On February 4, 2015, managing editor and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted to embellishing an incident that occurred while covering the Iraq War in 2003. Within days of his apology, he announced he was taking a temporary leave of absence. NBC News announced on February 10, 2015 that Williams was being suspended for six months without pay. The fallout from Williams’ exaggerations provides several lessons for pastors that are worth considering, particularly as it relates to sermon content and delivery.
The Story is bigger than you. In reflecting on Williams exaggerations, it seems that he forgot the most fundamental principle of journalism: Seek truth and report it. This principle is a reminder that the story is bigger than the one reporting it. For pastors, this is critical to remember as we are entrusted with sharing THE Story: the gospel. The story of the gospel is bigger than anyone who is sharing it. We must be mindful of that fact. And we must remember that as heralds of the truth our responsibility is to report it, to preach it, to all who will listen. It is the story—the gospel story—that has the power to change lives, not our attempts to “improve” it.
You are not central to the story. As the story of Williams’ exaggerations continued to unfold, it quickly became clear that he had engaged in a fairly regular practice of making himself part of the story. Whether it was pretending to have been in a Chinook when it was shot down or seeing dead bodies floating outside his hotel during Hurricane Katrina, Williams made himself part of the story he was supposed to be reporting. Pastors are often tempted to do the same thing. When we make ourselves the heroes of illustrations, we take the focus away from the true Hero of the gospel story.
Trust is always held in a delicate balance. According to The New York Times, after his announcement Williams fell from the 23rd most trusted person in America to 835th. That is a significant tumble directly tied to not being completely truthful. In a church setting, most pastors could not afford that kind of freefall. Indeed, the lead pastor must be one of the most (if not THE most) trusted person in the church. Failing to recognize that such trust is held in a delicate balance can lead to one taking it for granted. Doing so can be disastrous. This is why it is vital for pastors to make sure that the stories they are telling, the illustrations they are using and the statistics they are quoting are accurate and true. There is simply no excuse for marrying the glorious story of the gospel to embellished illustrations or made-up statistics.
My hope is that these lessons will be helpful to pastors, teachers and church leaders. We are entrusted with the greatest story ever told. Let’s make sure we do not try to embellish it, insert ourselves into it as the hero or try to pump it up with falsehoods. The gospel really is enough.