In the second installment in our new video series “TGC Talks,” pastor and apologist Sam Allberry addresses the reasons Christian pastors have become less trustworthy in society, and how they might become trusted again. Pastors need to appreciate why trust has been lost, Allberry says, and they should prioritize compassion, honesty, pointing people to Jesus, and striving to become more like Jesus themselves. The more like Jesus pastors are, the more trustworthy they’ll become.
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Sam Allberry: A few years ago, I was invited to a fancy dress party, and lacking imagination and resourcefulness, but being an ordained Anglican clergyman, I decided to take my Anglican robes and to use those as a costume. Now, the party was outdoors and we had to walk through a public park to get there and as I was walking through this park wearing my robes, I noticed a mother with a couple of kids. And as she saw me, she grabbed her kids and pulled them away from my direction with a look of kind of horror in her face. And it made me realize that actually what I was wearing to a previous few generations would have been very familiar and reassuring, but evidently at the time I was wearing them, I just looked very peculiar, very weird, and a bit of a threat.
And it then struck me that actually that is probably true of the office of being a pastor in general. In days gone past, pastors were seen as being respectable members of the community. Even for people who didn’t go to church, pastors were people they may have revered, people that they looked up to. Pastors had a measure of social capital, they had standing within the community.
But that has very much changed and we need to appreciate why that has changed. Now some of that’s because of what’s happened outside of the church. There are changes that have happened in our culture. So what had been a residue of Christian culture has now largely been replaced by typically a more secular way of thinking. And so whereas Christianity may have been seen at best as being good for society and at worst as being maybe a little bit old fashioned, today people are more likely to think that Christianity at best is deeply problematic and at worst is actually dangerous and bad for society.
And therefore pastors increasingly are seen as people who are proponents of an ideology and teaching that is actually harmful, and therefore pastors are held increasingly in suspicion rather than in trust. But it’s not just changes outside the church that have meant that pastors are less trusted than we used to be. We need to come to terms with the fact that actually there have been changes within the church that have caused this, and one of the first things a pastor can do to begin to regain trust is to appreciate why trust has been lost in the first place.
Over the years, there’s been a steady stream of pastors who’ve been caught out doing things that are clearly against Christian moral teaching. There have been pastors who’ve been caught having affairs or embezzling church funds or bullying people in their church, or being greedy or living a lavish lifestyle. But in more recent times, there have been more and more instances of pastors maybe allowing a political ideology to overtake their ministry or pastors who have been discovered abusing people in their church or covering up abuse that other people have done. Or there’ve been pastors who have been responding to some of the most sensitive and painful questions of our day in a way that’s just very callous and uncaring. Questions about sexuality or gender identity or race where pastors have responded to these issues with dismissiveness, with a lack of care, with a lack of thought.
And so actually we need to come to terms with the fact that there are many ways in which pastors have lost trust and where people actually have legitimate reasons for being suspicious of church pastors. We need to appreciate that. We need to own that. We need to recognize that.
Russell Moore recently wrote that sometimes culture rejects our ethical and moral teachings not because they don’t share those teachings, but because they have evidence that the church itself does not believe its own moral and spiritual teachings. Where we have failed we have actually given people reasons not to trust us.
So we need to appreciate why trust has been lost. But then secondly, pastors need to be people of compassion. This is something we fail to be in many respects. In Mark Chapter 6 where Jesus is about to have the feeding of the 5000, there’s this enormous crowd there, they’re quite overwhelming and we’re told that as Jesus looked upon this crowd He saw that they were like sheep without a shepherd. And He had compassion on them. As Jesus saw the lostness of the lost, He wasn’t irritated with them, He didn’t tut-tut or roll His eyes. He didn’t scold them. No, instead Jesus felt compassion for them in their lostness. And we’re then told that He began to teach them many things. His response to His own compassion was to show them who He was, to teach them of the kingdom. That is what we need to be doing as pastors as well. As we see culture increasingly in many respects moving away from a Christian understanding of life in the world, our response isn’t to get irritated and angry, but to feel compassion as we look around us.
Proverbs 20 verse 5 says the purpose of a man’s heart is like deep water, but someone of understanding can draw it out. When we meet people, it’s not always immediately apparent what wounds they may be carrying. We don’t always know what’s going on deep down under the surface. But actually if we’re people of compassion and curiosity, as we begin to encourage people to share their story with us, we can begin to understand more about them. We can begin to know more about who they are and where they’ve come from, what they’re dealing with in life, what they’re facing, what their hopes are, what their fears are.
Similarly, Proverbs 18 verse 13 says that to give an answer before we’ve heard is folly and shame. So we’re not to be talking past people, we’re to be talking to people. But to talk to someone, we really do need to know them. We do need to listen to them. We need to learn how to come alongside them. The Bible talks about rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. That is what we’re called to do.
The pastor Dane Ortlund recently wrote that in his first few months of being a pastor, he said one of the lessons he learned was that his most useful tool in pastoral ministry wasn’t his library, but his tears. We’re told in Hebrews 4 that our own high priest, the Lord Jesus, is not unable to sympathize with us in our testing and our trials. And similarly we’re to be those who are not aloof, who are not indifferent to what other people are going through, but who are compassionate.
So we need to appreciate why trust has been lost. We need to be compassionate people. Thirdly, we need to be those who are honest. A friend of mine at my church told me about the time he first came to our church and the very first words he heard our pastor say were these, the pastor stood up in the pulpit and said, “Your pastor is a sexual sinner.” He went on to say, “I’m not cheating on my wife, I’m not looking at porn but if you knew the thoughts that went through my mind, I’m not sure you’d want to be my friends.” Well, initially my friend listening to this pastor thought, “Yeah, right. This is a ploy. He’s not really this honest.” But after a few weeks, he just began to realize he’d come into a church where there was a pastor who was honest, not in a way that was inappropriate or gratuitous, but in a way that showed that he is also a work in progress, someone who was honest about his own shortcomings, his own failings. He wasn’t pretending that his entire Christian life is together.
The danger is if as pastors we put on a facade that actually we’ve got everything sorted out in the Christian life, then we make it harder for other people to confess their sins. We create churches in which everyone feels as though they’ve got to have their lives together, where people don’t want to come with their failures, people don’t want to come with their weaknesses. But by being honest, that pastor was creating a culture where actually it was safe to confess sins. It was safe to talk about what was actually going on in life. It’s very hard to trust someone if you don’t think they’re being real with you. And so we pastors need to be honest.
And then fourthly and finally, we pastors need to keep pointing to Jesus. We don’t need to be the hero of our churches. We don’t need to be the people that everyone thinks is amazing, because Jesus is already that for us. He is the one who can be all the things that we therefore don’t need to be.
Let me just give you one example from my own life. I’m ashamed to say I’m an irritable person, it’s one of the sins I most frequently feel convicted about. I can get impatient with people, I can get judgmental, I can get grouchy and grumpy, and honest I’m ashamed of that, but how wonderful it is for me to realize how different Jesus is to me. Jesus doesn’t get irritable with me. He doesn’t get irritable with any of us. We don’t exhaust His patience, He’s long suffering, He’s forbearing, He’s full of loving kindness to us. We don’t wear Him out. We don’t exhaust Him. As pastors we need to keep pointing to the ways in which Jesus is unlike us and just why that is such wonderful news.
So one of the things I often say to people when they share stories of having been let down by church, having been let down by pastors is please don’t judge Jesus by pastors. Instead, please judge us pastors by Jesus. He is the one actually all of us look to. He is the one who is our hope. He is the one who should be on the pedestal. He is the one who can actually bear the load bearing capacity of all of our wants, all of our needs, all of our hopes, all of our insecurities, all of our dreams. He can actually carry the weight of those things. We can’t and we mustn’t pretend that we can.
And so perhaps as I finish the very best way any pastor can regain the trust of other people is to be more and more like Jesus, to keep our eyes fixed on Him. Over time, by His grace, for His glory to slowly become a bit more like Him. Because the more like Him we are, well actually the more trustworthy we’ll become.