.
Different seminaries and divinity schools, depending on their emphases, are responding to these challenges. Some lean into what they are already known for—theological excellence, cross-cultural training, or even ecumenical openness. I’ve found that, at least within my own small circle, it’s fairly easy to spot the average student from a given institution or program. Some are headier in their theological discourse, while others are clearly well-trained in counseling and pastoral care. Some are personable and interact easily in social settings, while others are more intense or prefer smaller groups. Some know how to rock a classic bowtie or church mother hat, while others may be more of the “jeans and t-shirt” set. Of course, these are all broad oversimplifications of layered, nuanced human beings who thrive in different places, seasons, and roles, while struggling in others.
In looking at those various roles, preaching is by far not the sum total of the pastoral ministry, even for those pastors whose main role in a church is to preach regularly. Preachers are called to pastor their flock by bringing the word of God to them; fantastic research, winsome personality, and amazing oratorical skills are no substitute for a heart after the Lord’s and a desire to hear God speak. Preaching is that rare visible nexus of pastoral ministry where the rubber meets the road; the day-in-and-day-out work of caring for God’s people comes under public scrutiny during a sermon. Does the pastor seem to know the specific needs, temptations, and fears of his people? Does she show a love for God, His Word, and God’s people? Is the sermon full of inaccessible language, or awkward slang? Does the pastor seem to remember that she is to be feeding God’s people with the Holy Word of the Lord? Is it too long? Too short? How on earth is the pastor supposed to know what is “just right” for any given congregation? What about the need to challenge people, not just speak into “itching ears”? What about preaching for and ministering to the marginalized: racial and sexual minorities, survivors of domestic abuse, even survivors of church abuse? And what about preaching for those in the neighborhood—perhaps those in poverty, the unchurched, or those who are differently abled? How does a pastor reach out to them?
Being (at least for awhile) the only woman in a Masters of Divinity program at a conservative, complementarian seminary, I have an interesting perspective both from the pew and the pulpit. Each Sunday I sit in the pew with my family, primarily content with my role as a congregant, wife and mother. But over my years in seminary, I’ve taken a few homiletics courses, some of which required me to showcase and sharpen my public speaking skills. Also, as a campus minister for an interdenominational student/faculty-led organization, I do not preach as would a priest or pastor for a denominational campus ministry. I do teach lessons, lead Bible studies, and speak at meetings fairly regularly. I enjoy public speaking and teaching, and have grown even more in my skills since starting seminary. However, when I think about the wide gulf I see between some of my classmates who are fantastic speakers but struggle interpersonally, contrasted with those who are not as dynamic in the pulpit but who thrive in discipling others, I’ve noticed two key traits in those who do well in both areas.
First, the pastors who I see doing well overall are humble. They are constantly learning, growing, questioning, and serving. This humility and teachability leads to the second attribute that I’ve noticed—pastors who make it for the long haul are specifically gifted in relation to other people, because they are students of culture and context. These pastors are quick to listen, slow to speak, and take notice of the world around them.
The heart for a certain culture is something only God can give, but cultural competence can and should be taught. I will never forget one of the most arrogant, unhelpful things I’ve read in my entire seminary career thus far—a book on preaching that claimed a preacher must never, ever use anything other than “proper” grammar. He must avoid “ghetto” slang at all costs, remembering that he is “speaking on behalf of the Lord.” My reaction to reading it was certainly not proper, definitely employed some colorful slang, and I desperately wanted to hear from the Lord Himself as to how He could allow this to be taught. I couldn’t believe the cultural incompetence of the author, and the assumptions he made about what God Himself values and wants to communicate.
The author’s views on morality were hardly being shaped by Biblical mandate alone. Rather, he was approaching the pulpit from his distinctly dominant culture experience. Even if a pastor were to only ever preach in that same context—somewhere Standard, Western English is the norm, intellectualism is the mainstay, and formality is de rigueur—the heartbreaking truth is that more than just Biblical text and those values would be preached. A normativity which prioritizes that culture—and that culture only—would also be transmitted to the hearers. A living, breathing structure which would say You are welcome here to some, but clearly proclaim But YOU (unless you culturally assimilate) are not to others. When the scandal of the Cross becomes lost in other prescriptions of what is and is not supposedly offensive, it is no longer the Gospel that is being preached.
That is the ultimate goal of the pulpit—that the true, scandalous, offensive, life-bringing Gospel be preached. Any pastor who regularly takes the highly visible role of preacher must remember that as the primary goal. Congregants who see that fidelity will be blessed by it. With humility and a teachable heart, the other issues facing pastors—in their roles as family members, counselors, orators, community members, managers, etc.—can be moments for sanctification instead of temptation or personal glorification.