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.

  • Joem2677862

    The way you preach can make all the difference. But the information that is given should NEVER compromise the TRUTH. We must always remember. Jesus Christ showed anger and took physical action at times. He told the Truth, even when people didn’t want to hear it. His delivery of it wasn’t necessarily harsh. But the Truth was delivered nevertheless. We need to hear it. WE ALL DO. Even if it makes us guilty. Because if we are guilty of anything, we need to know it. How can we redeem ourselves and walk with CHRIST if we cannot face ourselves? The world is ruled by evil. All the things that intend to lead a person astray from Christ. We are taught to celebrate and embrace LIES. We worship celebrities who are paid to be liars. We lie to others just to protect their “feelings”. And overall, we end up with a culture that is weak and void of any real courage at all. Just look at all the complainers out there that do nothing about corruption!!

    If all preachers told the Truth, the church buildings would be smaller and so would the church crowds. But even if it means preaching to one single person, we tell the TRUTH. As tellers of TRUTH, we will not be liked. We will be persecuted. We will bring out the worst in a lot of people. Even if Jesus told the TRUTH softly, there were those who rejected what He had to say. Because people are guided by WANTS in this world. They lust. They want. They hate anything and anyone who threatens their personal status quo. I know this. Because I have seen it in my own friends and families. You can feed someone sweet horse piss, and if they like it, they will keep drinking it. No matter what’s in the can. That’s the kind of people we have in this world. They have no love for TRUTH. Jesus Christ is the only way to redemption and salvation. He die for us. He bought us. We owe Him. And it’ll cost us our life. We must die to this world and be raised up in His faith. We must get to know Him throughout our life. Because if we do not, we will not be allowed in His house once we leave this world. Many think that repentance through the mouth is all we need. But the fact is, that in GOD’s eyes, our LIFE is our mouth. We cannot walk in Christ and think that we can willfully indulge in this world. Sin is Sin. In Christ, we should hate Sin. Therefore, we should deny our flesh. This is hardly the “simple” Salvation you often hear being preached. But it is the Truth. And I believe that many will have trouble committing themselves. I know this through my own shortcomings. As much as I have loved TRUTH since I was a child, I have told many lies and done things I am hardly proud of. And I still find myself falling into hypocrisies. This world seeks to shake us in every way. But we must strive to be different than the world.

    And also. For all you people who think being “baptized” in water is the way to Salvation. YOU ARE WRONG. Water baptism is just one of many rituals to symbolize our intention to commit to Christ. But Salvation does not come through ritual. It comes through our spirited commitment to Christ and all His FAITH. We are in a spiritual sense, dead to the world, and raised in Him. So when you picture that, can you see yourself living in Sin? I hope not. Because when we are dead to the world, that means we will not want to Sin at all. But because we live in this world, we just might find ourselves doing it. But there is a difference between willfully sinning versus doing it in flesh but not spirit. That is why self denial is important. Jesus practiced such things. Are we fools when we throw ourselves into parts of society that entice us and put Sin in our minds? Sex is everywhere. Materialism is everywhere. We live in modern BABYLON all over the place. If we could put on glasses and see the spirit world, we would see demons everywhere taunting us. It requires an absolute LOVE for TRUTH to have the strength to overcome such things. And that same Love will reveal itself in the way we live our lives. To say a same sex marriage is redeemed is a LIE. To say that stripper spinning around the pole is redeemed is a LIE. To say that girl who makes herself look like a whore in public is redeemed is a LIE. We need to know the difference between TRUTH and DECEPTION. Because many walk in this world still not seeing how their presence affects others. If we’re still dressing and acting in ways that lead others to Sin, than we are not WALKING IN CHRIST. We must check ourselves.

  • onebadslave

    I was hopeful this article would be about how Preachers don’t mention parts of the Bible that don’t fit their goals.