“Open or Shut?”

In the last two weeks, several different people have talked with me about doors in the pastor’s office.

Most of them were using a familiar metaphor to describe the pastor’s accessibility, often sounding something like this: “I like the fact that our pastor’s door is always open.” People who express this opinion understandably appreciate a pastor’s availability, even in the midst of other duties. It’s a common expectation of all those who serve in ministry, lay and ordained. 

One young man, however, used the metaphor differently, and it caught my attention. He said, “I’ve known so many pastors over the years who were nice people, but there always seemed to be a door closed somewhere. And you have to wonder, what’s behind that door?”

I don’t think this person was suggesting that pastors can’t have private lives, or that good boundaries aren’t important. I happen to think that having a private life is a positive thing, and good boundaries produce healthier and more productive pastors. I think he was expressing the uneasiness people feel when a pastor “sounds fake.” (for lack of a better term). The anxiety comes from feeling like the person you know in one environment isn’t the one who shows up in another.

This can happen in any context, including preaching, when people compare the voice, mannerisms, and statements of the person in the pulpit to the person they’ve experienced in a meeting, or the hallway, and they are left with a sense of confusion or dissonance.

This is a fine line to walk, because it really isn’t about us. The message we bring, and the care we provide, is about God and God’s children. The purpose of preaching is not to air the pastor’s personal struggles. And, if we use the pulpit to work through specific conflicts too often, we can limit what is a message of sweeping law and Gospel for all. In other words, I don’t want people to know me better through my preaching; I want them to know God better.

But we, too, are God’s children. And when we pretend that we aren’t, or try to be someone else, it shows. The word “authenticity” has become somewhat of a catch-phrase in recent years, but its message of integrity and truthfulness resonates with me in this context. The young man’s comment reminded me that when we’re not authentically ourselves, we can dilute or even detract from the message, leaving our audience wondering if there’s something we’re not telling them.