The Pastor As Expert: A Cautionary Tale

How much do we as pastors really know about the things we’re teaching our people?

When I see a 25 year old doing a sermon series on marriage and family, I roll my eyes. That’s only because I’ve been married since 1995 and I feel superior (or vintage) being much further down the road. There’s no way this kid has traveled enough relational terrain to bring anything of substance to this conversation. But I imagine I get same response from the couple who got married in 1975, sitting there listening to me yammer on about balancing work and family, or making time for your spouse, or whatever else I feel I can offer the couples in the room.

I think about those in the pew who are in their 80s, who listen to me with grace as I speak of faith or enduring hardship or some other realm they already know quite well. I sense they are like God, knowing what is ahead while watching me speak with confidence of a future I don’t yet know. The poet makes sense when he writes, “He who sits in heaven laughs.” (Psalm 2:4)

There’s a real tendency for us pastors to play the expert on a host of life’s issues. A quick glance at an annual sermon series catalog will show this to be true, with message after message offering help and advice on anything from marriage to raising kids to overcoming obstacles to finances to dating to surviving depression and anxiety to navigating some social event of the day.

The “pastor as expert” can be the result of a couple of things:

No. 1 – The Feeling Of Being Watched & Assessed

There is a real pressure that exists around the pastor to have their shit together. All of it. Especially the parts that people see. Keep smiling, keep serving, keep loving your family, keep forgiving, keep living below your means, keep raising good kids, keep making good leadership decisions, keep running the organization successfully, keep properly managing your money, and on and on it goes.

Now, the truth is, most people in the pew aren’t paying attention to these things as much as we’d like to think, though there are some. It’s the perception of such watchfulness, however, that can lead us to dress up in the clothing of the expert on so many of life’s issues and dealings. It’s that feeling of being watched and assessed that can drive us towards presenting ourselves as well-rounded and knowledgable in all these areas.

Questions to consider:

  1. Does my own fear of coming across as a person and leader who is well put together drive how I craft my teachings?
  2. Do I in fact serve in a church environment that actually does hold me to an unfair standard of living, and if so, how has this shaped my teachings?
  3. Am I afraid to admit ignorance or scared to say “I don’t know” when it comes some of life’s biggest realities?

No. 2 – A Twisted View Of Calling

This has to do with control. There are pastors who see it as their calling to control the behavior of their people, though they wound’t necessarily use that word to describe what they’re doing with their sermons. But the truth is, many have drifted into a twisted view of their calling, seen in their tendency to want to control the ways that people live their lives. The pastor finds himself writing sermons as a way to shape peoples’ lives in very particular ways, and he does so out of a conscious or unconscious need to control the parish and her daily behaviors.

The worst iteration of this is the pastor’s own conviction that his life is the primary model by which his parish should fashion their own daily lives. This one is subtle, but you can hear it in the illustrations and in the advice-giving, how he offers up wisdom only from his own life. If you watch closely, this type of pastor is often quite disconnected from his people. It may be because he doesn’t listen to the stories of struggle from his own parish, or that he is listening but only through the grid of his own perceived expertise and experience.

Questions to consider:

  1. Do I think too much about certain people in my church who are living in ways that I find unhealthy and even destructive?
  2. When I write sermons, am I consistently thinking about how this message will convict people to change their behaviors?
  3. When I write sermons, do I ever say, “I hope [insert name] shows up to hear this”?

The truth is, we may in fact know a lot about a lot of things that life hands us. We may actually have some good wisdom to offer people when it comes to navigating certain aspects of daily life. And, there may even be times when our own experiences are helpful for our people. But the stories of our successes rarely do what we think they do; rather, it is the confessions of our own commonness that end up being the most helpful in the life of the congregation.

For me, this has been a career-long lesson. I would give myself a D+ in this area. I understand from experience the tendency towards being something of an expert on life’s dealings. The last several years, though, have been years of grace, years of listening to God’s voice and what God has to say about the things I get up and say on Sunday mornings, and how God has reminded me that I have not been installed here to be the local know-it-all. I have been reminded of life’s complexities, and of how layered and storied each person in my parish truly is, and the things I say in moments of influence are best when they are said with humility and honesty.

I am learning what it means to preach “with” and not “to”, and how the sermon is not a lesson but a rediscovery of what is already happening (and has happened) in our midst.

Embrace your unknowing.

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