In defense of pastors: A confession

Since it’s Holy Week and all, it seems like a pretty good time to come clean. If confession makes you uncomfortable, I urge you to read somebody else’s blog, not this one.

A girlfriend and I were talking the other day about church. Well, specifically we were speaking about pastors. I have had the good fortune to sit under a handful of really remarkable pastors. I wrote about Pastor Smitty in my memoir After the Flag has been Folded. I cannot read the section of that memoir without tearing up, especially since Smitty passed away this year.  Can you imagine what an impact it makes for a young fatherless girl to have a man of God step into her life?

I am convinced had it not been for the love of the people at Rose Hill Baptist Church, I’d be writing you letters from prison.  (Oh, gosh, sitting here in Starbucks in Bend, wiping away the tears. I’m such a sap!)

When I came to Oregon, I had the honor of sitting under Dr. Herb Anderson at Corvallis First B. As you might expect, a college town requires a pastor to be a learned man. Dr. Anderson was one of the most challenging pastors I’ve ever sat under. He was such a reader. And he loved poetry best. I can still see him standing behind that pulpit, his thin frame leaning forward as he quoted entire poems from Frost, Millay, Wordsworth. It was enchanting to hear him recite those poems.

I think, perhaps in part, because I knew that poetry had spoken to him in time of darkness. A time when poetry was the only thing that could speak to his soul. I can’t be sure of the facts, given the goulash I now count at memory, but what I recall is that when Dr. Anderson was a young married man, he worked in the woods.  In one of those lookout towers where folks stand watch for forest fires. He was in the tower with his young son, who fell out, leaving the boy  brain damaged. The boy was shuffled into a special treatment center forever after, and the guilt of that haunted Dr. A.

From great pain came tremendous compassion. Dr. Anderson took seriously his role as shepherd.

There were other pastors, several of whom were youth pastors, who have poured their lives into mine or into my children. They not only challenged me to live out my faith, they taught me how to do that.

But I have also spent far too many of my adult years sitting under pastors who are not learned. They don’ t read. They don’t study. They don’t take their job of shepherding seriously. They are lazy and unfocused.

If that sounds harsh, I’m sorry. It’s the truth.

Why not go somewhere else, you ask.

To be quite honest, the pickings in rural America can be quite slim. When you live in an agriculture-based community, it can be difficult to find a pastor as learned as Dr. Anderson or Pastor Smitty.

So here’s my confession, I’ve spent far too much time bitching about these pastors, and very little time praying for them.

That’s not to say my criticisms aren’t valid. It’s just to say I’ve mishandled all this. I should have been on my knees praying for these shepherds.

It’s not easy to be a pastor, you know.

My girlfriend shared how she’s learned to put in a “filter” so that when a pastor stands before her and says, “Every woman either is married or wants to be married”, she can note that such a word isn’t a word from God — it’s opinion.

And not a very learned one.

She doesn’t storm out the church, swearing to never return. She simply prays for her pastor. She prays for wisdom for herself. She prays for the people she serves alongside. She loves her church family. And that’s what they’ve become to her — a family.

It’s hard being part of a family.

You have to learn to get along with people you don’t necessarily enjoy all that much. You have to learn to bite your tongue from time to time. You get crabby with them. They get crabby with  you.

But then there’s that moment when you say, “I’m sorry, I’m such a crank.” Or “I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing to say.” And they tell you, “It’s okay. I didn’t mean to snap at you.” You embrace, and in that moment, is grace.

We really need to embrace each other more.

Quit being so cranky with each other.

My friend was saying that she had a friend who attends the same church and they are worried that all these misinformed remarks made by the pastor would be detrimental to their children.

And that struck me as funny.

Think about it, those of  you who have grown up in the church. Can you remember one sermon you heard before age 18? Can you remember a sermon  you heard five years ago?

Yeah, me, neither.

In fact, for all the admiration I hold for Pastor Smitty and Dr. Anderson, I can’t recall one sermon. Not a one. I can see them in the pulpit. I can hear their voices. I can see the tenderness in their faces, but I can’t recall one message.

Except the one they lived.

And, in that regard, we are all shepherds to somebody.

I confess that I’ve spent far too much time worrying about the sermon my pastor is imparting, instead of focusing on the message my life is preaching.

What about you? Have you done that, too?

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  • My pastor is also one of my best friends. His family is like our family. I know him well enough that if I ever heard him preach something that I thought strayed from God’s word I would talk to him about it, and I know my husband would do the same thing. But it would be done because we love him and know he would never want his words not to be God’s words. I know how incredibly fortunate we are to be part of this church family of ours, and we don’t take it for granted.

  • So Karen, are you placing Osteen and Joyce M at the top of your prayer list? (That was a serious question).

    • Karen

      Hopefully those who consider these two pastors are praying for them. I would never sit under their teachings to begin with so it’s a moot point for me.

  • WandaV

    You said, “I confess that I’ve spent far too much time worrying about the sermon my pastor is imparting, instead of focusing on the message my life is preaching.”

    I said, “Ouch!” Love you dear sister.

  • Karen,
    What a wonderful post!

    Very good for me to be reminded of just how difficult this can be for people in the pews. It really says a lot that these people continue to come back to their churches given what some of them hear week after week. (Makes me also think about checking my own teaching/preaching and what these people here are listening to each week.)

    I don’t sit in a pew each week but I often experience real frustration when I hear some pastors being interviewed on the national news. I said to my wife not long ago, “Where do they find these people!” I know so many thoughtful, articulate, and godly ministers and they pick these people to comment on some current event. Anyway, your post reminds me that I need to pray for them as well.

    Thanks Karen.

  • Lovely post, full of grace.

  • Nancy Wall

    Thank you for a wonderful post. Any time you step on my toes, you’ve done a good job. I’ve known for a long time if you want a better preacher, you need to pray for the one you have. What a loving road you took to remind me of that. God bless you for sharing.

  • One of the most life-changing epiphanies I ever had was the realization that, well and truly, the church is the congregation, and not the building, and not the guy who stands up in front of it. I hasten to add that, with rare exception, I have been fortunate enough never to have sat under a pastor of questionable authority, but I have sat under a couple who just rubbed me the wrong way.

    And yes, that is as much about ME as it is about THEM!

  • I was saying ouch and thank you at the same time as I read this. Ouch because I have also mishandled issues in relationships. Some have been repaired and some seem unrepairable … but nothing is without hope, so I’ll keep trying. Thank you for the reminder, challenge and encouragement!

  • Last Sunday my pastor interrupted his sermon to make a point of how much he loves us all, and that he would never speak badly of us, and would always encourage us. Then he paused and said, “So would you kindly return the favor?” It was very quiet.

  • Indeed, I reckon we have all fallen prey to that trap. Because portions of person’s life is bound to come out from behind the pulpit, we also use the Truth-filter method.

    And you know what? Some of these farm town preachers really know how to raise the roof by standing so tall–for the one my family found, we are ever so grateful.


  • Scott Orr

    If your pastor does not measure up, simply send this notice to six other churches that are tired of their pastor too. Then bundle up your pastor and send him/her to the church at the top of your list. If everyone cooperates, in one week you will receive 1,643 pastors from which to choose. One of them should be perfect.

    Have faith in this letter – it works. But beware! One church broke the chain and got its old pastor back in less than three months.

  • Hi. Arrived here via a link from Scot McKnight. Great article – great reminder!

    As an aside: I remember a sermon from before I was 18 – the one where they told us all if we went to the prom and danced we’d end up pregnant. 🙂

    But what I wanted to mention is that even though I agree that we we don’t remember many sermons, I think the tone of them (negative or judgmental vs. positive or grace-filled) stays with us.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thanks for dropping by from Scot’s site. And yes, you are absolutely right. We do remember the tone of them.

  • Thanks,Karen. So well said, and so very true. The kind of thoughts which make me think and challenge me. Which is good! Thank God for his grace to us all.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thanks, Ted. Blessings to you.