Many years ago when I was called to serve on the pastoral staff of a fairly large church (running just over 600 in weekly attendance) something interesting occurred the first week of my very short tenure. The lead pastor and his wife had my wife and me over for dinner. After about the first half hour of chitchat, the tone turned a bit more serious. The lead pastor stated in effect (don’t recall his exact words), “If ever you hear anyone in the church say anything negative about me or my ministry I want you to come directly to me. Don’t talk about it with them.” I thought little of it since prima facie it seemed reasonable at the time. I agreed to comply and, though my wife and I did think it a bit odd, we did not pursue it any further at the time. Looking back, however, this was the first of many warning signs that things were suspect and perhaps not healthy.
Within a few weeks, a Campus Crusade for Christ director at the large university in town (now known as CRU) who also attended our church asked to have breakfast. He mentioned how he and his wife were hardly getting much out of the lead pastor’s sermons and were hoping for more thoughtful content. Since I had the opportunity to hear the lead pastor’s sermons a few times, I did notice the sermons were a bit scattered and lacked cohesion. So, in response, I sympathized with him and we spoke little more about it that morning, moving on to other topics of personal background, ministry and seminary experiences, etc. This was the second warning sign that things were not right.
During my brief time of serving in that church, my wife and I were under tremendous pressure. Our daughter had just gone abroad for her first semester of college, our son was in military basic training, and our move out of the great state of Colorado caused us to miss our friends and everything we loved about the Rocky Mountains. All of these circumstances collided with what turned out to be a neurotic lead pastor who was secretly self-medicating and hardly spent time in God’s Word to prepare for his sermons, the sudden termination of a church employee who had misused ministry funds, an angry elder board, and my own failures in showing anger toward all the pressure. Needless to say, the situation turned sour quickly. I resigned after 3 months and we promptly sold our home and moved out-of-state. The lead pastor was gone within a year after my resignation, though I do not know the circumstances around his departure.
Those were tough times. I really wish things turned out differently. In fact, I suspect the situation could have turned out differently had there been a place for leaders to feel safe, express their human frailties, and talk about their needs. In looking back there seemed to be a lack of transparency on that leadership team. To my knowledge, no one (and I include the 6 elders and 3 pastors here) had a close relationship with each other or with anyone else in the church. Elder board meetings were more like business transactions and not as personal as I had hoped or expected amongst a team called to shepherd God’s people. Naturally, a church that size had business decisions that were critical, but there was little intentional effort made to grow personally and as a team. At one point during an elder board meeting, it was emphatically stated that “The ministry is out there (pointing to the sanctuary), not in here!” The message rang out loud and clear: Transparency is not required for leadership.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Seems to me that transparency is a necessary prerequisite to authentic spiritual, moral, and emotional growth. Yet so often this trait is not readily apparent in or even expected of church leadership. What is expected is endless enthusiasm and success, often measured in numerical and/or financial growth. In today’s church culture (broadly speaking) a pastor or church leader is seen as the having the answers, not raising questions; the one who has it all together, not the one who needs counsel; the one who trusts, not the one who wrestles with doubt; the one who solves problems, rather than has problems.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a feigned transparency from the pulpit in an effort to convince congregants that pastors are “just like you.” Similarly, pastors can easily adopt the perspective of others by way of simulating other virtues such as empathy or humility. Those in public ministry are especially vulnerable to this subtle form of dishonesty. They wave the virtue flag to appear genuine, yet leave out the requisite details for full accountability. If a pastor or leader can enjoy the perspective that parishioners have of him (“My pastor is transparent and authentic.”), then he can avoid his own perspective, which includes the sordid details he wishes to avoid. After all, a positive self-image is at stake and we must guard that at all costs (see especially I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life by Gregg A. Ten Elshof for more. See also my review). Yet the self-deception continues.
However, my contention is that if we do not grow in the virtue of transparency, then we may eventually lose the ability to be honest, not only with others but with ourselves. After all, the same faculty that is capable of honesty with others is at work in being honest with/about ourselves and requires being properly exercised. This lack of transparency, I suspect, is the beginning of self-deception and perhaps even some psychosis. Ironically, by not fostering and nurturing transparency as a public leader, the stage is set for isolation in ministry, which is never healthy! “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are social beings and are designed to need one another; this is no less true of those who occupy the pulpit than of the first man and woman.
Enter, the Apostle Paul. Some of his most candid words in Scripture come when he writes “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor 11:29). Here there is no pretense. Here there is no fraud. This is Paul in the raw and this is God-inspired transparency.
In this context (2 Corinthians 10-13) Paul is forced to defend his apostleship in the face of a triumphalist mindset in the Corinthian church. Some “super Apostles” had stepped in to wow the believers in such a way that Paul’s credentials came under scrutiny. Yet, instead of chronicling his victories and accomplishments, Paul boasts of his weaknesses, failures, and defeats (2 Cor 11:23-28). Those looking for metrics of success had no fodder from the Apostle Paul since all he had to show were his battle scars of ministry (see Gal 6:17).
When Paul asks “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?” (2 Cor 11:29), the weakness here likely refers to sheer emotional and spiritual (if not also physical) inability to carry out or even pursue a task. In a word, the Apostle is “spent.” He’s “zapped” of everything. He knows what it’s like to have no reserves from which to draw. Just a brief glimpse at his life and one finds a staggering amount of energy poured out and poured into the churches God had given him. Yet, Paul admits he becomes utterly drained and altogether debilitated. This is not only in stark contrast to the “super Apostles” of Paul’s day, but also quite dissimilar to many church leaders and pastors in our day whose persona seems to contain boundless energy and enthusiasm.
Even more revealing, Paul says “Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor 11:29b). A few possibilities exist for what Paul meant. 1) Paul’s burning is a response to someone else’s sin; 2) Paul’s burning is a fiery indignation directed at an offender who leads others to sin; 3) Paul’s burning is an admission of his own sin in light of his own weaknesses (2 Cor 11:29a). Regardless of what is meant (option 2 seems best), Paul turns his emotional self inside out with this rhetorical question. There is no doubt where he stands and there are no shadows of duplicity anywhere near the mind and heart of the Apostle. So much so that Paul goes on to publically put himself under an oath before God (2 Cor 11:31)! No feigned humility; no simulation; no deceit. In a spectacular feat of irony, Paul levels his opponents’ triumphalistic attitudes and actions by sheer transparency!
What then does this have to do with pastoral ministry? To start with, everything! More specifically, I would argue that not only is transparency vital for a healthy pastoral/leadership team, but it should be intentionally considered when searching for new pastors/leaders. While candidate questions are important, how carefully are candidate answers vetted out in the community where the ministry has occurred? Is there a history of transparency as a practice in ministry candidates? How much transparency is enough or can one be “too transparent” and offer information that is better left private?
In an age where digital personas can displace authentic selves and where charges of plagiarism go viral, transparency is all the more crucial and vital for the Church God has purchased with his own blood. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is an important correlation between the degree of a responsible transparency in church leadership and the health and spiritual growth of a church. The greater the transparency, the healthier the church. Had my first (and only) pastoral experience been blessed with a biblical measure of transparency, I would like to believe things would’ve turned out differently.
Some resources that may help.
See Chris Braun’s When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search: Biblical Principles and Practices to Guide Your Search. Though I’ve not yet read this, I’ve appreciated Chris’s other work. Finally, see my “Best Practices for Church Leadership“.