Friday, July 21, 2006

On the Dangers of Being a Professional Wiseman

I recently took a spiritual formation class here at Asbury and had a rather distressing experience. Students were instructed to compose a "Rule of Life" -- that is, a short credo about how we will live as Christians on a daily basis, as well as a lengthy paper to describe our spiritual reasoning behind it.

I was not particularly thrilled about this class, as its many assignments often required a great deal of emotional vulnerability. I had to write about deeply personal subjects. I had done this with my candidacy mentor who did his best to add these assignments gradually and to make me feel safe with him. Unfortunately, this class was a one-week intensive class, and I had to hand in many of these papers ahead of time to a professor whom I had never met.

The professor eviscerated me on my Rule of Life paper, which was particularly painful given my level of emotional exposure in that paper. I doubt that he entirely meant to do so. Rather, he had fallen into a trap probably common to many pastors.

After knowing me in class for five days, he concluded that he understood the innermost workings of my mind and felt obligated to, without invitation, expound upon my many flaws and foibles. I was not amused, nor did I welcome his intrusion into my mind.

The thing is, I could see myself making that same mistake after a few decades in the ordained ministry. Pastors fill many roles, but perhaps most importantly, they are professional wisemen (or women). Pastors are supposed to be ever-flowing fonts of wisdom, bestowed upon them by long years of spiritual discipline and study. Parishioners, and even non-Christians, seek their advice on any number of subjects. Take, for example, Billy Graham's long presence in the Oval Office through several Presidential administrations.

The danger in being a professional wiseman for a long period of time is that one may come to believe one really is wise. No person who thinks he is wise likely is. The Oracle at Delphi notably proclaimed Socrates the wisest man in all of Athens because he believed that he was the greatest fool. I couldn't agree more. Pride is the enemy of wisdom.

Take this danger and multiply it by ten for anyone who is a full-time professional in the field of spiritual formation. These folk we assume and hope to be the wisest of the wise. Given time, they may come to believe it themselves. Anyone who takes up this role starts with certain presuppositions:

1. "I am spiritually formed and wise in the ways of the Lord."
2. "I am more spiritually formed than you."
3. "You will greatly benefit from hearing my wisdom."

This most recent experience makes me have even greater appreciation for my candidacy mentor, who has devoted his post-retirement life to mentoring ministry candidates. He is a thoughtful theologian and student of devotional literature, yet humble and open to different opinions. If he suffers any temptations of pride, he has successfully resisted them.

So too we pastors (and those of us still in training) must resist any errant thought which informs us that we are wise. Therein lies the path to arrogance. Better still we should look to the saints of our local church to teach us about the walk of the Christian.

We will, of course, be compelled on occasion to correct a straying parishioner from sin or foolishness. And we will preach the Word of God and interpret its teachings to modern life. But let us not think that we know all of the answers or that we stand above the laity in our faith.


Michael said...

Very well said, John. I have to tell you, though, that I witnessed this same level of arrogance and presumption at the local pastor level from some who were only newly licensed. It was as if they believed that the license itself bestowed exceptional wisdom and insight into the human psyche.

If they had but asked, I could have helped them to understand that I really DO know it all!

Andy B. said...

Good post on an important topic, John. Also points out why every pastor needs a pastor.

The Thief said...

I just had a similar experience with the pyschological assessment specialist who, based on my tests and on four recommendations (one from a senior pastor I worked with for one year, in which he never actually took the time to get to know me), decided he knew me and how my mind works... at least he had the honesty to admit that he had made assumptions about me upon reading a couple of the recommendations...