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.
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.