Approaching Your Pastor
While listening to podcasts or reading books and blogs, you’re likely to come across something that doesn’t sit well. The source is Christian, but you're unsure whether the idea presented is biblical or wise. Whom do you turn to with such questions? Friends? Social media? A trusted website? As a pastor, I can testify to the joy of having men and women in my church bring me questions about what they’re studying. Yet some women struggle with how to ask those questions or are hesitant to do so.
A Healthy Desire
Your desire to seek guidance from your pastors is right and proper. It’s easy to turn first to podcasts, bloggers, or celebrity teachers for direction in the online age. The wealth of resources available online is a gift from God. But God did not intend for you to live your spiritual life primarily online. He calls you to accountable fellowship in a local church with the care and oversight of elders. Your church knows you, your life, and your context. They are best suited to aid you in discernment. Moreover, providing this care is a pastor’s job! Desiring his input is a healthy instinct.
A Good Pastor
A good pastor is encouraged to know that you want to think biblically. He’s interested in what you're reading and listening to. A good pastor in a healthy church context won’t feel you’re a nuisance. He’ll welcome your questions and conversation. He won’t look down on you or send you away. A good pastor will engage you and your question. To see a Christian exercising discernment refreshes him.
Moreover, a good pastor sees you as a partner and ally in the ministry! He knows that you see the world and the Bible through your context. He values your thoughts and questions. They help him be a better thinker, theologian, and pastor. He’ll thank you and affirm you for it.
A good pastor understands why you might feel anxious or uncomfortable approaching him. He knows that he’s in a position of authority. He may have advanced degrees in the Bible and theology. And he remembers being nervous to ask his pastor or professors questions. A good pastor is eager to help you discern truth (and not feed you answers). He’ll be more than happy to talk with you in the ways that make you comfortable.
It's wise to assess the source of your hesitancy. In an ideal world, you shouldn’t be anxious about asking a question. (If you are, that doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong). Is it a matter of culture? Some teach that married women should always go to their husbands first. Others imply that a single woman should only ask another woman. Is it a pastor's problem? Some pastors are proud or fearful, and so they build walls between themselves and members.
Does your hesitancy stem from your own past negative experience or a present struggle? Knowing the source of your hesitation may help you discern how best to approach your pastor. (In fact, addressing this issue might be the very reason the Lord put you in this situation!)
A pastor should never make you feel stupid or like a woman shouldn’t ask a question. He should not tell you to ask your husband first or that you can only ask a woman. When asking for discernment, you should never be required to bring someone else to a meeting. But you should always be welcome to do so! A good pastor will never invite someone else to a meeting without your permission. He will not label you as a gossiper or divisive for expressing concerns. Nor should you feel guilty for asking a question about the sermon. These red flags reveal an unhealthy pastor or church culture.
When and How to Ask
To get the most out of your conversation, consider how to frame your question in the clearest way possible. “Will you read this book and tell me what you think?” is rarely a good question. That is assigning him homework with a vague purpose. More helpful might be: “This author said ______. I’m bothered by that because _______ (where possible, reference Scripture). Could you help me discern whether this is true and helpful?”
Be considerate about how and when you ask, just like you’d want someone to be with you. You may not appreciate a thorny question right before an important presentation at work. In the same way, your pastor may struggle with getting such questions before or immediately after Sunday service. Before church, his heart and mind are focused on feeding the flock. Post-church, he is spent after pouring himself out for your good.
A Sunday option might be this: After the service, thank him for serving the church. Tell him that you have a question about something you read and would like his help in thinking through it. (Giving him the context—a book, podcast, etc.—might relieve any concern that it was his morning's sermon!) Ask him what the best format would be for you to ask it. He’ll appreciate your request and consideration.
You might even offer some other options—phone call, meeting, coffee, email. Right or wrong, church cultures vary regarding appropriate environments for male-female meetings. So, he may feel hesitant about offering to meet for coffee to discuss it but be happy to do so if the idea comes from you. Giving options lets him know what you're comfortable with, and allows him to pick one he is.
Managing the Response
Be open to a referral to another saint who can help you better. The Bible models a plurality of elders in the local church. God gives each local church a plurality of pastors (elders). He didn’t design the church so that you would receive pastoral care from only one person. But sometimes, we view the preaching-pastor as the most important leader. That's unbiblical and dangerous. Your pastor would be foolish to encourage it. So, he may say, “You know, I’m not the best person to ask about that. I recommend speaking to Mr. Smith, who knows that topic well and should be able to help.” Referring you to someone else may be the best pastoral care he can give.
So, what if he doesn't respond to your request? Don’t be afraid to follow up after a few days. Pastors are often busy, email boxes are full, and things slip his mind (like they do with you). In your follow-up, express your willingness to have him refer you to someone else who could help. Be gracious in your assumptions; believe the best about him. He’s probably not ignoring you.
But, if you think there is a pattern of him ignoring you, it's good and right to address it graciously: “Hey, pastor! I’ve sent you a few questions now and then, but I’ve never received a reply. I’m wondering if there’s a better way to contact you. Thanks for clarifying!” If you don’t hear back in a week, schedule a meeting (and bring an advocate if you feel afraid to go alone).
Go in Faith!
One way to mitigate the risk of conflict in these conversations is to develop a healthy relationship before the questions come. Good pastors appreciate being valued as something more than a walking theological encyclopedia. They want to be good brothers in Christ. Positive relationship practices—affirmation, appreciation, interest—make questions easy and natural. Hopefully, this happens in both directions.
Above all else, pray for yourself and your pastor. Ask the Lord to sanctify you and him through your question. Approach this in faith, believing that God will be at work in you and your pastor through your conversation. He will use both of you to build his church, for his glory and your good.
Meet the Author:
Eric Schumacher is the co-author of Worthy: Celebrating the Value of Women with Elyse Fitzpatrick, and they co-host the Worthy podcast. He is a husband, father, pastor, proud Iowa native, and graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Eric has collaborated in writing worship songs, such as “Not in Me" and “Worthy,” for over fifteen years at Hymnicity. Connect with Eric on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at emschumacher.com.