Taking a risk here, commenting on politics.
I’m not taking sides, at least not on these pages. I’m not speaking for Mitt Romney to point out that President Obama made some needless mistakes in the first debate of this presidential election, errors from which pastors can learn important lessons.
Before listing them and making my points, let me say this is not a summary of what the political commentators have been saying. Just my thoughts, for whatever value someone might find in them
Pastors, don’t try to protect your image.
The president’s advisors have said (probably in private, as I can’t imagine anyone saying this publicly) that Obama’s goal was to project himself as “above the fray,” and to “look presidential.” If that was the plan, it was a bad one.
When you are interviewing for a job–and that’s what these debates are–you must at the very least come across as wanting the job. The president came across as owning the job and resenting the fact that someone else would try to take it away from him.
Pastors, don’t insulate yourself from your people.
When you are the POTUS (acronym for the commander-in-chief), you live in a bubble. No one challenges you to your face, no one interrupts you while you are speaking, no one holds you to 30 seconds or 2 minutes, and no one points his finger at you and calls you down on the statement you just made. But all these things happened to President Obama in that debate and seemed to throw him.
Pastors of megachurches in particular fall into this trap. I’ve seen such men elected to the presidency of our national convention and suddenly, for the first time in a decade I’m betting, find themselves moderating a business meeting. In such meetings, anyone on the floor–and we’re talking about as many as 20,000 people–can speak directly to you from one of many microphones and disagree with you, challenge your statement, and even ask the convention to overrule you. Not all presidents have reacted to that charitably either. More than one has lost his cool. The stories I could tell you. (smiley-face goes here.)
Pastors, swing for the fence. It’s a risk, but it’s worth it.
Some of his biggest supporters will admit that the president was playing it too conservatively in the first debate. No doubt they will advise him to come out stronger for subsequent events.
Governor Romney had nothing to lose. He does not have a job he’s trying to hold onto. He’s looking for a job. “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” (A bit of wisdom from “Me and Bobbie McGee.”)
Pastors who walk out onto the platform on Sunday mornings trying to protect their image and wishing to come across as (something–pastoral, presidential, dignified, whatever) are failing their Lord, their people, and themselves. People see through that, and no one likes it. Better to be yourself.
Ultimately, just as presidential contenders need to know “this is not about me but what’s best for America,” those who open God’s Word to declare its riches do well to remind themselves “this is not about me.” The issues are too huge, the needs too critical, for God’s spokesmen to satisfy themselves with neat little presentations of something they picked up in seminary or read in a book. What does the Living God say on a subject? Then, tell the people that.
Pastors might like a teleprompter, too, but they’re a terrible idea.
Now, if you’re a president, you have to have these contraptions for the simple reason that you are addressing on average some 10 groups per week. Imagine a pastor bringing 10 different sermons each week. The burden of that would be intolerable.
The problem is that presidents can become too dependent on teleprompters and forget how to deliver a speech without one, or even answer a question coherently.
I suggest to pastors and presidents alike an approach that Winston Churchill used to practice. As he thought through his position on a particular issue, Churchill gradually built up a “set piece” on that subject. Guests who dined at Chartwell, his home outside London, would often find themselves entranced as the great man turned them into an audience. Someone would ask him a question and suddenly discover they were receiving a 10 minute soliloquy. What he was doing was trying out his oral essays on his guests, and refining them. Some days later, when he stood in the House of Commons to deliver one of his stem-winders, he knew precisely what he wanted to say and said it perfectly. What he did not do–he would have found the idea horrendous–was to make up on the spot what he wanted to say about an issue. He who shoots from the hip usually targets only himself.
President Obama has great speaking skills, make no mistake. The first debate was just that–the first in a series. He will be back, perhaps stronger than ever in subsequent confrontations. And when he does, we may be posting something on these pages along the subject of “What pastors can learn from what the president said last night.”
But not this time. This time, we learn from what he did wrong. And those are every bit as valuable lessons as the positive ones.