Fred Rogers understood the power of showing more than telling. Even in his gentle, reassuring voice, he did not talk down to children. He respected them as people and led them to discover for themselves. Often he arranged a compelling visual like the one above. More is caught than taught.
Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. Pastors must balance grace and truth when dealing with sensitive issues we see batted around in the news. Confronting the status quo without wagging a sanctimonious finger is just such a balance. What else can good pastoral leadership teach about grace and truth?
Merging concern and care
In the movies, pastors usually dress in something weird that functions like emotional kevlar. They are caricatured as company men with vague expressions of concern about urgent problems. Like pharmacists, pastors are privy to intimate details of many people’s lives. However, especially during an acute phase of a crisis, there’s no social or professional distancing.
In real life, pastors bear burdens. When they do, the people unburdening themselves know it. A trusted advocate stands unambiguously in your corner, even when giving tough feedback—or receiving it. An effective pastor earns the right to be heard through empathy and then speaks truth in love. Good leadership is marked by graceful truth and truthful grace. And it usually comes at a cost.
The Either-or of the culture war
In an age embattled over values, grace and truth appear to be at odds. Too many pastors cave into either-or expectations: either chaplain or grenade launcher. I heard one grenade-launcher say (after condemning an entire group of struggling people not in the room) “You gotta stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” That works in country music, but in dealing with a person in your office, like a parent of one of those strugglers, things get a little more complicated.
On the other hand one “chaplain” told me, “I like to err on the side of grace.” I think what he meant was, “If I do anything but affirm people’s feelings and choices, I start to get a little uncomfortable, and I don’t want anyone to think I am judging.” (Well, by all means, cruise on down your lane of comfort!)
Despite these either-or examples, many pastors manage to walk on both legs of grace and truth alongside people who face deep, personal conflicts.
Private conviction and public good
Pastors live in the tension between private compassion and public boundaries almost every day. Staring back from the pews might be parents who just learned their child is gay, sitting only a few seats from a couple who just returned from D.C. lobbying for traditional marriage.
How do you keep compassion and boundaries together? Can you set a tone of authenticity about falling short of our own standards while at the same time, helping young people learn the benefits of having standards? Can a church draw lines without scapegoating some people and giving others a pass? This is where I feel challenged in pastoral leadership—to create a culture of boundaries and compassion.
Mr. Rogers understood the balance of grace and truth. In the scene with Francois Clemmons above, Rogers brilliantly confronts racial prejudice without shaming anyone or virtue signaling. He shines a light upon dignity rather than just cursing the darkness where it’s absent. His empathy as someone who also needs grace and truth helped him live into both.
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14