Thoughts From a Trendy, Spiritual Show-Off
by Tom Hilpert
[Before you read this article, let me make something clear. I wrote the bulk of this in February, 2013. By the time it comes out in EFP, I will have spent some time with many of you at ARC and LCMC conferences. But I wrote this before that. So, please, don’t think this is my personal reaction after interacting with some of you. These are my thoughts about being real as a pastor—thoughts inspired by associations in my local town.]
It’s ironic that I’ve been writing an “Especially for Pastors” article each year for the past few because one of the main things I have lacked for a long time is meaningful, regular fellowship with other pastors.
I was thinking about this just the other day. We have a few ministerial gatherings that meet regularly in my small southern town. I keep finding out about different groups and attend them for a few months. But yesterday, once more, I found myself praying for permission to skip the next minister’s gathering.
As I tried to figure out what my problem was, I realized that I have made several unconscious observations about a lot of pastors in recent years. In fact, I realized that many times, I really don’t want to be around other pastors. This got me to thinking: what if I come across like that? What if I, and some of my close friends and colleagues, present this sort of face to our congregations and to the world? It’s a dreadful thought, but perhaps one that might help us.
Here are some of the unfortunately realities I see too often among pastors and other ministers:
- Show-off spirituality.
This isn’t really as blatant as it sounds, but it is as bad as it sounds. Most pastors have learned how to show off their spiritual qualifications in subtle ways, but it is still showing off. And you can’t fight it. I mean, what can you say: “Stop sounding so spiritual when you pray?” And yet, I wish I could say that because often, the super-spiritual sounding prayers also sound super-fake. But show-offs are safe because no one is going criticize them without sounding like an unbeliever.What I really want to say to these folks is this: “The only thing that should impress any of us about each other is Jesus. Without him, we’ve got nothing. With him, there is no need to pretend we are something. Give up the facade.”
I often meet another kind of pastor at these meetings—the ones who are protecting themselves. They don’t show off, but they don’t really share anything real either. These folks are closed books. The show-offs (above) probably scare them, and their response is to say only shallow, safe things to their fellow laborers. I want to say to them:”You don’t have to protect yourself. That is the job of Jesus. Let’s be real, and allow the others to figure it out when they can. Don’t let the show-offs or religious expectations intimidate you.”
- A focus only on “good stuff happening.”
Pastors’ gatherings are often a place to strut not only your great spirituality, but also your great effectiveness in ministry. If you don’t have anything to strut, your brother pastors will be happy to also demonstrate their amazing compassion and pity as they pray for you, thereby also demonstrating again their spirituality as they pray.What I’d like to say to them is this: “Struggle does not hinder the work of the Lord, nor does lack of outward success.” Jesus never planted or pastored a church as big as yours. Paul left behind a series of very small, sometimes doctrinally-troubled congregations. James was beheaded. John was imprisoned. Most of the first followers of Jesus went from hardship to suffering with minimal outward success in ministry. Let’s relax, take the bad with the good, and receive it all from the Lord’s hand.
- A group-think mentality that affirms whatever is hot at the moment.
I’m old enough to remember when “church-growth” and “seeker-sensitive” were hot. I started a cell-church before it was “the thing,” watched while that model briefly held the spotlight, and then gazed, bemused, while the focus moved to various mutations of house church, simple church, and then beyond. There is an “author of the month” among Christian circles just as surely as there is a flavor of the month at your local ice cream place.
Invariably at pastor gatherings, there are half a dozen exchanges like these:(Other Pastor) “Have you read [title of the next big thing] by [the next big author]?”(Me) “You’re the eighth person to ask me that, but no, I haven’t.”
“You really should read it. It’s transforming.”
What I want to say is, “So is the Holy Spirit. He’s my favorite author.”
- A pious focus on “unity.”
For some reason “unity” is a big thing around here. We keep praying for it and striving for it. Unity among believers is great. Jesus prayed for it. But I’ve always thought that if we are truly Christians, we already have unity with all other believers. I think it’s just that a lot of us don’t recognize what unity really is. A joint worship service that pulls believers from twenty different places of ministry doesn’t prove anything. What I want to say to the “unity people” is this:”Here’s unity: Being joyful when your fellow pastor’s church grows at the same time that your church is declining.”
All right so what’s my point?
Well, at least in this article, I’ve avoided the five pitfalls listed above. I’m not showing off, and I’m not protecting my spiritual image. I’m not focused on the good stuff that is happening in my ministry because, honestly, we’re a bit thin on that right now. I’m obtusely ignoring current Christian trends, and by golly, I sound downright divisive!
Oops, but I just showed off. Darn it, this is hard….
But seriously, I think these things show up when pastors get together because they are already inside us. What concerns me is this: If pastors can’t be real and humble and content with whatever situation the Lord places them in, content to know only Jesus and his sufferings, how can we possibly expect our people to be that way? And how can we lead our people if we are so insecure about Jesus in us that we rush to these other things to bolster ourselves?
Paul shows us the way:
“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
Paul could have showed the Corinthians how spiritual he was. Or he could have stayed quiet and diplomatic and protected himself. He might have told them about all the other churches he was planting and how great the work was going. He could have demonstrated his knowledge of the latest trends. He could have subtly slipped in his extensive theological education as a Pharisee. But he resolved to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ.
My encouragement to you, my fellow pastors, is to follow Paul’s lead in this. As for myself, I’m trying it out like this:
I’m not a great pray-er. I’m out of the loop concerning the latest church trends. I’m not interested in a 10,000 person non-denominational pep rally because I’m too thick-headed to see what that accomplishes. I don’t have a lot of outward victories to share right now in my life. But I know Jesus. I have been crucified with him. I now live by faith—not by boasting, not by self-protecting, not by knowledge or great victories or running with the crowd. I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.
Think about the people in your life who are the most peaceful and comfortable to be with. They are usually the ones who have internalized this to some degree. Neither your successes nor theirs matters with them. Your failures, as well as theirs, are plain to see, and yet that seems irrelevant. They quietly follow the leading of the Spirit, whether it coincides with the hottest trend or not. Regardless of their own position, they rejoice whenever the kingdom of God advances.
After eighteen years, I still have a long way to go in order to become this kind of pastor. But at least now I know that this is the kind of pastor the Lord is calling me to be.
Tom Hilpert is a pastor in Tennessee. He also writes mystery novels with humor and flair. He loves dogs as well as cats, and is kind to little children. His “Superior Mysteries” feature a pastor-protagonist.