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Jared Wilson of Midwestern Seminary tweeted about the common perception of pastors in America. It says, 

“You're the preacher?”


“So, you're the guy with all the answers?” 

“No, I'm the guy who points to that guy.”

A Decline in View Toward Pastors

Unfortunately, perceptions about pastors are not always good. According to a Gallup Poll, only 37% of adults consider “the honest and ethical standards” of clergy as “very high.” In contrast, nurses rate much higher at 84%. When we consider what people usually hear about pastors in the news, their distrust makes a little bit more sense. 

We frequently hear stories of pastors who are removed because of financial issues, sexual immorality, or abusive leadership styles. The Catholic church has a sexual abuse scandal. The Houston Chronicle had a series on Southern Baptists, as did Fort Worth Star-Telegram, on scandals among the Independent Baptist churches. In Chicagoland where I live, the pastors of the two largest churches were fired or resigned in recent years. Others leave on their own, though some of the stats are exaggerated. Pastors are not leaving in droves, but they certainly are leaving. From the outside, this does not look good. It’s easy to see why people may be suspicious of pastors if these are the stories they hear: scandal, abuse, burnout.

How do we overcome that reputation? Part of the problem is that most of us probably aren’t speaking too much of Jesus. Remember, he is the point of the message and the hero of the story—we are not. We don't hear many pastors mention the time that they spent away in prayer, or in Sabbath and resting, but they might talk about their latest book, or their sermon, or the size of their church. This lends to the distrust, especially when paired with the scandals in the news. We need to preach Christ crucified, not our greatest accomplishments.

Building Trust

So, how do we preach to an audience whose default is not to trust us? First, realize that our position no longer carries the respect it once did. When a nurse walks into the room, there's an automatic trust, but not so much for pastors. People will not automatically believe anything we tell them about the Bible, gospel, or reality. Proclaiming the Word itself does not guarantee listeners can or should trust the messenger. One thing we can do is add Scriptural, statistical, or scientific support to the assertions or arguments we make in our sermons. Someone may not automatically trust us, but they may be more accepting of a well-supported and logical statement.

Second, analyze how we as preachers build trust, not just inside our sermons, but also outside our sermons. Do we give people who are listening permission to wrestle through the message or ask questions themselves? Do we find ways to build a rapport inside and outside of the sermon? Our integrity outside of the church building matters just as much as our integrity inside it. Our congregation may not remember all of our sermon but they will remember how we treat the people around us. 

Third, preach to ourselves first. Remember that we are sharing the transformational gospel, not reading from a phone book. We want our congregations to know that the text we preach has pierced our soul. Sometimes it may be hard to demonstrate this in a sermon, so Craig Groeschel offers a series of questions to ask ourselves as we prepare:


·  How has the text affected you?

·  How have you failed in the area the Scripture addresses?

·  What about the text makes you uncomfortable?

·  What do you feel about what Scripture is saying?

·  How are you becoming different because of your study of God’s Word?

Sharing some of these things as we preach allows the congregation to relate, trust, and know us better. It also gives them the opportunity to acknowledge and address their own similar struggles with Scripture. 

Fourth, preach on issues contributing to the culture of distrust: financial stewardship, pride, sexual immorality, and brokenness. One of the worst things we can do is pretend as if these are not actual issues in the church and brush them aside. I recommend preaching from the Psalms, particularly David's Psalms, because he is so honest before the Lord: “How long, O Lord?” he often cries. The Psalms are also where we see him rejoice and repent; our congregations would greatly benefit from hearing biblical examples of faith through all seasons of life. This is where David’s story can be tremendously helpful. Additionally, we should preach sermons that demonstrate the brokenness of people God has loved and used: Moses the murderer, Noah the drunk, David the adulterer, Peter the denier, and others. We need to continue to draw our people back to the hope and restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Last, offer vulnerability in our sermons and in our life. We must be honest about our own struggles and battles. We can’t share everything with the congregation, so be wise about what we share and how we share it. For example, I often discuss how being a father of teenagers has been both the hardest and the most exciting thing I've ever done. Any parent of teenagers can relate to this. 

Author and TEDTalk presenter Brené Brown offers a powerful perspective on vulnerability. “I believe that vulnerability, the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome is the only path to more love, belonging, and joy.” Brown argues there is great strength in vulnerability: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and to be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our greatest measure of courage. A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor.” Our vulnerability is a demonstration of our belief in the gospel: no matter what our struggles may be, God’s grace is more and nothing will snatch us out of his hands. 

Pursue Holiness

Above all, pursue holiness. Robert Murray M'Cheyne’s words preached at the ordination of a young pastor remind us what matters most as pastors:

 Study the universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this. Your sermon on Sabbath lasts for an hour or two; your life preaches all week. Remember, shepherds are standard-bearers. Satan aims his fiery darts at them. If he can make you a covetous pastor, a lover of pleasure, or a lover of praise, or a lover of good eating, then he has ruined your ministry forever. Ah, let him preach 50 years. He will never do any harm to your brother. Dear brother, cast yourself at the feet of Christ. Implore his Spirit to make you a holy man. 

(Auburn Powell contributed to this article and throughout this series.)

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Founding Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible story.


His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.  


He serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church.

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