Pastor Svengali

“We’re on a mission from God.”

Funny in a Blues Brothers movie. Not so funny when pastors and church leaders radiate that vibe. A friend called me from another state last night. She has recently been asked to take a staff position at her church. She has a strong, valid list of reasons why this is probably a bad idea. The problem is, she was having anxieties about going into the pastor’s office and turning down the offer. After all, he’s the pastor. He claims that this is what she should do and that this is a “God thing.” (Maybe I’ll blog later on how much I hate it when people say something is a “God thing.”) When someone says, “God told me thus and such,” how does a person respond to that? Isn’t that a great way to shut down opposition before it begins, the religious version of a preemptive strike using shock and awe?

I affirmed her reasons for not wanting to pursue this. I also told her I’d love to see her go into this meeting with confidence. Yes, her pastor is her pastor, and she should respect him. But does God stamp all the opinions of every pastor with his personal approval? My experience of pastoring is having a lot of moments of uncertainty. Isn’t that just part of life, even religious life? It’s certainly part of leadership, which can be defined as bringing clarity out of chaos. So what kind of person would I become if I started to think that all my opinions and all the directions I pursue in ministry came right from the hand of God? That hardly puts my congregation in a place where they have to take their own relationship with God seriously. After all, if I’m that close to God, if I know that much, if my opinions matter that much, then I can just tell them how to live and they can go out and live accordingly. It makes things simpler.

But in kind of an abusive, or at least exploitive, way. Is a hamburger more blessed if I say grace over it than if someone in my church does? Is someone in the hospital more likely to get well if I pray for them than if a layperson does? Are my opinions more likely to be stamped with God’s approval than the opinions of those in my congregation? Though I hope to listen to God, and learn what God sounds like, and though I hope God is redeeming my wisdom and judgment along with everything else in this world that is subject to him, certaintly I must remain open to what God is doing in others, mustn’t I? Do I have a right to simply tell someone what God’s will is for him or her? [Once upon a time a man did that. His name was Jim Jones. Of course there is never a shortage of Svengali‘s in the world, religious and otherwise]

I believe to do so is the height of arrogance (and I am not saying this pastor is necessarily doing that with my friend) and presumption. It cheapens God’s desire for closeness to individuals other than myself. It robs people of dignity, since it assumes that God will speak to someone else more directly about their life than he will speak to them.

In a sense, we pastors are on a mission from God. But so is everyone who seeks to please Him. A pastor’s job is to help identify and affirm the mysterious work God is doing inside every individual. We are never to presume we know what God is doing, or should do, inside another person, or to make someone else feel like we have the inside track on God’s plan for his/her life. God save me, save all of us pastors and spiritual leaders, from this kind of arrogance.

To my friend out of state, walk into that man’s office with confidence, give him your reasons, and know that if you both claim to be hearing from God, and yet you disagree with one another, it’s likely not God you’re hearing from at all. Perhaps God has chosen to let you make this decision on your own. Perhaps that happens more often than most Christians think. But whatever may be the case, remember this: Your pastor is on a mission from God. So are you.