Hespeler, 21 January, 2018 © Scott McAndless
Galatians 1:10, Isaiah 43:16-19, Psalm 91:1-16
ack in October, as you will remember, we held a dream auction here at St. Andrew’s and we asked everyone to consider putting something up for auction – especially something that represented your own talents or hobbies. And so I decided to put up a sermon for auction. I, foolishly thinking that I could write a sermon about anything, said that the highest bidder would be able to order a sermon on the topic or with the title of their choice. I am here to tell you now that the winning bidder was Andy Cann and the day is today – which is my way of saying that, while you can absolutely blame me if you don’t like the content of today’s sermon, if you object to the topic, you can speak to Andy. (By the way, there was also a second place bid and Jean Godin has already named a topic for next month.)
      So this is the title that Andy gave me for today’s sermon: School of Hard Knox; They never taught me this!” Now, when I heard that title, I knew exactly what Andy was asking for, but it might not be quite so obvious to some of you so I’ll explain. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has three colleges in which they prepare people for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. There is one in Vancouver called the Vancouver School of Theology, one in Montreal called Presbyterian College and one in Toronto called Knox College. But Knox College in Toronto is the largest and the best known of the three so by asking about the school of “Hard Knox,” Andy was asking me to comment on how well or how poorly I feel the education I received prepared me for the reality of working as a minister that I have faced.
      It is a very good question, one that many people have been asking in recent years as we have seen the problems being faced by our clergy – problems that make people wonder if they have been adequately prepared. We are in a situation today, for example, where we are seeing high proportions of those who enter into the ministry drop out of it within a few years. Those who stay, often suffer from burnout, depression and other problems. It is well worth asking whether the preparation that they were given has let those clergy down.
      Also we have the issue of the pressure that the church in general is under – especially when we see a general decline in church attendance and membership across the board – even if there are some notable exceptions in particular churches. We surely cannot blame all of that exclusively on the clergy, but it doesn’t seem out of line to ask how the failures in educating clergy might have contributed to that.
      So I do welcome the opportunity to reflect on the education that I received, how it helps me and how it may have failed me. I will raise just one quibble with Andy’s title however. I didn’t go to Knox College. I studied at Presbyterian College in Montreal. But I get that “School of Hard Presbyterian College” really wouldn’t have worked, so we will just go with Andy’s title.
      I did learn many things in my studies that I valued and continue to value. I appreciate the fact that I wasn’t just trained to be a minister; I was educated. I wasn’t just told what to do or say in various situations or how to carry out ministerial tasks. I was given the tools I needed to think for myself. Rather than being told what a certain Bible passage meant, for example, I was challenged to discover the meaning for myself. I believe that this was the only way to do it.
      People often suggest today that our ministers should be trained for particular tasks – how to plant a church, how to run a project, fund raise for particular goals or whatever it might be. But I really feel that such training would have been almost useless to me in the long run. After all, the methods I would have been taught back then, 28 years ago, would not have included using the internet, social media, PowerPoint projection and all kinds of other technologies that didn’t exist or were priced out of reach for churches back then. The world in which we live has changed at a breakneck pace over the last quarter century that I have been a minister and the role of a minister has changed along with it far more than we realize. I have gone from using the mail and telephone to initiate most contacts to email and am now in a post-email social-media contact mode for most of the time. That is but one key way in which things have changed.
      So, it was much better to give me the ability to think out how I would make use of any tools that became available and any changes in culture that arose than it was to simply tell me what to think, say and do. I hope that we never forget that the task in preparing a minister is to educate her or him, not merely to train.
      So I do feel that I left school with a good basis that would help me to learn how to approach the Bible, think through various theological questions, preach and teach. But Andy’s question is about what I didn’t learn so let me turn to that question.
      When the Apostle Paul speaks to the church in Galatia – a church that he founded and to which he gave extraordinary leadership – he says a few words that always convict me when I think about my ministry over the last quarter century? “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
      Seeking human approval – trying to please people – is natural. It is something that we all do. And you know why we all do it: because we all want people to like us. We always feel better and safer when we are part of the group and so when we get the sense that people don’t like us we often feel that inner compulsion to do whatever we possibly can to regain that sense of being liked.
      And I, like most people, grew up with that desire to have people like me. And when I began my studies at Presbyterian College and began to work as a student minister (I had, for most of the time that I was studying, a student placement as the effective minister for a small United Church in Laval, Quebec) I would say that I set out with the expectation that all of the people in all of the churches that I served would always like me. How would I accomplish that? Well, I certainly wouldn’t preach things that people might disagree with. That was almost guaranteed to get someone mad at me. I would only choose music that everyone always loved (good luck with that by the way), I wouldn’t mess with any longstanding traditions and wouldn’t rock the boat by suggesting things that someone (even just one person) might have a problem with. Oh, I had all kinds of subconscious strategies that I thought would guarantee that everyone would like me.
      But the Apostle Paul seems to make it very clear that pleasing people is not the goal of Christian ministry and that seeking human approval often comes at the expense of seeking God’s approval. This natural tendency that I had to want to please people looked likely to be a problem.
      Now what is Paul really trying to say here? Is he saying that a good minister should intentionally set out to antagonize the people in her or his congregation? Is he saying that I should make the church a place where people are never happy and nothing ever happens that they like? Clearly not!
      But anyone who has put some time into ministry knows exactly what Paul is trying to get at here. You can preach things that people like to hear, of course, but if you are never dare to say anything that someone might disagree with, there will definitely be times when you are not preaching the word of God and that is your job as a minister.
      But it’s not just about preaching; it is even more about leadership. If you try anything new in a church the simple reality is that somebody (at least one) won’t like it because change makes people uncomfortable. So, if you are people pleasing, you will always pull back from doing that new thing even if it is the right thing to do, even if it is what God is calling you to do and even if, ultimately it will prove to be something so good that everyone feels a deep sense of satisfaction that they are doing a worthwhile thing. That’s right, you can be so focussed on pleasing people that you pull back from doing the very thing that would make them feel the most pleased. That is messed up! But I know that ministers do exactly that all the time.
      So I think that Paul has a point here. Leaders in the church who are primarily motived to please people and draw their sense of worth from doing so, will not be the kinds of leaders that they need to be. And I must confess that many of us church leaders are still stuck in the people-pleasing zone and our education did not necessarily help us to break out of it. That is one good reason why burnout, dropout and things like depression hits the clergy so hard. It is simply impossible to please all of the people all of the time in ministry – perhaps more impossible than in many other professions because we are dealing with things that people take very seriously – and if you base your self-image and worth on how people see you, your self-image will take a hit.
      Even more important, we need to remember that the church itself doesn’t exist in order to please people. Yes, we certainly hope that people will enjoy much of what they experience in the church and, even more important, that they find a deep sense of satisfaction as they fulfill what they were called to be by knowing, serving and loving God and others. But that happiness is not the purpose of the church, it is a secondary effect of the church’s fulfilment of its mission. We are not here to please, we are here to serve, to love and to live out the word of God. If we spend all of our energy on pleasing people and keeping them happy, we will never get around to our true mission.
      But the problem is that it is so hard to let go of that people-pleasing impulse. It is part of one of our deepest drives – that desire to be loved and accepted. The antidote, I feel sure that Paul would say, is to find our sense of self-worth in God rather than in people. Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” But how do you do that? The approval of people seems so real and tangible (even though it is, in fact, quite fickle and changeable) while the approval of God seems less real.
      What you need to do, of course, is to cultivate a correct view of God and particularly a correct understanding of God’s opinion of you. Meditate on passages like the one we read from the Psalms this morning: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’” When you let go of the notion that God is just out to get you – dead set on punishing you for all your wrongs – and accept that God really is on your side and delights in all that you are, you can begin to be less reliant on the approval and the pleasing of other people to tell you who you are.
      But it is a long journey. I would say that, in many ways I have spent the last 25 years since I was ordained, learning how to please God before I please people and I am hardly done. If I had learned more in my Presbyterian College days about all the ways in which I seek to please people and how I deal with it (wrongly) when I fail to please others, maybe I could have accelerated my advancement; I don’t know.
      Ironically, I suppose, I would have to say in response to Andy’s question, the things that I failed to learn at school that matter most are not the external things – theologies, scriptural interpretation, philosophy and so on. The things that I failed to learn that matter most were the things about myself – how I am motivated, what are my triggers and fears. To know yourself and what drives you is the beginning of true leadership because it is only then that you can understand what drives others.
      I’m not saying that the college could have laid all of that out for me. But just as they gave me the tools to understand the Bible, theology and preaching that I have been able to build on in years since, maybe they could have given me some tools to understand myself. In any case, I am thankful for all that I have received. Ministry in the church is hard – far harder than I think any of my fellow students realized at the time – but I am very thankful to have been given the privilege of being part of it.