“I thank God that I’m not only a pastor, but also a mother,” she said. “Motherhood has given me lots of experience in telling painful truths to people I love.” That was also true of my own mother. She always sided with the teacher during the parent-teacher conferences. She felt like she would shortchange me as her son by holding back, whether it was scholastics or manners.
The young woman pastor I quoted above was only six months into her pastorate at a small town church. And she had discovered the congregation was in greater difficulty—financially and demographically–than it was willing to recognize. As the new kid on the block, the tough task of telling them what they probably didn’t want to hear would fall to her. It’s all part of leadership.
“How do I tell them the truth without their hating me for it?” she asked Will Willimon. So they discussed strategies and issues of timing and presentation to the congregation. It’s like the challenge of how do we unpack the many tough texts in the Bible week in and week out during our tenure of service. What is most key here? Simply having the courage to say it! I can’t tell you how many pastors I’ve followed who were unwilling to speak difficult, but life-giving truths.
Today the task falls to pastors—female and male, young and aged—in a new way not only to love the church, but also to change the church. For us to be faithful leaders at this moment in time, it is no longer just about loving and caring for the church, but speaking fully the challenge of this moment in time in such a way as to empower change. This is an intimidating assignment.
Real leadership, requiring the special skills of interpreting the new dilemmas of this moment in time, is only necessary if the church needs to go somewhere new and wants more than survival. The temptation is to settle with merely managing a church rather than hazard the walk of being a risk-taking leader. Why is that? Churches crave a placid status quo, reward leaders willing to keep them “comfortable,” and push back hard against leaders who venture beyond that safety.
Simple caregiving, the cloying stereotype of motherhood and the default mode of most pastors, is always less demanding and less costly than deep, transformative leadership. But the problem in settling with simple caregiving and avoiding truth-telling as a pastor is that no entity—the church included—can survive over time without continually refitting and repositioning itself.
Let me be more clear. A real leader has to be willing to induce pain in the right way at the right time, the kind of pain that we all studiously avoid, resisting change, growth and transformation. The pain throws the church into dilemmas for which the new forms of faithfulness are required. My mom loved me enough to risk inflicting some pain to make me a man of character and faith.
As your pastor, I seek the courage of my mother, who not only cared for me, but dared to challenge me in ways forcing me to become better than I was left to my own devices. Oh, by the way, without any bragging, my two brothers and I didn’t turn our half bad. So thanks, Mom!