Brian Williams has been in some trouble over the last few weeks for taking liberties with his experiences while on reporting assignments. He admitted that he exaggerated claims about being fired upon while in a helicopter in Iraq and NBC News suspended him for six months. The substance of objections to allowing Williams to remain in his post with NBC News is that he has lost credibility. If he is willing to embellish his personal narrative, can he be a trusted figure when delivering the news?
While considering this, a related question struck me: How should Christians regard pastors and preachers who embellish their personal narratives in sermons?
This phenomenon isn’t rare. When I was in college, I heard a speaker in chapel relate a very interesting anecdote about an interchange in a pre-marital counseling session. About a month later, another preacher used the very same anecdote with reference to himself! It struck me as very odd, but I didn’t give it much thought. A few years later, while on a ministry staff, someone shared an account about another pastor. A friend of mine sarcastically exclaimed, “hey, what a great story! Next time I preach I’m going to use that about myself!” We all laughed because we recognized that pastors did this sort of thing.
I can recall another time when a pastor I admired spoke of a situation that I had first-hand knowledge of, and I knew that it didn’t take place the way he reported it. But it served his rhetorical purpose from the pulpit. One final example: A small controversy erupted about eight years ago on our college campus regarding a chapel speaker. He preached an entire message from someone else’s online sermon, using even the same illustrations and personal anecdotes from the original as if they were his own.
Because so many sermons and preaching resources can be found online, I’m confident that such accounts could be multiplied many times over.
It seems to me that because credibility and integrity are so crucial for ministers, Christians ought to have serious objections when preachers embellish their personal narratives in sermons. Such embellishment is deceit. It’s a way of improving one’s image in the eyes of others, attempting to appear more virtuous.
Not only is this deceitful, it often leaves listeners deflated and discouraged. When pastors portray their lives as godlier than the average Christian, they make following Jesus something inaccessible to others. This mischaracterizes discipleship, making it something that only our pastor, the spiritual superhero, can do. The rest of us are stuck being second-class Christians, since our lives aren’t filled with such interesting and dramatic episodes of spiritual courage.
And this dynamic breeds inauthenticity. Pastors who portray themselves as above the fray and holier than the rest must maintain that image. They can’t risk being vulnerable and honest about their ordinary lives and mundane struggles. They can no longer afford to portray themselves as fairly average, their days filled with mostly unremarkable moments and sometimes awkward episodes. And the rest of us won’t be honest about our struggles, either, since we’re busy hiding how short we fall of the (supposedly) high standard set by the pastor and his manufactured anecdotes.
Discussions of what Brian Williams has done rightly include notions of credibility and integrity. This is also a good opportunity for pastors and preachers to reflect on how they can maintain integrity in reporting about their own lives.