From Leadership Journal
By Adam Marshall
Did you know one of the President’s fictional heroes is a pastor? It’s true. In 2015, President Obama interviewed Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Gilead. During their conversation, he recalled how he “fell in love” with Gilead’s John Ames, a small-town Congregationalist minister whose warmth, honesty, and humble faith make him one of the most admirable pastors in fiction. We should hardly be surprised, of course, to find ministers serving, preaching, praying, and leading in the stories we watch, listen to, and read. After all, art imitates life, and pastors are deeply engaged in the business of helping others live well.
Sometimes, though, the pastors we encounter in fiction can frustrate us. The corrupt priest, the hateful missionary, the slimy revivalist preaching fire and brimstone—they’re more like caricatures than characters, the hapless victims of lazy writing. But whether they’re true-to-life portraits or just cardboard cut-outs, these pastors still can teach us about ourselves and our ministry. Here are some of the pastors we’ve all met once upon a time.
Who He Is: He’s loving. He’s faithful. He’s wise. His congregation adores him. He once beat Satan in hand-to-hand combat. He’s everything a good pastor should strive to be, but he keeps himself humble. Sometimes, he annoys you.
Where You’ll Find Him: The Saint was popular in the Middle Ages, featuring in myths about actual saints and going on pilgrimage as the Parson in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You’ll also find him smiling beatifically as Bishop Myriel, the gentle priest who forgives Jean Valjean’s theft of the household silver, and then gives him some candlesticks, too, in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
What He Can Teach Us: There aren’t many Saints in contemporary fiction, and for good reason: they’re just too perfect. While their successes may be enviable, their holiness often makes them feel inhuman. Real pastors have genuine flaws, and that’s okay; in fact, a 2003 study by Pulpit and Pew identified “approachability” as one of lay search committees’ most desired qualities in a pastor. So don’t fret if your halo could use a little polish. Odds are, your people love you for it.
Who He Is: With a bible in one hand and a sword in the other, the Zealot lives by the motto convert at all costs. Prideful, obstinate, callous, and inhumane, he’s so dead set on saving sinners from hell that he can’t see how his own fire burns them.
Where You’ll Find Him: The Zealot is a shoe-in for a story’s villain. You may have met him as Nathan Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling novel The Poisonwood Bible, where he strives to single-handedly “save Africa for Jesus.” He also appears as the fanatical Father Bain in the hit Starz series Outlander (based on the popular books by Diana Gabaldon).
What He Can Teach Us: Writing Zealots is an amateur move: they’re uncomplicated, and designed solely to provoke audiences’ distaste. Their stories may be intended as cautionary tales about fanaticism’s dangers; however, their cartoonish malevolence reminds us that we expect sin to have a cause and for sinners to need healing. No one buys a Zealot without a good backstory, because we sense that cruelty, pride, and malice, are often responses to pain, insecurity, and fear.
Who He Is: A wolf in sheep’s clothing, the Liar is an expert at pretending to be pious. He may wear the mantle of a man of the cloth, but his deepest loves are vice, money, and power.
Where You’ll Find Him: In The Three Musketeers, you’ll find Cardinal Richelieu cutting a Liar’s path to political power. You can also see the Liar masquerading as Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle in Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective.
What He Can Teach Us: Before a pastor can minister well, he needs to be trusted. Unfortunately, trust in clergy is on the decline. According to Gallup, the percentage of people who believe clergy members have “very high or high […] honesty and ethical standards” is now 46%—the lowest it’s ever been. Though this trend may owe something to increased media coverage of high-profile scandals, the Liar is no mere fiction—he’s an actual threat. Ministry leaders can disarm him by cultivating a sense of openness and integrity within their churches and organizations.
Who He Is: When a hero needs help, the Guide delivers. Wise, insightful, but also compassionate, he’s eager to provide a shelter in the storm, an ear in the confessional, or a few hard-won words of sage advice.
Where You’ll Find Him: In high school, you may have met him as Romeo and Juliet’s Friar Laurence, the priest who secretly marries the play’s ill-fated lovers. Sci-fi fans, meanwhile, know him as Shepherd Book, the enigmatic preacher from Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
What He Can Teach Us: Trust in clergy may be sinking; however, the Guide’s continued presence in popular culture shows that many still view pastors as vital sources of support, comfort, and wisdom—and not just when tragedy strikes. If you want your people to see you as a Guide, keep your door open, your ears attentive, and your judgments sound.
Who He Is: A flop. A fool. An embarrassment to the Church. No matter how hard he tries (and sometimes, he just doesn’t), he can’t measure up to the height of his calling.
Where You’ll Find Him: He’s especially popular in literary fiction, appearing as the protagonist in such classics as Shusako Endo’s Silence (which is being made into a film by Martin Scorsese) and Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory. On television, meanwhile, he’s been bumbling through London as Adam Smallbone on the BBC’s Rev.
What He Can Teach Us: Surprisingly, stories about Failures are among the most encouraging. At the very least, they remind us that as ministry leaders, we’re not superheroes, whatever our aspirations. When they’re written well, though, Failures’ stories can be emblems of God’s desire to show grace to and through those who need it the most. So do your work well, but don’t despair if it doesn’t go as planned—God uses your screw-ups just as much as your successes.
The Human Being
Who He Is: He’s an actual person, nothing less, nothing more—complicated, conflicted, compelling, redeemed. He looks to God while his feet stand firm on the soil of experience. He can help his people because he walks alongside them.
Where You’ll Find Him: In John Michael McDonagh’s 2014 film Calvary, he’s Father James, a Catholic priest who’s haunted by a sin that he didn’t commit. He also shows up in Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country as Rev. Stephen Kumalo, a South African priest whose family is devastated by pre-apartheid racial injustice.
What He Can Teach Us: The best characters in fiction are seldom clear-cut. Art, after all, delights us the most when it shows human life in all of its subtlety, its shades of gray, its pitfalls and promise.
As ministry leaders, we can choose to fashion our image in the holy shape of a Saint, or spend our whole lifetime fretting over whether we’re becoming a Failure—and many do. But if we want our characters, our ministries, and our lives to compel others toward Christ, we should let God speak through the wild complexity of the humanity we’ve been given.
Adam Marshall is a Ph.D. candidate in medieval literature at Baylor University. He teaches in the English Department at Malone University in Canton, Ohio.