Pastor, Be Brave

The greatest gift I ever received as a pastor was getting fired for speaking honestly a couple of years ago.

Believe me, I know it isn’t easy.

I never wanted to be a pastor myself. Eighteen years ago I was drafted, pulled into ministry later in life while in the middle of a successful career as an Art Director. What started out as a few seemingly harmless hours a week volunteering with students has led to nearly two decades in full-time service in the Church.

I’ve been where you are. I’m still there now.

One of the things I remember early on, was how strange it felt the first time I got paid to be a pastor. It made me feel legitimized for sure and it was certainly greatly appreciated, but I also realized that things had changed. I was no longer a free-lance believer. I was no longer autonomous. My spiritual life had been leased out and appropriated by a crowd. There was now an ever-growing, ever-changing list of people to be appeased, compromises to be made, and lines to stay within. Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but for any pastor seeking to embrace a very sacred individual calling, they’re definitely dangerous ground.

So many people in ministry end up unintentionally living as professional Christian politicians, always trying to satisfy their constituents. They live a profoundly personal path in an oddly public way; forced to balance their own inner faith convictions with their responsibility to hundreds, even thousands of people, each with an endless laundry list of needs, requirements, and expectations for them. And the longer you do it and the higher profile you receive, the more treacherous it all is because the stakes are higher and the potential fall greater.

Paid ministry tends to make you beholden to people, often at the expense of your allegiance to Christ. I’ve known, served alongside, and spoken with thousands of pastors and had a front row seat to the schizophrenic nature of their daily existence. On one hand there are the burdens and revelations each carries as a result of their solitary time with God, and on the other there are the demands of a community of people who in essence, pay for their cars, homes, vacations, and health insurance.

Every day pastors, ministers, and church staff members have to walk that extremely fine line between hearing and obeying the voice of God—and not ticking off the wrong people within their midst. And as bold and strong-willed and as successful as they may be, they all calculate the risk-reward of what they write and preach publicly. They all see which way the wind is blowing and try not to fly in the face of it too much for too long.

Every pastor (even the most subversive, passionate, and outspoken ones) learns to read the room.

When I was working in megachurches, I knew well that I could only safely take my congregations to a certain point on issues or topics or theological perspectives. I knew pretty well where the dividing line between bold prophet and unemployed prophet was, and I danced right up to the edge of it but not beyond it if I could help it. We all do.

And believe me, most of it isn’t sinister or at least not intentionally so, it’s just that self-preservation, career longevity, family security, and making sure your kids have shoes are powerful realities for all of us. Yes, ministry is a calling, but it’s one that’s embraced and worked out in the very real business of the Church. Anyone who tells you that tension doesn’t affect them is breaking a commandment.

That’s why the greatest gift I ever received as a pastor was getting fired for speaking honestly a couple of years ago.

It was like a rest button for my sense of purpose. That very day and every day since then I’ve experienced the absolute joy and redemptive power of speaking complete truth; not a version of truth that could keep public perception of me in a local congregation tipped toward favorable, not a version of truth that wouldn’t upset the biggest financial givers in the church, not a version of truth that wouldn’t be awkward for my senior pastor, but the full, flawed, beautiful contents of my heart as a devoted follower of Jesus, shared in real-time.

I now get to openly wrestle with doubt (even current doubt), to fully question why we do what we do as The Church, and to be completely honest with what I feel Jesus calling me to say and do in the world, regardless of who has a problem with it or what the repercussions might be. This isn’t about a lack of accountability with regard to personal conduct or morality, but about pastors having the freedom to disclose all that is revealed to them as they seek and study and serve.

I eventually found a faith community and a group of financial supporters who don’t support me so that I will give a particular opinion or regurgitate a certain doctrine, they do it because they affirm me and the journey I am on to hear and faithfully reflect Jesus. It’s a gift that I can’t ever really express.

This message is partly for Christians with pastors and ministers and church staff in their lives, in the hopes that you will encourage them to be who they are compelled and ordained by God to be, not who you desire them to be. Give them consent to be fully transparent, even if that places them in opposition to you in some fundamental way.

But more than that, this is for all those currently serving in paid and/or public ministry. I wanted to encourage you to speak with courage. I wanted to remind you of what you don’t owe people. You don’t owe them orthodoxy or dogma or tradition or any party line. You don’t owe them a conservative or progressive stance on the issues of the day. You don’t owe them predictability or a theology that makes them comfortable.

If you owe the people who look to you for leadership anything, it’s honesty as you lead. You owe them the most open, vulnerable, bold expression of the personal revelations you hear from God in the quiet of your own heart, regardless of the cost.

Don’t be overtaken by the insults of your critics or intoxicated by the applause of your allies. Never let the voices around you (as well-intentioned, sincere, and loving as they may be) ever drown out the voice of Jesus. Never let security or position or obligation prevent you from the most authentic version of yourself that you can muster.

These are heady, vitally important times. Now more than ever, people need a Christianity that is not prepackaged, market tested, or franchise ready. They need something raw and real and dangerous, even to the Church institution itself; something that dares to veer from the safe and secure in order to be covered in the dust of Jesus.

Pray, wait, listen, and when you do feel like you hear God speak to you—then say everything. 

This is not at all the easy road, but it is the only one that you are truly called to walk.

Sunday is coming.

God is speaking.

People are listening.

Pastor, be brave.

John Pavlovitz
John Pavlovitz is a pastor/blogger from Wake Forest, North Carolina. An 18-year veteran of local church ministry, he currently writes a blog called Stuff That Needs To Be Said, and in January is launching an online Christian community called The Table.