In many ways, the pastor lives his life in front of his people. Apart from mega-church pastors who might choose to isolate themselves from the people they shepherd (which notably does not apply across the board to every pastor of a large church),1 pastors are constantly in contact with the people of their church. This means that a pastor not only has a lot of space to influence people but also a major platform to speak about the concerns on his heart. This article essentially reflects upon the words of Spider-Man’s uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility,” in application to the pastor’s public life.
My aim is not to lay out lots of prescriptive practices but to outline the ways that I have thought through this issue for myself in hopes that it might help other pastors do likewise. The reason that I think I might have a useful perspective on this issue is because of the nature of my pastoral call. I am an American, ordained in the PCA, serving overseas in London in a Scottish denomination. London being one of the world’s great cities—I am biased—it is as cosmopolitan in the literal sense as can be, filtering people from every part of the world right to our church’s doorstep.
There is a beautiful complexity, full of blessings and immense challenges, to pastoring a congregation that often has members from every inhabited continent. This complexity is owed to how every cultural assumption, every church background, and every personal opinion comes loaded with extremely different and at times opposing expectations from the church. In typical congregations, a pastor can never satisfy everyone. In our congregation, I spend immense amounts of time praying that people will be gracious and understanding as we try to keep everyone together while remaining faithful to the truth and our confessional practices. I am thankful for prayer, God’s sovereignty, and the ways that the Lord has been so deeply good to us in this respect, all the while not taking the continuation of this grace for granted.
One of the things this complexity has helped me realize, despite my failures along the way, is that the pastoral task is in no way about me. Every pastor must acknowledge this point. Yet there is a real sense in which sometimes we may need to learn the principle for our practice. John the Baptist’s words regarding the difference between himself and Christ remain the abiding guidance for every pastor after him: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:30) What does this mean in practice though?
Pastor, there are countless things that matter deeply to you. God has wonderfully made you to be who you are in all your skills and interests. We cannot discount that. Still, not every passion of our heart belongs to the public sphere, depending on how that affects the way we serve and minister to God’s people. We at times must filter even the things that matter deeply to us from our public persona in order to best serve the church.
Perhaps an example would help. As an American, I hold specific values according not only to my culture but also my political positioning within that culture. Now, my congregation knows that I am obviously American in so many ways. As a sojourner in someone else’s land, I have tried my best to shave off the arrogance of American exceptionalism, yet my cultural shaping remains clear to all. I do my best to lean into the (what I hope are) endearing aspects of that and to make a joke of its more abrasive features.
But in a more practical sense, I know that so many things that are dear to my heart will never translate properly for my congregation. I often refrain, not only from commenting about various cultural and political issues on social media, but also from liking others’ posts and comments when I would very much like to encourage them with my (virtual) support. There is too much risk of someone on a very different political footing, who nonetheless deeply loves Jesus, seeing that and not understanding the significance of the issue for an American. Worse, sometimes readers can have related but non-equivalent issues in their own cultures, and my view, although completely helpful in America, may be truly harmful and disastrous in their native land. Very few issues transpose directly and without modification when we think about cultures and societies from around the world. So, I keep my mouth shut. Because Christ must increase, and the cost of my decrease is the muting of my political and cultural view.
There are some qualifications on the point though. My aim is not for pastors to repress themselves. Your congregation will love you as they know your character more. My friends and my congregation all know me for my commitment to transparency. I strive to set a model of making my imperfections and struggles known so that Christians in our church can be encouraged that it is alright and respectable not to be, well, respectable. I hope to be a model of repentance more than of stoic determination. That vulnerability—to sound shamefully like, as my friend Brad Isbell would say, an authentically broken evangelical for a moment—has at times cost me. I have been gravely hurt by some whom I assumed were my closest friends because driving the screw into me was far more comfortable than admitting any imperfection in their own character and practice. But I have also se`en many a Christian encouraged to ask for more help, seek specific prayer, and pursue deeper pastoral care because of the way I try to share my whole life with our congregation. Humility is, after all, not guaranteed to be comfortable, but may prove to be genuinely helpful in making you decrease and Christ increase.
My point here is that thoughtfully shaping your public persona as a pastor does not mean dispatching with your personality. It means knowing the difference between helping and harming—between voicing concerns that might draw people nearer to Christ and the church, and concerns that might block and alienate. Don’t necessarily give up the personal views that might offend, as so many virtue signallers are inclined to do. Just keep them personal. Remember that the church’s primary mission is spiritual.2 As much as you love them and as hard as it is to admit, not all your concerns are spiritual. Many are cultural. Learn discernment and wisdom about when to speak and when to be quiet. The words you might spend on your favorite candidate can quickly be redirected to explaining the Bible. You need not defend your politics as a pastor. Vote like you want. Support causes to which you are committed. But dispense with announcing it publicly. You are a herald of the king, not your own PR rep. We can so easily lose our solid footing to speak about doctrinal and denominational issues if we become known for shooting off our mouth about every cultural and social view we hold. Our forceful pronouncements become white noise.
I realize the last few bits might read rather pointedly. I was writing them to myself. As I watch the newsfeed scroll, it is very difficult to maintain commitment to these practices. Professors, teachers, and perhaps elders have greater leeway on this issue, one which pastors may at times envy. Pastors, it is not about us though. It is about Jesus. Let us delight in knowing that every word we sacrifice for our politics and cultural preferences is a word we can use to speak of Christ. Let us be thoughtful about what public pronouncements are useful for our people. We can pretend our social media accounts express our private opinions, but we kid ourselves if we think the people reading them can separate that from our role as an office bearer in the church. That role, however, is bearing a treasure in our clay jar (2 Cor. 4:7). Bearing that treasure is a greater privilege, for which no one is sufficient (2 Cor. 2:16), so we can rest satisfied in exposing it rather than our personal concerns.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
1. My own pastor, Harry Reeder of Briarwood Presbyterian, is a notable exception who very much knows the people under his care.
2. Bryan D. Estelle, The Primary Mission of the Church: Engaging or Transforming the World?. Reformed Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies (Fearn: Mentor, 2022).
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Thank you, Harrison, for the wise and heart-felt words! As an 80-year-old shepherd it is good to be reminded of these basic things!
Thanks for sharing your pastoral perspective. I really enjoyed reading it. Baseball is different than cricket. ‘Football’ can mean two different things to people from the UK, EU, or USA. People say things differently because of our cultural backgrounds. Long form blog posts are way easier to understand (or less likely to be misunderstood) than short tweets. Brad Isbell, and Harry Reeder are my friends too, not because we talk very often (almost never actually), but because they love Jesus and the church. Jesus is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.