Pastoring People Who Are Smarter Than You

On any given Sunday, I stand in the pulpit of the church I pastor and look out over a congregation of less than 100 people. In this small congregation there are men and women who are seminary trained or who have several PhDs ranging in everything from atomic physics to Assyriology (my computer's spellchecker doesn't even want to recognize that last field of study). I could also add that several more members have MBAs from prestigious schools. Suffice to say, I have a very intelligent congregation.

I won't feign humility by falsely degrading my own abilities (though to be honest, in my weaker and more insecure moments I have), but in a comparison of intellectual horsepower, I don't measure up to the academic achievements of many of my parishioners. Simply put, I pastor a congregation of people, many of whom are much smarter than me. So, how does one pastor people smarter than him? This is an honest question and one with which I often wrestle. Here are a few things that I try to remember:

I. The Gospel is Foolishness to the Wise. I never understood the incredible allure of being intellectually accepted until I was sharing my faith with an evolutionary biology grad student and heard those awful words, “You don't actually believe THAT, do you?” I desperately wanted to backpedal from the Gospel and say, “Oh no, of course I don't. That would be crazy.” The truth of Scripture does not always agree with the prevailing opinion of the academy. The apostle Paul notes that the world will not know God through its wisdom. Rather, through the folly of the Gospel it would come to a knowledge of God (1 Cor 1:18-25). If you try to pastor by appealing to the intellect instead of appealing to the Gospel, you will fail. Scholars and fools alike need the Gospel.

This isn't to say that what you teach and preach should be unintelligible or stupid. The truth of God has nothing to fear from the academy's honest pursuit of truth. All truth is God's truth. Be studious. Be academically honest. Be intelligent. But don't seek worldly acceptance over faithfulness. And accept that sometimes that might mean you appear foolish to really smart people.

2. You Have Been Called By God. The office of pastor is a calling of God by the Spirit. It is a calling that is revealed through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit and the external witness of God's people. Not all are qualified to be pastors. Not all are called to be pastors. In fact, James 3:1 warns, “Not many of you should become teachers” (James 3:1). But, if God has called you to pastor, and the church has confirmed that calling, then pastor you must. And in moments of doubt you can fall back on the reality that God has called, enabled and equipped you to execute your calling. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Phil 1:6). God has called me to minister to this particular church full of really smart people. That calling is irrespective of their personal achievements. Martin Luther would combat temptations with the reminder, “I am baptized. I am baptized.” Likewise, the minister should combat self-doubt with the reminder, “I am called. I am called.”

3. I'm Not As Important As I Think I Am. A friend in ministry was burnt out because everything he tried was met with failure. He was depressed and frustrated because nothing seemed to work. I told my depressed friend the most freeing thing I could think of, “Cheer up, you're not really that important.” His exasperation was a result of thinking that he was the central part of the ministerial equation. He thought his lack of abilities was the primary reason for the lack of fruit. When it comes to ministry, I must remind myself that I am not that important to the equation. God is at work in and through my life regardless of the perceived outcomes. He is working all things together for good (Rom 8:28). The power of gospel ministry does not come from my credentials, intellect, or standing in the community. The results do not hinge on my abilities. John Murray addressed this idea in his short article, “The Power of the Holy Spirit,” where he wrote:

Every faithful minister of the Word knows the temptations that arise as he is confronted with unresponsiveness, coldness, and indifference and, most particularly, with unfaithfulness on the part of those who have professed faith in the gospel. All of this drives home the lesson of our helplessness in the conflict with human depravity; and the two considerations that meet the situation are, first, the gospel as the power of God unto salvation and, second, the sealing power of the Holy Spirit. These are mutually complementary. And what needs to be stressed at this point of our study is the confidence we may and must entertain that, as Christ promised his own presence to the end of the age in the discipling of all nations (Matt 28:18-20), so the Holy Spirit abides in and with the church as the Spirit of Pentecost, convicting the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment, and disclosing to men the glories of the Redeemer.... Let us covet and use the means necessary for the attainment of that unctuous witness-bearing, more formal in the preaching of the gospel, more informal in our day-to-day testimony, in which it will be manifest that the gospel comes not in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance. (Murray, John. "The Power of the Holy Spirit." In The Collected Writings of John Murray, 141-142. Vol. 1. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976.)

When I become fearful about my relationship to a congregation that is more intellectually able than me, I must remember that the power of the gospel does not rest in my gifts and abilities, but in power of God.

My particular context happens to be in the affluent suburbs of New York City. It is no real surprise that there is a high concentration of very successful white collar professionals in my congregation. But my fears about pastoring people smarter than me are not unique to this area. The reality is that these fears are the same regardless of the academic prowess of the congregation. The feeling of inadequacy I experience in the presence of PhDs is the same feeling of inadequacy I felt giving chapel talks to minor league baseball players, many of whom never finished high school, which is the same as when speaking to a congregation full blue collar mechanics and laborers, which is the same as when speaking to elementary and middle school students. The real problem isn't an inadequacy I perceive in my own abilities. The problem is an inadequacy I perceive in God's abilities. So, the solution isn't to learn how to pastor people smarter than me. The solution is to learn how to believe that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all.

Donny Friederichsen is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando (MDiv, ’11) and The University of Tennessee (B.A., ’99). He and his wife, Kim, have four children. Donny is a native of Chattanooga, TN. He served with Campus Crusade for Christ in Belarus, Russia, and at the University of Kentucky before becoming a pastor. He is currently the pastor Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Short Hills, NJ, a suburb of New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @dfriederichsen.

Donny Friederichsen

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