The Importance of the Pastoral “I Don’t Know”

“My happy conviction is that pastors ought not to be experts on everything.”
– John Piper

One of the most valuable sentences in a pastor’s arsenal is “I don’t know.” The pressure to know and be everything everybody expects us to know and be can be pride-puffing. I once worked at a bookstore where we were told never to say “I don’t know” to a customer. We must give them some answer, any answer, even if it was a guess or a likely wrong answer. Customers don’t want to hear “I don’t know” from service people, but even a wrong answer makes them feel helped. I confess the temptation to “satisfy the customer” has persisted through my ministry days, for a variety of reasons. I want people to feel helped. And I also don’t like looking like a rube.

Why is it important for pastors (and Christians in general!) to say “I don’t know” when they don’t know?

1. Because it’s the truth.

First and foremost, if you don’t know the answer to something, say you don’t know the answer. Making up stuff up is not our calling. We all know some folks who seem pathologically unable to admit ignorance in any area. I don’t trust those people, and neither should you. Better a disappointing truth than a manipulative or misleading fabrication.

2. Because it impresses the right people.
I’ve done more than a few Q&A’s after preaching or on panels at speaking engagements before, and the desire to impress with wisdom and insight can be nerve-wracking. Once during a Q&A after a sermon at our church in Nashville, I got real honest when a question stumped me. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember realizing I had no information available to my brain to even begin formulating a halfway intelligent response. So I just said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know the answer to that.” Afterwards a young lady approached me to thank me for saying “I don’t know.” She said she wished more “religious people” could say it too. The reality is that acting like you know everything impresses shallow, naive, or otherwise easily impressed people. But saying “I don’t know” impresses people who value honesty and appreciate their pastor admitting weakness, ignorance, or just general fallibility.

3. Because it trains others not to be know-it-alls.
A few weeks ago a fellow came up to me after our service to ask about the Old Testament figure Ahimelech. I recognized the name but could not recall his biblical importance or the narrative where he was found. My inquirer expected that, as a pastor, I would know all about this figure and even the references where he would be found. I blanked. When I looked him up later, of course, I “remembered” who Ahimelech was, but in the moment, despite losing face with a relatively new Christian, I said, “Brother, I don’t remember. I just don’t know.” This led to a great talk about so-called “Bible trivia,” knowledge, learning, wisdom, and righteousness and the like. I think it was a teachable moment for both of us, but I walked away believing that when a leader is open about the gaps in his knowledge it trains others to be okay with not knowing everything. Of course, we want to know our Bibles as well as we possibly can, but we want to remember that knowledge puffs up and that the Scriptures and the doctrines they teach are meant to make us full-hearted with Christ not big-headed with minutiae.

4. Because it cultivates humility.
It is good for a pastor’s heart — no matter the reception — to make his “I don’t know”‘s public.

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Jared Wilson

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
 
— Glenna Hendricks
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
 
— winston
 
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
 
— Russ Wright
 

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