I remember when I was in seminary at Emmanuel School of Religion, our preaching professor, Joe Sutherland shared about telling a story in a sermon that was not true. He related to us that while flying to a speaking engagement he had read a compelling story. As a part of his sermon that night, he used the story, but framed it as if it had happened to him.
After the sermon a woman came up and ask, “Did that really happen to you?” He quickly came clean to her and said that, no, the event had been something that he had read about, but in wanting to make his point. he had put himself in the story.
He saw the obvious disappointment in the eyes of the lady questioner. Dr. Joe said that while he had meant it innocuously, it had destroyed his credibility with at least that woman, if not with others.
I was reminded of that story when I read of a pastor in Pennsylvania who loved to tell stories from his days as a Navy SEAL. He spoke of his days fighting in Vietnam and the dangers he encountered there.
Of course, by my setup of the story, you know what happened. After the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALS, the Patriot News newspaper in south-central Pennsylvania sought out former Navy SEALS to tell “about life in that elite fighting force.” A reporter for the Patriot News was told that the pastor of Christian Bible Fellowship Church in Newville, PA told stories of being a Navy SEAL in his sermons. The reporter interviewed Rev. Jim Moats and wrote about his story last Saturday.
There were those who had been Navy SEALS, however, who read the story and knew that it didn’t ring true. One man, Jim Shipley—himself a retired SEAL–who had access to the database listing all former SEALS checked the list and found that Rev. Moats was not listed. He called Moats on Sunday night to confront him and Moats confessed that it had all been a lie. Not only had he never served as a Navy SEAL, he had not served in Vietnam either.
After the call, Moats went to the newspaper office and confessed:
“’I never was in a class, I never served as an actual SEAL. It was my dream. … I don’t even know if I would have met the qualifications. I never knew what the qualifications were,’ Moats said.”
The most devastating sentence in the whole sordid tale was stated by Shipley:
“We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up,” Shipley told the Patriot-News.
(You can find a story about the situation here.)
It would seem that pastors, of all people, would follow the command not “to bear false witness” (Exodus 20: 16) And yet for so many, the ends seems to justify the means. They desire to “edify” or to build their own credibility and so they think that by lying they can do one or the other (or both).
But it almost always backfires.
Some suggestions for pastors in the pulpit:
- Never represent something that happened to someone else as having happened to you.
- If you have a compelling story, make sure you are clear about to whom it happened.
- If you use an outline of a sermon from someone else, (and while some would think that itself is lying, I think there are times when it is acceptable, even to be recommended. I’m not talking about using the whole sermon…but an outline) at least have the integrity to change the first-person stories!
- If you have lied from the pulpit, have the integrity to tell the leadership of the church, take your lumps & find an accountability partner to whom you can be held to a higher standard in the future.
The statement still brings tears to my eyes: “We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up.”
Brothers and sisters, surely we can do better.
Do you have a story of misrepresentation from the pulpit? How did it affect the hearers? What did it do to the soul of the preacher? Feel free to share your comments below.