I’ve always had great respect for Senior Pastors who wear their souls on their sleeves. But who among us hasn’t, for the sake of a quick laugh or a momentary pull on the heartstrings, shared something from the stage they wished they could take back? It’s a fine line to meander.
A few years ago I was preaching on some topic, I don’t remember now what it was, but I’ll never forget throwing in, off the cuff, a story about my old youth ministry years “blue flaming.” If you’re not familiar with “blue flaming,” it involves a lighter, a bunch of Junior High kids who’ve had too many baked beans, and a youth leader who has spent one too many nights doing church sleepover events (contrary to popular opinion, it IS possible to light your farts). Thinking this story would bring the house down, I proceeded to share TMI. Waaaayyyy TMI. Within seconds I wanted to crawl off the stage. To this day I still shake my head when I think about that grand moment.
Yet “blue flaming” is minor compared to what we’ve all heard Senior Pastors share from the platform: sexual addictions, colossally poor financial decisions, marital issues, prior church conflicts, a secret hankering for country music. We’ve heard it all. How did those words, however innocent at the time, come back to haunt them one, two, and three years on down the line?
I’ve always told the Senior Pastors I coach that the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:12-15 serve as a pretty good guideline for how and when we should reveal things:
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
There are three guidelines I think we learn from this passage about sharing personal sins and struggles:
1. It’s always better to share in generalities
Paul uses three sordid words to describe his former life: blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man. The problem is he never fills in the blanks. I’ve delivered messages where I’ve painted disgusting pictures of Paul potentially stoning people, the whole deal. But that was based on pure conjecture. Not once does he ever share at that level.
A few years back a pastor friend was up to his ears in leadership alligators. “All I did was share in a sermon that eight years ago I looked at porn in the church office on my computer. I told them that I’ve been clean since. But it’s changed everything. Everyone treats me differently now.” While I applaud his courage, I question his tact. Couldn’t the same thing had been accomplished by speaking in more general terms publicly but in great detail privately with a counselor or accountability partner?
2. It’s always better to share long after the fact
Paul wrote 1 Timothy probably 30 years after the event (unless you’re one of those JDEP types, then in that case some guy named Fred penned it pseudonymously, like, in 1974). Sharing something 30 years after the fact isn’t a bad example to follow. Years ago, a pastor for whom I have tremendous respect, Jack Hayford, shared the story about an emotional affair he had with someone in his church. It was done with class, remorse, and in general terms. His warning to the pastors in attendance was stirring. Not coincidently, it was also shared a very, very long time after it occurred.
3. It’s always better to share it someplace else than where it happened
Ephesus was a world away from Damascus, the locale where Paul had buried all his skeletons. Writing about being a “violent man” to people who know nothing about his background was much different than writing to the grandson of someone he actually murdered. A new location brings a new audience who will listen to our words with little or no baggage.
A while back I was reading about Max Lucado’s brave confession concerning his temptation with alcohol. He told a story about going on a trip and buying beer to get hammered, but choosing to stop short of doing anything stupid. When he got back he shared that with his leadership and they surrounded him with love and accountability. When he shared that publicly I was struck by the fact that (1) the event happened many years ago (2) he cautiously shared it in very general terms (i.e. avoiding scintillating language like “my hand was shaking and whole torso convulsing as the rim of the bottle graced my lips”) and (3) he bought the beer hundreds of miles away. He didn’t have a stash of Jim Bean behind the church copier. There was geographical distance. I’m pretty sure that if I was a member at Oak Hills when Max first shared that story, that that one detail would have made the situation all the more easier to understand and forgive. What that means for us is maybe it’s best to refrain from sharing your story about _____ until your next church, or at a men’s retreat at another church, or, well, never.
A good rule of thumb is this: If you wouldn’t want your child’s fourth grade school teacher to share it on back to school night, don’t share it. Imagine hearing your daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Stapleton, confessing: “I’ve had a horrendous gambling addiction, but I’ve been clean now for six months. Please pass in your checks for our field trip to the zoo.”
Do you have any guidelines for how you share your personal struggles when you preach?