An Open Letter to Pastors: Please Be Fully Human

Dear Pastors,

I am your daughter.

I am the daughter of a reverend and I know what the inside of a church looks like. I know the hardness of the pew and the length of a Sunday morning and the visits: so many visits to so many strangers when all you want is for your daddy to stay home and teach you to tie your shoes.

And for many years I fought you. For many years I didn’t want to be related to the church. For many years I blamed the church and its pastors for my problems and then I began to pray.

And when I began to pray I began to cry and when I began to cry, the stress of having to be anything at all just sort of drained out of me, and then I began to sing.

And I’m wondering, pastors, if you believe you can’t cry. If you believe you can’t be any kind of broken because you need to be everything for everybody.

But one of the most radical verses in the Bible is also the shortest: Jesus Wept. He didn’t just cry. He wept: he sobbed, he convulsed with sorrow. And He didn’t offer excuses for it either. He openly mourned in front of people and he wasn’t afraid of appearing less holy or less righteous or less like God when he wept. Because he knew the truth.

Jesus knew that the more we mourn, the more we excavate pretense from our souls, and the greater we make room for joy. 

Pastors, when we lose someone, or when we suffer, we don’t need a good sermon. We don’t need the right verse or an elder to come visiting with a plate of muffins that his wife baked. It’s nice, yes, but what we really need is for you to come to our door in your jeans and sit on our couch and hold our hand and cry with us. 

Because when you lose someone, you lose all of the words and all of the smells and all of the hopes and all of the idiosyncrasies that were connected to them. You sit there with an empty hole where that person used to be and the only thing that reaches you is someone else’s pain. Because pain speaks to pain. It fills the hole. It speaks the language of the wounded. And when you sit with us and cry with us, we know you’re hurting too, and it helps to know we’re not alone.

And we pray in the pain and then we slowly begin to sing in it too, broken hallelujahs.

We know you don’t wear suits all week long. We know that sometimes you swear under your breath and you wish you could skip writing the sermon this week and that you are jealous of your neighbor’s boat. We know you are human.

And guess what? It took God becoming human to reach us. It’s going to take YOU becoming human to reach your church. 

I am your daughter and one day I sat up and took notice of you because your shirt was wrinkly and your face was tired and you yawned at the pulpit. And I saw your wife in the front row, in the wheelchair, slumped over from brain cancer and you couldn’t hide it anymore. Your humanness. And your pain spoke to my pain. You understood me. You weren’t perfect.

And that’s when I began to listen.

Because pain speaks to pain.

That’s why Jesus dying on the cross means so much to us. Not only because he rose from the dead, but because he suffered for us first. And that’s what speaks loudest. Because he gets it. He knows what it’s like not to be able to speak for all of the sorrow. He knows what it’s like to be ridiculed and mocked and to be hurt by humanity. He didn’t pretend to have it altogether. He didn’t wear a suit on the cross. He hung there fully exposed to the world. He had nothing to prove.

And you don’t either. You are a mouthpiece for the God of all comfort, yes. You are a vessel for the creator who re-creates and speaks life to the dead. You are the brother of a Savior who was crucified and you have been commissioned to do the same. To die, so that others might live.

And sometimes that means getting dirty, getting real, kneeling down in the dust and seeing people for what they are. Hurt. Confused. Spent. Exhausted. World-weary.

And putting a hand on theirs and saying “It’s a hell of a life isn’t it?” and being more God to us than any perfect sermon ever could be.

With all of my heart, because I love the church and I believe in your ministry,

Emily.









31 Comments

  1. Amen, Emily! I am incredibly blessed to have pastors just like this…who share their brokenness…and remind us that when they are preaching, they are preaching to themselves, too.

    One of the best things I heard a man say about our senior pastor is that he appreciated that our pastor preaches the gospel out of his own weakness.

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    • what an incredible blessing, patricia! to be surrounded by men of such integrity. love you. e.

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  2. your. best. ever.

    thank you for this, Em. there is so much power in sharing our stories. even the raw and bleeding parts.

    i came across this quote by Richard Rohr, which seems to fit here, especially with your words about sitting with someone in the silence surrounding their pain:
    One good thing that silence and waiting has taught me is that our lives are always usable by God. We need not always be effective, but only transparent and vulnerable. Then we are instruments, no matter what we do. Silence is the ability to trust that God is acting, teaching and using me – even before I perform, or after my seeming failures. Silence is the necessary space around things that allows them to develop and flourish without my pushing.

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    • wow, that is some wisdom, kelli! i love that Rohr quote. thank you so much for sharing. love you. e.

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  3. Ah, that was beautiful, Em! Despite the title of your blog, that prose was rather perfect!

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    • oh Kim, it always blesses me when you comment. you’re so faithful, friend. love you. e.

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  4. yes, yes this. the cry of my heart is for everyone, those in ministry and out, to be real. simple, no. necessary, yes.

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  5. Emily,

    This is the truth. Growing up, pastors scared me. They still do, in fact.

    I know it’s probably not true but I always felt like I was a “problem” in which they needed to fix. They scrutinized me. And what they didn’t know was I just needed someone to appreciate my uniqueness, to want to have coffee with me and talk of God.

    My favorite pastor is one who wears jeans and his day job is a farmer.

    He’s human. And when the rain fell and fell and fell, he sat in Sunday School and cried because he wondered why he couldn’t trust the Lord more with his crops.

    My heart instantly went out to him. Yes, pain knows pain.

    Reply
    • oh, Duane, what a pastor! my heart goes out to him too. because you see them struggling with faith and with life and that makes them dig deeper into scripture and into God’s heart and you can trust them. because you know they’ve been there, and they still believe.

      i’m so glad you’ve found this church to belong to, Duane. and what a treat to find your comment here today. bless you friend.

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  6. Wow, just wow! How did you know what was in my heart? Emily, God is using you and your pain and your humanity to reach me and millions of others who are just plain human.

    I used to be in “ministry” as a ministers wife, but I feel like more is being accomplished by Jesus (in and through me) now in my brokenness and dirty, imperfect humanness than ever was in “the ministry”. Your heart speaks volumes Emily, and gives beautiful words to the incoherent groanings that my heart utters! Thank you!

    God bless and keep you. Feel His love and presence close to you, even in the pain.

    Tracy B.

    Reply
    • oh Tracy, just thanking God for the way he ministered to you through my words. may he continue to use us for his purposes. love to you dear lady. e.

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  7. Simply, yes. Show me that you hurt, too, and I will not feel I have to hide my hurt and bewilderment behind the perfect scripture verse. Sometimes, just ‘I’m so sorry’ is the best thing you can say. Thanks, Emily.

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    • I appreciate your love here, Betsy, and your heart. Bless you. e.

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  8. I completely agree and yes, I struggle to tear off masks. We pastors need the relevance of our vulnerability in order to minister with. I read a quote that went like this the other day: Our weaknesses are the crucibles where others are invited in to be transformed by Christ.

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    • LOVE that quote Summer! It’s perfect! Thank you so much for sharing, and may the Lord grant you grace as you minister to others. e.

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  9. I am my pastor’s assistant and co-writer. And I am blessed because he has the strength to be vulnerable–to be human just like the rest of us. He shares his humanness well and I’ve seen lives changed because he is so willing to be real. I’ve watched him struggle to balance pastoral and family demands. And I’ve seen him make the hard choice to put aside the Superman cape we too often try to put on him so that he can just spend time with his daughters and/or his wife. And I’ve also seen when others criticize and manipulate that humanness–to hold it against him. We, the church, are often so hard on our pastors, and they are pushed to show only what the people THINK they want to see. We expect them to be more than they are or to be what we need–yet they are just men and women like us and deserving of the same grace as we are. So they continue to hide behind their ties and pastoral masks. But healing and help truly comes in that common place–that place of vulnerability, pain, and realness. Sometimes the ugly is really the beautiful as we help each other grow strong in our weak places. Thank you for sharing this.

    Reply
    • Sheri, yes! “We the church are often so hard on our pastors…” so very true. We are so fickle, and when our pastors DO show their humanness, we need to be gracious and accepting. Thank you so much for opening up your heart here. Your pastor sounds like an incredible and caring man. e.

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  10. Wow.

    What you describe, Emily? That’s the kind of minister I want to be because that’s the kind of minister & friend I need.

    Here’s the really interesting thing: Not everyone wants a minister like the one you describe because that kind of minister is real. And real is sometimes too scary even when it’s good.

    And I hope no one ever find themselves afraid of me.

    Reply
    • Dave? I know you’ll be that kind of minister. You are one of the most compassionate people I’ve met online and I love how vulnerable you are, even here in this comment, admitting that you hope no one finds themselves afraid of you… it’s being this kind of transparent and humble that will allow Jesus’ radiance to shine right through you. e.

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  11. Dear Emily
    As I was reading your words, I cringed inside; not because of pastors pretending to have it all together, but because of those who are ravenous wolves not sparing the flock! Well, I was a very little lamb when a few of those wolfves sank their teeth in me. It took a long while for the One who seeks all His lost lambs to heal all the wounds left by the hirelings. Thanks for a great post!
    Much love XX
    Mia

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    • oh, sweet Mia, i’m so desperately sorry for the pain that man in cloth caused you. it’s such a high and difficult calling, to be a pastor, and one that requires an incredible amount of humility. i think that is where the suffering comes in. it allows (if the pastor allows it) for Jesus to be transfigured in us. but we all choose how sorrow affects us and sometimes we just clam up and take control and that’s when we start to hurt others. again, i’m so sorry. love you. e.

      Reply
  12. From one PK to another…well said. Yes!

    Reply
    • :) thanks so much Melinda! that means a lot to me. e.

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  13. As someone who teaches the Bible, I can say, it was the hardest thing to let people in on my own struggles, as I was fearful of judgment and rejection, and that if people knew of my own struggles, and trials, and pains, then maybe they wouldn’t believe what I had to say about the victory found in the Word – the victory available to us Believers. I was afraid it would let people down, and would cause them not to believe in the victory I write about. I’m sure there are those who have talked behind my back, but thankfully, for the most part, my fears were unfounded.

    Janelle

    Reply
    • oh Janelle, thank you so much for sharing this. YES. i have felt the same way, and i’m not one who teaches in the church, but even as far as sharing my struggles here on this post, i’ve been scared… but i think in the end, if we stay honest, and we keep turning to Jesus, it shines a light for others to follow. bless you. e.

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  14. This. This:

    “Because pain speaks to pain.”

    This is why I write, why I speak when it’s not easy and not popular. Because there is healing in it, and beauty.

    Grateful for your words, as always.

    Reply
  15. This spoke to me because it is the truth. Very well written!

    Reply
  16. Well said Emily. As a Pastor’s Wife, it is sometimes hard to see my husband struggling to minister to our church family. It is hard work and the cool thing about it is, it is also fun because we do get to witness to those around us and to others. We see the hard parts and we also get to enjoy the fruits of God’s labor through us and then we get to tell others about it as well. God is good all the time and all the time God is good.

    Reply

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