The Pastoral Duty of Letting People Down

by Brian Sauve October 27, 2017

What are the bricks and mortar, the necessary components, of a pastoral job description? Typically, churches are looking for a man who is able to preach, pastorally tender, a one-woman man with good fruit growing at home, adequate theological training, and preferably, great hair. With the notable exception of the last item, all good. But there’s one brick that is too often missing from the building, one more item that should make the list: He must be the kind of pastor who lets his people down.

This is so important to me that if he doesn't, can't, or won’t, my vote will be a confident "Nay."

To be clear, what I’m not talking about is some kind of denominationally-subsidized mediocrity or shiftlessness. I’m talking about a holy and utterly necessary duty. We could call this duty refusing to be the god of the flock. I want pastors to figure out which calls they won't respond to, which emails they won't answer, which texts they'll ignore for a few hours while they watch their boy play soccer on Saturday morning. I want pastors who know when to say, "Let's set up that meeting for this Thursday" to the person convinced they need to meet right now—when “right now” is 11 PM on a Sunday evening and the problem concerns the finer points of the church’s kid’s ministry check-in policy.

Consider two reasons pastors should be well-rehearsed in the art of letting people down:

1. Letting people down dismantles pastoral delusions of deity.

It deconstructs the desire to be the pastoral version of Nietzsche's overman. When a pastor daily waves the white flag of not-being-divine, he chips away at the Adamic madness that lives in all of us, that part of ourselves that believes we are little gods. Every moment of every day, we are either confessing this sin and walking in humble humanity, or we are arrogantly denying our humanity, divine imposters.

When a pastor chooses to thoroughly ignore the buzzing in his pocket and instead remain present at dinner with his wife and kids, he confesses his non-omnipresence. When he says, “I don’t know” to the person asking the question that outstrips his knowledge, he confesses his non-omniscience. When he closes his books at the end of the day and goes home to eat and rest, he confesses his non-omnipotence. He confesses his earthiness, his dust-origins, his weak frame—all the things, in other words, that God will clothe with power from on high (2 Cor. 12:9).

I want a pastor who actually believes he is not omni-anything. I want a pastor who can send the buzzing rectangle to bed without dinner without succumbing to a feeling of low-grade guilt as if he must be as digitally approachable as the throne of God. I want a pastor who will truck little concrete fragments of his own pride out to the yard like Andy Dufresne does with his prison walls in The Shawshank Redemption.

2. Letting people down tethers their trust to the right footing.

If instead, he pretends to have at least a few of the “omnis" in his tool belt, if he plays God, people will be quick to tether their hope to him. Not only will they be quick to do so, but flatteringly so. “Thank you, pastor. I appreciate you taking my call at this hour—and on your wife’s birthday! I couldn’t have figured out what those 70 weeks in Daniel were all about without you.”

How gratifying for the pastor! He feels successful, needed, intelligent. He feels like the intercessor, the translator, the high priest, the hero—dare I say, the savior? I can think of few things that more seriously miscarry a pastor’s duty than this tacit replacement of Christ with himself.

Now, his heart may object that the church won’t grow if he doesn’t take that call, answer that text, tap out that email, or schedule that meeting. Yes, a pastor who lets people down in the right ways might thin the flock a little. Sheep may wander to a different fold, bleating to everyone in earshot about “that pastor" at “my last church” who “never answered my emails.” “Oh yeah,” they’ll say, “they were pretty weak on pastoral care over there. I just wasn't being fed, you know."

But I want a pastor who can handle that kind of unfair dislike. I want a pastor who will stop slathering fresh layers of bitumen on his egomaniacal Babel and believe instead that his hope isn’t in being well-liked. Even better, one who believes that occasional dislike, fairly earned, is positively good for him.

Now, to be clear, I’m not endorsing pastoral dereliction of duty. I'm not talking about abandoning the sheep, refusing counseling appointments from the impregnable ivory tower of the church office. See Ezekiel 34 for how the Lord feels about that sort of shepherding. I’m not talking about those pastoral lazybones with a hard cap on their week at 39.5 hours of "work." No, pastors should go to bed tired—but they should be tired from praying for their flock, ministering the Scriptures to the people, wrestling with the biblical text, and playing with their kids rather than from playing God.

I'd say more, but my rectangle is buzzing.