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Armchair Pastor

Posted: 12/7/2019

I didn’t grow up in a family that watched a ton of sports, besides my dad’s fidelity to the Eagles. And certainly, he’d be invested in the games – laugh, clap, groan, and like any good fan he’d empathize with his team and criticize the calls that went against them – but he was far from an armchair quarterback. He was rarely an active critic of players.

So it was a little disorienting for me when joining friends who had no problem lambasting the players they were cheering on – till I realized, being an armchair quarterback is a pretty normal pastime for some families who watch a lot of sports. It’s not uncommon to criticize the quarterback, point guard, referee, manager – it goes hand in hand with watching the game to criticize foul calls, point out who was wide open, and blame those in charge for terrible decisions. It’s part of the fun. But at the same time – it wasn’t for me. I prided myself on how I couldn’t put myself in other players’ shoes, on how I wouldn’t criticize someone who was better than me, how I’d show respect.

Except, it turns out quarterbacking isn’t the only thing you can do from an armchair. And it wasn’t till I got out of the chair and into the job that I realized I’ve spent the past several years being an armchair pastor.

I might not have grown up watching tons of sports, but I grew up watching lots of church. I’d grown up as a youth, been a pastor’s son, experienced different churches in college, been on staff at two, revolved my life around youth ministry, and trained for a life devoted to the church from the time I was old enough to choose it. I was well aware of the seminary student stereotype – who critiques the pastor, says what he thinks is right for the church and acts as a know-it-all. But I was also well aware that surely, that wouldn’t be me.

Except – it was. Now I’m out of the chair, and I’m in the game, and can tell you firsthand – holy cow, playing the game is a whole lot different than watching the game.

My dad and I have a thoroughly amiable relationship, and rarely come within ten miles of an argument. In the past two years, our most significant disagreement was probably over whether to have the doxology sung at my ordination. (These are the things, in case you’re wondering, that pastors argue about.) He thought it would be appropriate, fitting, and timely; I thought it smelled too much of old tradition, and would weird out some of my less-churched friends. We bickered regularly about language of prayers; my dad favored the traditional “thee, thy, and thou” language, while I resolutely insisted that it stood as a tremendous barrier to the youth, who had no idea what they were praying in services.

I watched fellow seminary students role play in pastoral ministry courses, as they tried to counsel a tricky hypothetical scenario, fire a hypothetical staff member, or present a hypothetical building project. Each time as I watched I confidently thought of what I would have done differently (read: better), how good a fit my personality was for this job, how well I’d handle such situations.

I came back from an internship in Florida, where the senior pastor introduced us to what he called “rubrics.” These were transitional sentences between elements of worship that carried a small explanation of what the call to worship was, or why we were standing up to sing – “Now that we’ve confessed our sins to God, and heard the great news that he forgives us, let’s stand and worship him!” Rubrics, I was convinced, were the absolute key to the order of worship. It would explain everything, decrease barriers and confusion, make church make sense. I came back fervently evangelizing rubrics to my dad, who was less fond of the idea, and comforted myself that when I was a pastor, I would obviously insert rubrics between worship elements from the get go.

Then Coach God barked “Clark! Get in the game!”

And confidently I trotted off my armchair, a lifetime of watching from the sidelines. I knew which receivers were always open; I knew how to read the snap; I knew what plays to make and not make; I was going to be a star from the get go, finally able to do all the things I was sure were the right moves.

I can, after a few months, testify that holy cow – being in the game is a whole lot different than watching it.

Every week, we sing the doxology a capella at the church I pastor, and I believe it’s the most worshipful part of our service. I’m on the fence about whether I should be instituting more formal prayers in the weekly liturgy, as my off-the-cuff ones often lack substance. I now wish I’d paid better attention to what my fellow students said in role playing scenarios, as the paths that had once seemed so clear in counseling, leading meetings, or facilitating change now seem far more muddled. I thought each of my throws would be on target by my natural instinct – instead it’s like I’m throwing a football with my hands glued to each other. I have not yet included rubrics in the worship service to transition between elements of worship. Why am I not including what I thought was the key to all worship services? Because I completely forgot. It’s enough on my brain to just try to keep the order of service straight each week, when trying to recall announcements and prayer requests, deliver a sermon, eye new folks in the congregation and bookmark a visit to them later – oh, yeah, and actually worship God.

It turns out when you’re in the game and there’s so much activity going on around you and you’re trying not to get tackled, it’s a lot harder to see the open receiver than when you’re watching on the sideline.

It turns out when you’re in the game, you have to make spur of the moment decisions that you are confident are right even if they look foolish.

It turns out no matter how much game you watch, being in it is an entirely different matter.

The movie Sully depicts the Miracle on the Hudson – Tom Hanks, I mean Captain Sullenberger, successfully landing a plane on the Hudson River in January, saving the lives of everyone on board, after striking multiple flocks of geese and suffering dual engine failure. Sully came under heavy fire after the risky landing, because multiple flight simulations showed that he had enough time to successfully return to La Guardia Airport, or divert to Teterboro – rather than risking everyone’s lives with a crash landing in the Hudson. In the movie, things weren’t looking good, till Sully insisted they make a change to the simulation: include the “human factor.”

Each simulation, he pointed out, immediately turned upon striking the birds. The pilots were given no time for decision making and no time for troubleshooting. It was completely unrealistic; no human would have the reaction time to immediately turn back to an airport upon the bird strike, and every human would need to take at least a few seconds to run through their options and process a decision. No one could argue with that logic.

When thirty seconds for decision making were added to the flight simulator, the flights began crashing. Sully was vindicated. Because while, in theory, the plane could have returned to a safe landing, the human factor flying the plane couldn’t have made such a decision quickly enough.

I’m only now realizing how big the human factor plays into pastoral decisions. Watching a hypothetical role play counseling situation unfold, it is much easier to critique and know what to say, than when you’re sitting across from real people, real problems, and real consequences. When sitting in the pews, it’s a lot easier to think of what the pastor should say or do than when you’re standing in front of everyone and thinking a million miles a minute. It is much, much easier to see the whole picture from the sideline than in the game – but also much harder to make game-time decisions without being in the game.

In so many respects, my first four months on the job has gone quite well. I haven’t come under heavy fire or criticism; no one’s tried to sabotage me; I’ve received much affirmation; new folks are coming to the church; nothing’s burned down; I haven’t forgotten any sermons. And I am incredibly grateful for those things. I am also greatly humbled, and much more aware of how different it is to be in the driver’s seat than a passenger – and a bit embarrassed by some of my critiques from the sidelines. The sideline criticism can be helpful if done well, because someone can point out and we can say, “Yep, that receiver sure was open.” But when you’re about to get sacked by a 300 pound lineman – you might just not have quite as much perceptivity as someone on the sideline with a 75 inch TV.

The 300 pound lineman is a metaphor, for I’m not sure what – no one has actually tried to tackle me. Yet. So I guess that’s a plus.

If there are armchair quarterbacks and armchair pastors, it stands to reason there are probably more armchairs out there. It can be easy to be an armchair parent – “I’d never discipline my kid like that” – or an armchair politician, “I’d never make a decision like that.” We can be anything from armchair policemen, to armchair pediatricians and armchair poker players. It doesn’t mean our criticisms aren’t valid; it doesn’t mean there’s no room to raise a second opinion, or that we have no grounds to say that the police or the politicians made wrong decisions; pastors need to be challenged from the sidelines as much as a quarterback needs to come into the video room and see the mistakes he made. But perhaps it would do us well to consider the reality that, whatever poor play or incomplete pass or disagreeable decision we criticize, it can often be much easier to see from the sideline than in the game, and much harder to fix in the game than from the sideline.

Perhaps we could all do with a bit more empathy, without compromising our ethics.

A last thought – if we can be armchair pastors, policemen, poker players, presidents and parents, I have to wonder if we can be an armchair Jesus.

“I don’t think Jesus should those send people to hell – I don’t think he’s making the right decision.”

“I wouldn’t have made the world like that if I were God.”

“God’s obviously going to answer this prayer, and not answer that prayer.”

Things we won’t say, but things we think. Things that ultimately imply, “God, you’re not so bad, but I kinda think I’d do a bit of a better job in that role.”

That’s one game that, thank God, we’ll never get in. And it’s one game where the quarterback is actually seeing a lot more clearly than those on the sidelines.

If going from armchair pastor to actual pastor has taught me anything, it’s that being in the game is, well, a whole different game than watching the game. It’s taught me to have a lot more empathy for fellow pastors and people, and a bit less judgment for supposed peasants and pedestrians. Perhaps there’s much reason to why God exalts the humble and lowers the proud.

And it’s taught me that, if being in this small game in a small church is way different than the sidelines, being the supreme sovereign overlord of the universe is much different than critiques from a veiled sideline. We might not see the whole picture, understand every decision or follow every play –

But thank God he does.


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