The Emotionally Real Pastor

Here’s a portion of my latest doctoral essay exploring the power of “Embodied Wisdom.” This section looks at the role of emotional vulnerability in a pastor’s leadership and example.

A popular phrase I’m hearing these days is “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” I’m a guy who tends to believe Jesus sheds a tear (and an angel loses a wing) every time a cheesy Christian cliche is repeated. But I actually find this one tolerable — even compelling. When it comes to the Apostle Paul, whatever conclusions we draw about his theology and personal character, we can all agree on one thing: Paul cared. Deeply. He got his hands dirty in the rugged realities of real relationships.

We must never imagine Paul up in his ivory tower crafting intellectual treatises safely detached from the blood, sweat and tears of real life and relationships down below. To come as a ‘student’ into the orbit of Paul and under his pastoral tutelage is to get blasted with hurricane gusts of every kind of emotional wind. His letters drip with emotional angst, sudden bursts of joy and inexplicable jubilation, anxious thoughts and sleepless nights, heartfelt longings to be with his friends, irritable episodes and festering frustrations. Put simply again: Paul cared—deeply. He was personally invested in the people he was teaching and leading. Consider just a sampling of the evidence.

His deep concern for the Galatian Christians is couched in the passionate language of a mother in labor: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). But his labor pains are mixed with equal doses of exasperation: “How I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!” (4:20).

He’s pulling his hair out over the immaturity of the Corinthians, watching them drift in their devotion: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid…your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2). He says his “mind could not rest” (2 Cor 2:12) because of them, and after a tense “falling out” with them he begged them to “make room” in their “hearts” for him (2 Cor 7:7). He mentions the “daily pressure” he feels for believers and his “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28).

He warned the Ephesian Christians of difficult times ahead “with tears” (Acts 20:31). His grief toward fellow Jews who have yet to receive the Messiah is palpable: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race” (Rom 9:2-3).

He address the Philippians affectionately as those “whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (Phil 4:4) and boldly asserts that “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:8). In this easy-to-miss phrase Paul packs an emotionally charged, Christoform punch, saying that he longs for them not with his own limited affection but with Christ’s own affection that has taken root in him!

To the Thessalonians he writes how “we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God” (1 Thess 2:11–12). Paul describes his separation from the Thessalonians as being “made orphans” and “longed with great eagerness to see you face to face” (2:17).When the separation was too much, he sent his good friend Timothy (1 Thess 3:1–2; cf. 3:5). After hearing good news upon Timothy’s return, the loving pastor breathed a great sigh of relief, saying: “For we now live”… “If you continue to stand faithful in the Lord” (3:8). This seems to entail that a negative report could have been the death of Paul, or at least the cause of devastating heartache.

In all of this, McKnight concludes, “One senses here the heart of pastor Paul: his emotions were shaped by how his churches were responding and growing in Christlikeness.” For Paul its not enough to preach to faceless crowds on Sunday; the Christian teacher worth his or her salt is busy forming souls the rest of the week in intimate, personal community. 

We also see the personal affection and relational intimacy of Paul in his letters to his most famous disciple Timothy. He addresses him as “my true son in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2) and “my dear son” (2 Tim 1:2). Paul  writes how “night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers” (2 Tim 1:3). Moreover, “Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy” (1:4). Paul and Timothy experienced firsthand what the Roman philosopher Seneca described to his student Lucilius: “Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!”  

FEELING VULNERABLE ABOUT VULNERABILITY

I think many pastors have been trained to be push down their emotions and lead with a steady composure that holds back their full humanity from their congregation. Vulnerability is a liability to be avoided, rather than a powerful means of establishing common ground with the people we lead. I know there are risks that come when a pastor gets vulnerable, sharing with gut level honesty his or her own struggles and temptations. I know there’s a wise balance to be had, and discernment is always needed in where “the line” is.

However, there’s a risk that comes when pastors hide their emotions, pretend they somehow rise above the common human experiences of the rest of the congregation. I pastor a church that values honesty and “getting real” with one another. I feel as the leader I need to not only champion this value with words from the pulpit, but with my own willingness to be honest and vulnerable, emotionally passionate and, some days, off-kilter and in need of grace. Paul is a great example to follow.

Plus, the emotionally invested teacher who “embodies wisdom” will discover some lessons just can’t be taught in a detached lecture or using a stale power-point presentation. Some lessons need to be cloaked in full human apparel of every color and style of emotion.

THE HUNGER FOR EMBODIED WISDOM TODAY

As I survey the crowds of our 21st century landscape—living in digital isolation and settling for pseudo-connection, pursuing online relationships and ‘distance education,’ and drowning in the waves of instantaneous googled information—like Jesus I “have compassion on them” because so many are “confused and helpless,” like students without a teacher—a real flesh-and-blood teacher (Matt 9:36). I was fortunate to find wise guides with open office doors during my formative years in college when I was wandering confused and helpless, beginning to ask big questions and make significant life decisions. I could roam down that hallway on the third floor of Bethel University at almost any hour and find a door open with a prof inside ready to listen. I gained knowledge from all my professors’ lectures, but it was only from those whose doors I walked through between lectures that I gained wisdom. More than just talking heads filled with knowledge, these modern-day sages became embodied examples of lived-out truth. Eventually, I no longer just wanted to know what they knew; I wanted to become like they were: wise and godly men and women. I know I was not alone. 

Meanwhile, during those same college years I was attending a megachurch on Sundays where the sermons were awakening my soul to a new life of faith and devotion to Christ. Unfortunately, the beloved pastor to whom I owed my newfound faith had no idea I even existed. I was just one of a couple thousand anonymous faces in a dim-lit auditorium he preached to each week. If he had an office, I didn’t know where to find it. If I had gone looking for it, would I have found it open? I don’t know. Nor do I blame him. It is just part of the “the culture” of a megachurch. The point is I managed to attend that church for nearly a decade without ever having a personal face-to-face conversation with a pastor. I was lost and confused, like a sheep without a shepherd, a disciple without a teacher—alas, a Christian without a true pastor. (In hindsight, maybe this is why I wanted to become a professor, and never aspired to be a pastor.)

I am convinced that people today are hungry for wise guides and moral exemplars. People may not be actively seeking it or even conscious of this deep longing. But I believe its a universal—even innate longing—stamped on us by our Creator who exists in the Triune fellowship of mutual edification and creative exploration.

During my research for this paper, my cousin mentioned again her favorite book—Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. I finally picked up a copy to see why it is one of the top selling memoirs of all time, has sold over 14 million copies and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 205 weeks, and has been translated into 45 languages. The story is about Mitch Albom and his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who he had lost track of over the years as he became preoccupied with getting ahead in the world and becoming “successful.” The publisher’s description plays on our universal longing for embodied examples:

Maybe it was a grandparent, or a teacher, or a colleague. Someone older, patient and wise, who understood you when you were young and searching, helped you see the world as a more profound place, gave you sound advice to help you make your way through it…Maybe, like Mitch, you lost track of this mentor as you made your way, and the insights faded, and the world seemed colder. Wouldn’t you like to see that person again, ask the bigger questions that still haunt you, receive wisdom for your busy life today the way you once did when you were younger? Mitch Albom had that second chance. He rediscovered Morrie in the last months of the older man’s life. Knowing he was dying, Morrie visited with Mitch in his study every Tuesday, just as they used to back in college. Their rekindled relationship turned into one final “class”: lessons in how to live.

I found the beautiful relationship and interactions between the dying teacher and his receptive student far more compelling than the actual nuggets of “wisdom” taught by Morrie in the book. The book’s wild popularity is due not to the brilliance of the wisdom inside but rather the beauty of the teacher’s personal presence and embodied example. While I can’t remember a single quote or particular lesson, I can still vividly picture and feel the warm affection between the dying teacher and his beloved pupil as they gathered “once a week in [Morrie’s] house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves.” 

In her praise of the book, Jane Greer says it “captures the essence and spirit of a truly gifted teacher and his unwavering belief that the most important lesson in life is connecting to one another through compassion and love.” Such “connecting” also proved pedagogically formative to the author, and continues to inspire readers (14 million and counting) to seek out their own Morrie to mentor them through life.

Another pop-cultural example an embodied pedagogy I recently rediscovered is the film Goodwill Hunting (1997) starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams. The plot—whose tagline is “Some people can never believe in themselves, until someone believes in them”—features Will Hunting (Damon), a janitor at M.I.T., who has a gift for mathematics, but needs guidance from a psychologist (Williams) to find direction in his life. Here’s a synopsis:

An abused foster child, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) subconsciously blames himself for his unhappy upbringing and turns this self-loathing into a form of self-sabotage in both his professional and emotional lives…Five psychologists fail to connect with Will. Sean (Robin Williams) differs from his five predecessors in that he is also from South Boston and pushes back at Will and is eventually able to get through to him and his hostile, sarcastic defense mechanisms.

The climax of the movie comes in an emotional scene where Sean, the wise counselor, gets vulnerable and shares that he was also a victim of child abuse. Sean then looks Will in the eye and begins repeating the words that can set him free, “It’s not your fault.” At first, Will is defensive and the words bounce off his hardened exterior. But Sean persists with his reassuring words, “It’s not your fault…it’s not your fault…it’s not your fault.”

When his words alone prove inadequate, Sean finally incarnates the words by reaching out to enfold Will in a fatherlike embrace. The power of healing words cloaked with the warm covering of human touch breaks through and Will bursts into uncontrollable sobs. Sean continues repeating “It’s not your fault” while hugging him like the father he never had. And as the credits rolled and I wiped away my tears, I saw the heart of the Apostle Paul in the face of Robin Williams embracing his beloved Timothy in Matt Damon’s character, whispering in his ear, “Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Cor 4:17). 

Walking through the open door of an available professor. Soaking up the last words of a dying mentor as a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. Beginning the healing process thanks to the right words spoken by the right person at the right time with just the right personal touch. This is the promising potential for pastor-teachers in the church today who rediscover the ancient practice and power of an embodied pedagogy and by being vulnerable enough to minister with the passion and feelings of an Apostle Paul in our approaches to forming souls and making disciples today.

Let me close with beautiful and profound words of Barbara Brown Taylor:

By choosing Christ to flesh out the word, God made a lasting decision in favor of incarnation. Those of us who are his body in the world need not shy away from the fact that our own flesh and blood continue to be where the word of God is made known. We are living libraries of God’s word. Our stories are God’s stories. Sometimes they are comedies and sometimes they are tragedies; sometimes faith shines through them and other times they end in darkness, but every one of them bears witness to the truth of God’s word. Preachers cannot “stay out of” their sermons any more than singers can stay out of their songs. Our words are embodied, which means we bring all that we are to their expression (The Preaching Life, p. 84).

If we are indeed “living libraries of God’s word” then Paul would urge us to fill our pages with poems and personal encounters that put Christ on display for all who read our lives. 

 

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