Typically when I begin a coaching relationship with a pastor the first phone call is an orientation to coaching. I begin by sharing a little about my background. Next I explain my philosophy of coaching. Finally I talk about expectations, i.e. what I will expect from the coachee and what the coachee can expect from me. It is at this time that I will say, among other things, “You can expect complete confidentiality from me. I will never talk to anyone else about what we discuss in our calls. I want you to feel that I am safe, that you can talk to me about anything and it won’t come back to bite you.”
It is important to me that the person on the other end of the phone understands this. It’s important for a pastor to have someone like this in their life. Few pastors do. Far too many ministers have stories of opening up to someone they thought they could trust only to later regret being so transparent. This is one reason many pastors feel so lonely. They don’t have anyone they can talk to, really talk to, really and honestly talk to…that is safe.
I feel it a great privilege to be this type of person to so many who lead our churches. Because of this, pastors will open up to me about things they are afraid to share with their church leaders, their supervisors, or their colleagues. Such was the case with pastor Bob (not his real name).
My coaching call with Bob took place before the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage. Bob’s state was about to decide whether or not to legalize SSM. As was the case in so many states approaching a moment like this, tensions were high, rallies and demonstrations from both sides of the debate were happening regularly. The topic of homosexuality and SSM had never come up in Bob’s church before but now with the issue in the news and on the street Bob realized he would have to say something about it because so many in his church were looking to him for guidance.
Bob had always held the more traditional view that the Bible clearly condemned homosexuality. But Bob was also aware that there was a small but growing group of Evangelical pastors and authors who looked at the same Bible Bob did and came to the conclusion that either the passages typically used to condemn homosexuality and SSM, had either been misinterpreted or did not address monogamous, committed relationships between same sex attracted people. Keep in mind that Bob did not agree with this interpretation of scripture but he felt a need to at least hear the other side being presented by his brothers and sisters.
After Bob’s sincere attempt to objectively look at the arguments of those Christians who were in favor of full inclusion of homosexual believers in the church, I asked him, “So what conclusions have you come to?”
“I haven’t changed my position, but can I be honest with you?”
“I have to admit that the other side has some good arguments. They are not simply disregarding the authority of the scriptures like I use to believe. I guess I’d have to say that the topic is not as cut and dry as I thought. Don’t tell anyone that I said that.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“If some of my colleagues knew I’d read some of the books I did I would get in trouble. And I can’t imagine what would happen if I admitted that the opposite side has some legitimate arguments.”
“So what you’re saying is that even though you still believe the Bible condemns homosexuality, your reputation would be damaged simply because you were willing to listen to the other side?”
“Oh yeah”, said Bob, “definitely. Dave, you’re the only one I feel safe to talk to about this. I know you’re not going to turn me in.”
Bob is not alone. There are many conservative Evangelical pastors out there who feel caught in the middle. Even though they still believe that homosexuality is wrong they no longer believe that the Bible is entirely clear on the subject. They have come to understand and appreciate those who interpret the Bible differently than they do. But they are afraid to say so. Some have doubts about what they have always believed. But they are afraid to say so. Some have even changed their position. But they are afraid to say so. Some have told me that they are not exactly sure what God thinks of homosexuality but they are afraid to say so to anyone but me.
We’ve gotten to the place where you can be attacked or get in trouble just for thinking, or re-thinking, or questioning, or respectfully listening to those who think differently than the group you belong to thinks. You can be judged and slandered and ‘unfriended’ on Facebook (and in life, I know, it’s happened to me) for revealing that you appreciate certain authors or speakers. This isn’t limited to the subject of homosexuality and SSM.
Whatever denomination you belong to there is a good chance that there are certain theological distinctions held by your group that if you strayed over to a different position you would get in trouble and possibly defrocked. In some groups you would be attacked if you simply said, “I’m rethinking my position on…
Women in ministry
Eschatology, to name a few.
Notice that my imaginary friend did not say, “I’ve changed my position on…” but only, “I’m rethinking my position on…” That alone is enough to be called into the principle’s office.
How many times have you said, or heard someone else say, ‘The Bible is clear…’ or ‘The Bible clearly teaches…’? When I read my Bible I tend to see more clarity than I do vagueness but there are definitely some things that I see as gray while some of my friends see the same things as black and white. It seems to me that some things some Christians think the Bible is clear about are not as clear as they think. If the Bible were clear then why are there so many denominations and different opinions held by Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians?
There is a small but growing group of Christians who are caught in the middle. They don’t see black and white. They see gray. Not everything is gray to them, it’s not like they don’t believe in absolute truth or the basic tenets of the Christian faith, but some of the other things are gray to them. They have friends or fellow-pastors who see many things as black and white…but they see those same things as gray. This group doesn’t have as strong an opinion about some things other Christians have strong opinions about. And some in this group are afraid to admit this publicly. Rather than saying, “The Bible is clear about…” or “The Bible clearly teaches…” they would say, “I’m not sure what God thinks about…”
Do you see certain theological topics as gray while those around you see the same subjects as black and white? It’s okay, you’re not alone. Be humble and patient with those who see black and white. Remember…they could be right. I wish I didn’t have to say this but be very selective with whom you share your ambiguity. Ambiguity can get you in trouble.
Do you see certain theological topics as black and white? It’s okay, you’re not alone. Be humble and patient with those who see gray. Remember…they could be right. Work at being a loving, respectful, honoring and safe person for those who see gray. After all, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ. We all love Jesus. We all believe that the Bible is God’s word, it’s just that some of us see things as black and white and others of us see things as gray.
We may never know with certainty who is right and who is wrong until we die and take that required theology exam that will determine who gets into heaven and who stays outside with the rest of us C+ students.