Why Most Pastors Won't Tell the Truth

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Can there be too much honesty in preaching? Adam McHugh thinks so.

In her post (and you should read it first), Rachel Held Evans urges pastors to be honest with their churches about their doubts, weaknesses, and struggles. Signing it from “The Congregation,” she says that a pastor who is transparent in front of others will lead them into freedom and will create communities that radiate grace, love, and truth. And it sounds great. Who doesn’t want that? There’s a big part of me that agrees with her sentiment. But I’ve also been the pastor who waved the flag of honesty and transparency, and I’ve been burned by it.  

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When I first started preaching in 2000, I was the prototypical Gen-X pastor who committed to describing things like they really were. I refused to varnish life with religious platitudes, and I threw out words like “authenticity” and “real” a lot. I thought that if I could model these things then I would free others to put down the religious masks and to experience real intimacy, forgiveness, and healing. I openly expressed my specific struggles in my spiritual life and my relationships. And, honestly, it felt horrible. I felt exposed and vulnerable. I felt like I was giving things away that I would never get back. It felt a little like a public therapy session without the therapeutic elements. And then a few people in the church started using what I said against me. They usually did it in subtle ways, but they would mention shortcomings I had shared in public settings to undermine my leadership. One person, upon finding out I was in therapy, questioned whether I should be in ministry at all. Other pastors I know who are part of more conservative denominations have been fired for sharing personal struggles.  

Pain is part of ministry, and I know that those of us who are called to pastoral ministry will experience pain. I know that we need to lose life in order to gain life. Jesus has demonstrated that quite well. But when I read challenges like Rachel’s, I am reminded of those vulnerable experiences. As a result, now, when I speak in public, I am very careful with how I word things, and I don’t share many details of specific struggles. I only share those aspects of my life with close friends and with my therapist and spiritual director. It feels much healthier. When I share with them, it feels healing for me, like I’m gaining something from it.

So when Rachel signs her letter from “The Congregation,” I have to wonder which “congregation” it is who is eager for their pastor to tell the truth about life, faith, and relationships? Which congregation doesn’t only say they want authenticity and honesty, but will actually respond well to it and find God’s healing through those things?

My guess is that the congregation she is describing has these characteristics:

1. The church has a culture of grace. When people share honestly with one another, they are not condemned for it but are met with love and empathy. They hear “me too” more than “shame on you.”

2. The church has a lot of young people. The college students and young adults I’ve worked with over the years have been far more eager for honesty than others I’ve worked with. They are likely immersed in social media and its culture of sharing and are comfortable with opening up the intimate aspects of their lives with others.

3. The church is emotionally healthy. When confronted with weakness or struggle, they search inside of themselves instead of punishing others for what they’ve done.

4. The church wants to be challenged. Truthfully, a lot of people in churches are not looking to hear something hard or new. They don’t want to be led in new ways. They come to church to hear the things they already know and to be comforted. They need to want to be led and to be stretched in new directions in order to be open to the honesty that heals.    

If we’re being honest, most churches do not have these characteristics. I don’t know how many Rachel Evans there are in most churches who would receive a pastor’s honesty with grace and self-reflection. And that’s why most pastors are unwilling to tell the truth.  

Adam McHugh is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. Adam S. McHugh is an ordained Presbyterian minister, a spiritual director and an introvert. He has served at two Presbyterian churches, as a hospice chaplain and as campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Adam blogs at www.introvertedchurch.com.  He and his wife live in Claremont, California.

More from Adam McHugh or visit Adam at http://www.introvertedchurch.com

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  • Teri

    The “congregation” Rachael is talking about sounds more like a “small group”, the fellowship groups within churches that share bible study and intimate prayer needs. It sounds like you have this among your family, friends, and therapist. No need to share the grit of your life any further than that.

  • omar barquero

    great point of view, i think there are some aspects of our lives that people needs to know but others we have to share it with God only.

  • BEN SCHILLACI

    i have a question why do pastors have to be treated higher than the body of Christ. are they more anointed? why do pastors treat the saints of God as dumb little sheep. why is it some one writes a book all of the soundly they are church leaders why.

  • whitesoul8

    I think this is a great article! Doubts, weaknesses and struggles – it would be dishonest to say there hasn’t been a moment that the majority of us has experienced these. What is important is that what we choose to communicate is done so with a sense of responsibility and discretion. Depending on the subject matter and the audience, there may be a fine line between what is (or not) beneficial and appropriate.

    Personal style and method at any given moment is also important to be considered – authoritative versus personal, for example – there are different viewpoints regarding these elements of style and that, too, should be taken into consideration.

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