Fred Rogers understood the power of showing more than telling. A picture like the one above helps people discover right and wrong for themselves. Especially when the truth hurts, showing can be more graceful than telling.
Most of us are used to the opposite approach–someone in the news media touching a nerve. Playing upon fear and anger helps sell content. Just find the most extreme example of some concerning trend and then ridicule the person for being an idiot. That tactic is an easy way to manipulate your audience.
Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. Pastors have congregations to lead, not just audiences to entertain. So when they teach on tough topics, their approach cannot not be so cunning. Healthy leaders do not just provoke and then confirm biases. They must discern biases and then collaborate with the better angels of human nature to elevate hope rather than fear.
It’s easy to curry favor with people who already agree with you. Let’s look at how Mr. Rogers speaks truth in love.
How do you blend care with concern?
The typical caricature of a pastor is pretty funny, like this one: “Mahwage is what bwings us here together today!” Movie pastors usually dress weird—as if wearing emotional kevlar. On the contrary, in real life pastors bear burdens. When they do, the people unburdening themselves know it. Like pharmacists, they are invited into something difficult and personal. But the medicine of truth cannot be handed off at a drive-thru. You have to drawn near and risk getting a little messy. Empathy is the spoonful of sugar that sweetens the dose.
How is the cultural-war going for you?
Life gets messy, so most people long for a little clarity. The culture war offers it and Christian leaders keep getting drawn into battle. I witnessed one truth warrior raise a rally cry against a group of victims. He was not wrong about the damaging influence of the group. But he only succeeded to stir-up contempt among his listeners without offering any constructive way forward.
Other Christians react to the culture war by surrendering to the opposition and calling it grace. One surrendered pastor 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, stay in your comfort zone!)
Despite these either-or examples, many pastors lead with both grace and truth. Debates can be energizing but in ministry, they are usually futile. Square one of speaking truth in love is voicing a concern in a way that can be heard amidst emotion.
Walking alongside people with deep personal conflicts should not lead to compromise. But for pastors, it often leads to a desire to win the person rather than just the argument.
Private conviction and public good
Pastors live in the tension between private compassion and public boundaries almost every day. For example, they look out at the pews and see parents who just learned their son is gay sitting near a couple who just returned from D.C. lobbying for traditional marriage.
How do you keep compassion and boundaries together within one congregation? (or your own extended family?) Can we admit falling short of our own standards without neglecting to teach the benefits of having standards? (Log first, then speck) Can we draw lines consistently, not scapegoating some and giving others a pass? It takes great energy and wisdom to create a culture of boundaries and compassion.
Mr. Rogers understood graceful 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.
I think the reason he made it look easy is that he never saw himself beyond the need for grace or others beyond the reach of truth.
“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