In grade school, my report cards were continually marred with the letter ‘X’ — not that my academic performance was so poor, but that alongside my ‘A’ or ‘B’ effort, each teacher felt compelled to let my parents know that I “talked excessively.” It’s no wonder, then, that I ended up as a writer and pastor.
Just when I thought such grading scales were over, I stepped into the world of professional ministry over a decade ago where, once again, I was graded every quarter on my performance. In my first church experience, I’d receive the expected range of comments under “Strengths” and “Areas to Improve” but one always remained: “you’re too personal.” That remark came every quarter in response to my teaching style where they said I shared too many stories of my own sin or failures or messes that didn’t have a nice red bow on the end.
I now pastor a church that I started seven years ago, so I guess you could say I’ve been able to set my own rules, so to speak. That’s a rather selfish perk to the job of church planter, but it occurred to me along the way that I wasn’t going to change. I wasn’t going to stop talking in grade school (apparently), and I wasn’t going to be able to stop sharing the interior of my own heart, the stumblings of my own journey, the weaknesses in my own armor.
Words like “authentic” or “honest” or “real” have been thrown around since the beginning of pastoring The Mercy House. Perhaps those could be called cultural buzz words and some ministry experts will tell you that certain generations appreciate such characteristics. But I couldn’t care less about those studies and believe that it’s something deeper. It’s the very reason why I couldn’t care less about a slapstick comedy and why I get upset if you’re interrupting the intense, Oscar-winning drama. It’s the reason I choose to become lost in a challenging novel or listen again and again to the gritty songwriter.
I read a recent Wall Street Journal interview with Colin Firth concerning his performance in The King’s Speech. Firth describes this very quality when he says, “The reason why people tell stories and read stories and see films is to feel less alone. And if there’s a story that takes everyone through something like this, it’s a way to say to others, ‘Now you live through it and see how it feels.’ And if my profession gets that wrong, we’ve lost that opportunity.”
Eminem would back up this point more forcefully than I can (or choose to). While we might get more than “one shot,” the chances we’re given to share that song, that story, that sermon, that journey are too few. On a Sunday morning, I find that moment is a sacred space that I’ve been gifted to share the resonant story of God and the echoes of that kingdom’s glory in my own life — successes and failures. If I get any chance at all to speak with the words given me, I want to speak the full truth — knowing it’s in that complicated, messy tale that walls begin to crumble and hope shines through, because somehow we’re not only communicating our own story but their story as well.
It’s healing for me to know that I’m not the only one finding marriage to be a difficult run. It’s healing to know that others’ lives are also barren, hurting, or broken. Not that we remain there in some misery-loves-company sort of way, but instead that we believe maybe one of the people in that place with us will pick us up and help us forward.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.