“Pastor in Chief”?

Andy Stanley preached in DC to the President and a select audience before the Inauguration. CT’s Mark Galli interviewed Andy about the event:

In the sermon, you referred to the President as “Pastor in Chief.” That phrase has caused a great deal of anxiety among people.

First, I understand the anxiety. If I had read that in isolation, it would give me concern as well. So I don’t fault anyone. Apparently there was one pool reporter in the room, because they didn’t allow any media. In fact, they didn’t even announce who was speaking. This was as private as they could make a ceremony for the President private. The pool reporter wrote his or her story and mentioned that I said that, which I did. But of course, he or she didn’t have time to give the entire context. So I don’t fault anyone for the reporting or the confusion around that. But here’s what happened.

In mid-December, the President went to Newtown [Connecticut], to the high school, and gave this address on television. I knew the President got there early. Each of the families who lost a child was taken to separate a classroom. So this would be 20-something classrooms. In the classrooms were the parents, siblings, in some cases grandparents. And the President got there early enough and went to every single classroom, and spent time with every single family individually.

It’s still emotional for me to think about. As a pastor, I’ve walked into homes where people have lost children, teenagers. The grief and emotional toll it takes on a pastor to sit with a family, to listen, to be eye to eye—it’s excruciating. The President had done that with every single one of those families before he walked into that auditorium to give what I thought was an incredibly appropriate and powerful message.

I’m sitting there on my couch watching this, thinking,How is he doing this? I would be exhausted after a single interaction with a family. All these classrooms. And he sits through all that, and then he gives his speech. I turned to Sandra, and said, “Tonight he is the Pastor in Chief, isn’t he?”

[At the pre-inaugural service,] I knew that I didn’t want to get up and just launch into a sermon. When you’re in an environment where you have no personal connection with anyone in the room—and I certainly didn’t—as a speaker, you want to find a personal connection. I thought,Well, here is something that I felt deeply and here we have all these clergy on this stage.

So I said something like, “Mr. President, I don’t know the first thing about being President, but I know a bit about being a pastor. And during the Newtown vigil on December 16th after we heard what you did—I just want to say on behalf of all of us as clergy, thank you.” And I added, “I turned to Sandra that night and said, ‘Tonight he’s the Pastor in Chief.’”

So that’s the context. I wasn’t making a declaration that he’s our Pastor in Chief. But I can understand how that got reported.

Some of your critics assume that by preaching on such an occasion, you are associating yourself with the President’s policies, that you are onboard with his views of gay marriage, abortion, and health policies.

I think the President should be more concerned about being associated with my policies! I’ve been preaching for 17 years every single Sunday; he’s only been President for 4! I’m kidding, of course. The whole idea of fear by association [is a problem].

If Jesus had felt that way, he would have never come to earth—right? He would have never left heaven to become a human. So I do not make decisions based on guilt by association. I grew up in a culture that was all about that.

One time another friend of mine was asked to pray with President Obama, and he asked Billy Graham, “Dr. Graham, should I pray for the President?” And Dr. Graham looked at him and said, “You’re a pastor. That’s what you do; you pray for people. Yes, you can pray for the President.’”

So I felt like, Okay, they asked me to preach. That’s what I do. Why wouldn’t I go preach to the President?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    I liked Andy Stanley’s tweet: “Pastor in Chief? Seriously, what was I thinking?”

    I also liked the portion of the interview in which Andy addressed the related Louie Giglio issue, who just happens to be his best friend:

    “Louie and I are, as you mentioned, the best of friends. We talked about this extensively, but I didn’t counsel him. He did not need counsel. He’s so wise, and he has great people around him. But we talked about it. I believe he made the right decision by choosing not to go. It’s like if you invite me to your wedding, and suddenly I become known for something that is a concern to the guests. The right thing for me to do is to call and say, “It’s your wedding. If my presence is going to be a distraction, out of respect for you, I’m choosing not to attend. Anyone who has respect for our nation or the presidency would have done what Louie did, because at the end of the day, it was the inauguration of the President of the United States. Why would anyone want to do anything to detract from that? That was the honorable thing to do. The group that called Louie out on the message did the very opposite. Whatever you feel about their views, they leveraged their views to detract from the inauguration. They’re saying, “Mr. President, how could you invite someone who doesn’t believe like we do?” So I just have the utmost respect for Louie’s decision. I just hate that it happened the way that it did.”

  • PJ Anderson

    Gosh, maybe somebody should clue Andy, Louie, et al that the only evangelical option is to hate a Demcratic President and question his authenticity and faith at all points. I mean even being in the same room as him must surely mean that you openly endorse abortion, gun control, and big government. {irony hat off}

    I’m so intrigued by this, if for no other reason than President Obama is asking for good pastors to be in his sphere of influence. Also, I’m continually disgusted by the idiocy and division perpetrated by the media who seek to marginalized and divide at all points.

  • Matt K

    Is it okay to affirm someone’s “pastoral” giftedness without endorsing the suspect parts of their theology? When the President spoke at the memorial for the victims of the Tuscon shooting, I was absolutely floored with the grace and sensitivity with which he delivered words of comfort. It takes a special gift to do that.

  • Steve Sherwood

    Well said, Matt K.

  • Robin

    First, I loved the sentiment Stanley expresses here, but when I read the pool reports about what he actually spoke about I was confused/troubled.

    ‘The pool reporter notes that Stanley moved from that to telling the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. “The takeaway: What do you do when in a position of power? “You leverage that power for the benefit of other people in the room,”‘

    Turning Jesus washing his disciplies feet into a story about leveraging power seemed very strange. Maybe the pool reporter missed the point. Did anyone else notice this and think it was strange?

  • Scott Gay

    That’s the first I’d heard about the president being with each family in Newtown (Connecticut). Very loving, hopeful, faithful, prudent……and quite courageous. And that it was private is key. You could tell the man was deeply moved in what was media covered.

    Did anyone notice that even in the media presentation of a presidential honoring of the NBA champion Miami Heat, Obama couldn’t resist emphasizing to the youth who look up to those players, that those basketball “stars” are exemplary fathers?

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    Robin, this is actually one of Andy’s stock sermons that I have heard variations from a half dozen times. I think the pool reported did get it wrong. Andy’s point about leverage and power isn’t to save it up but to give it away properly. You don’t waste it (which he addresses in he interview with regard to Driscoll). But te point o power in the Christian world is to use it to empower the weak. So when Obama is the biggest power in the room, his job is to figure out how t use that power best not to strengthen his own position but to empower those that have no power.

  • Robin

    Thanks Adam. It just rubbed me the wrong way to find out that washing people’s feet was a way to leverage power. I am glad the reporter missed the nuance and not the other way around.

  • http://amusemademedoit.blogspot.com Anne Bosworth

    Good post. It’s good to find ways of feeling something other than negativity for the president. I feel sad that there were people so ready to jump on Andy Stanley’s back. These are difficult times to be a pastor with every eye on you everywhere and everybody so jaded that they expect you to crash. I wrote a word of encouragement to Louis, feeling much like Andy about the whole thing. I have thought often about what I’d do if I found myself invited to meet a president I disliked so much. Every time I come to the same conclusion. I’d go. I’d be grateful for the opportunity. I’d try to find ways of connecting and relating that would be positive and affirming…evidence of Jesus in me. The time for criticism isn’t in the midst of a national celebration, or in response to an invitation by a leader in authority. I think about men like Daniel, Joseph, and Nehemiah. They were in service to rulers who were at enmity with Israel, but they behaved with integrity and respect when they were called upon. Good model, I think.

  • rumitoid

    It took me a moment or two to respond. Thank you one and all level-headed people. Seriously.

    Almost all I have seen from Christians these past four years is anger and hate towards this president. From my experience, it seems being bold for Christ is to bash him and his cohorts, the “satanic minions” Democrats. Anyone not doing so, being so socialistic, Kenyan, or anti-American as to suggest prayer for him instead of trashing, is following a liberal vein of theology and doomed to hell fire.


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