Thirteen years have passed since our 35-1 National Championship run. Much has taken place since those glory days. For starters, I married a hall of famer, Natasha Neal, and together we have three beautiful boys: Marcus, Titus, and Malachi. Then, with great impact to my athletic figure, I exchanged my basketball shorts for a bible and a pulpit. Very few people know me now as an athlete anymore and most, if not all, value me pastorally navigating a difficult situation more than they do me navigating a particular defense. Still, pastoring and being an athlete have a lot in common, and in at least one way you might not have considered. Both being a pastor and an athlete come with public praise and scrutiny. Both require great discipline and perseverance. And, in both disciplines, those in attendance tend to overlook the amount of work invested in what’s being executed. Also, a successful pastor and a successful athlete should have in common a real understanding of one’s weaknesses. It’s this last point that I wish to consider just for a moment in light of pastoral ministry.
Human Perfection is an Allusion
In pastoring, and I would say the Christian life in general, there’s always the temptation to project an image of oneself that’s more adept and polished than what is actualized. Yet, faulty presentations of self are never lasting. When the athlete pretends to be better than he or she is, exposure is ushered in on the tides of failure and defeat. For the pastor, however, the greatest danger is not the loss of a game but rather every step toward achieving a polished look is a step toward deconstructing the portrait of grace in one’s life. Think about it for a moment: If the leaders we are to emulate in the church are perfect, in what sense are they, the leaders, able to point to the truth found in Scripture that Christ Jesus came to save sinners? It’s in light of this truth that I gladly make this confession—I’m a bad pastor! Here are three reasons why:
First, I’m sinful. I’m not the Good Shepherd in John 10. Jesus is. I sin daily and have to repent of things like anger, pride, and anxiety to my friends, family, and you the congregation. This is not a ploy or cute literary device. It’s the reality of the situation. When the Lord pronounces judgment on the counterfeit shepherds in Ezekiel 34, the operative question becomes, “Who, then, will shepherd God’s people?” The Lord answers that question with over fifteen references to Himself in one chapter as the one who will shepherd His people. Is that clear enough?! Of course, we know that Jesus is the means by which God indeed becomes the great Shepherd of His people. Why does that matter? It matters because Jesus is the great and perfect Shepherd of His people so I don’t have to be. I don’t have to be perfect and coming to grips with that is key. For example, the athlete who never acknowledges weaknesses will make light of the strength of his teammates and, therefore, fail to understand his need to lean on them when it’s needed most. So, too, the pastor must learn to acknowledge his weaknesses and utter dependency on Christ and His Word. That’s done by exposing weaknesses and painting big and beautiful portraits of the truth of the Gospel: God saves and uses sinners for His glory!
Second, I’m young. Don’t get me wrong, I’m competent. Or, at least I’ve thought intentionally about pastoring for 10 years (2 degrees at a seminary and an internship). My point is, I have so much to learn. I’m still a kid at heart. I’m still learning and still growing and trying desperately not to make childish mistakes. I have been through so much in my life and yet I feel like a pup. As a pastor, it’s my unwillingness to come to grips with my youthfulness that causes me to fail to give myself permission to grow. I want to be the pastor now that I will be in 15 years, Lord willing. That’s a high ambition with lofty expectations. If I make peace with that mentality, then I’ll quickly become heavy laden with despair. And one bad sermon or a botched counseling case or disappointed member will send me into a tail spin. That’s a very precarious place for a pastor, especially when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords has promised to build his church regardless of my carefully crafted illustration or ability to bring gospel truth to a situation. Related to the previous point, God is calling shepherds to demonstrate gospel growth to our congregation, not perfection.
I Can Be Hurt
Finally, I can be hurt! My greatest strength is that I love people. I really do. I invest in relationships and want them to be deep and authentic. Yet, like most people, my greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. My identity in Christ should free me up to truly love people. But, often times my identity can be more informed by people’s perception of how I’m caring for them than by my status in Christ. In those moments, it may not seem like it but I’m overcome by pride. I’m caring for people as a means of making much of myself. The world, my relationships, and God himself exists to serve me and difficulty comes when they don’t make much of me as I think they should. What does that mean? It means that I’m a sinner and have a propensity to commit sins, even sins against those I’m charged to shepherd. Often times my first response when confronted with my sin is to retreat. It helps me protect myself and provides me with a way around pain. Yet, that response is inconsistent with how my savior willingly gave His life for me. I should confess the opposite of perfection, I’m a sinner and I need Him more and more each day.
Christ’s Perfection is Real
I remembered sharing my struggles with an older pastor whom I respect and love and he responded and said, “Man, why are you in ministry again?” Seems harsh, but I think his words were needed. The weaknesses I have (and any weaknesses that could be stated) make me the least likely candidate to pastor. But herein lies the point: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 27-29). The point, Paul concludes, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Hence, if there is one compelling reason why I’m fit to pastor here at this church it is because I truly trust the power of the Spirit and the word of God to build His church––not my ability to craft sermons, not my personality, and certainly not my ability to be perfect. I trust Christ and the power of His Word. So, I have no problem admitting how and why I’m a bad pastor. If you’re a pastor or serve in a leadership position in your church, I would suggest you write a similar letter to your people. Try starting with something like this, “I’m a bad pastor and here’s why!”