Naive pastors don’t know psychology and sociology

Pastoring and leading is primarily about people. It’s not only about people. It is so much more. And as much as we study the Bible or go thru years of seminary training, to prepare for Gospel ministry, that’s not the half of it.

The Bible is Not Enough

I was naïve enough to think that a solid 4+ years of Th.M. education, which is much more than a 3-year M.Div. or a mere 2-year M.A.B.S. Add 5 more years of actually working as a pastor and getting paid for it, I still didn’t get it. Theology is like the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much more about people, who are made in God’s image, underneath it all that requires more attention and adept skills.

Of course, the Bible does give you the rudimenary and foundational insights about people. How people are like sheep. Sheep who need a shepherd to lead them, or else they’d wander aimlessly. Sheep who are dependent or they’ll go hungry. Sheep who are defenseless and are vulnerable to attack from its enemies. Sheeps that poop. Sheeps that baaah baaah baaah because they’re needy.

And we are sheep that have gone astray. Human nature became imperfect and flawed near the beginning. The Bible calls being born into sin. Many churches and Bible teachers talk a lot about sin. That is rarely balanced enough with the dignity and worth of humans that God loves and values. Without that balance in view, more Christian people than not operate out of guilt and not meausuring up, instead of being thriving and free. But I digress; another topic for another day.

If studying the Bible thoroughly isn’t enough, or having a clearly structured theology to understand God and having the “right” answers, what else do we need to pastor and lead well?

Many years later, I can say and blog about what I think is really going on and what it really takes.

What do you know, about people?

Because pastoring is working with people, and for people, you have to know people pretty well, very well, as well as possible, as much as possible.

Fields of studies called psychology and sociology gives us profound insights into our human condition. I think I had taken 3 classes in my undergrad years, 2 in psychology and 1 in sociology. (I studied electrical engineering and computer science at Virginia Tech, in the pre-historic pre-internet days.) I don’t remember much of those classes; I don’t remember much of my years of formal education from undergrad or grad school, to be honest.

Why pastors need sociology

At this moment in history, the sociology of religion is one of the hottest topics in academia. I think the explosive interest in the 21st century about this comes from the confounding fascination over the questions around why in the world would enlightened and post-enlightened people, and so many of them, believe in intangible things of faith and religion, when we have gained so much knowledge about the world and the universe.

Where pastors can be useful for church leadership is in a couple of areas, off the top of my head: group dynamics, culture shaping, developing leaders to have competencies for developing teamwork, community building, and how increases or decreases in church sizes would affect people.

Sociology can also explain a big part of why some people choose one church over another, especially when the Bible teaching and worship music are practically identical.

Case in point. 2 evangelical churches literally next door to each other, but one has a majority of Asian Americans, and the other is majority white, Anglo Americans, and yet the Bible teaching is usually a white speaker and the worship team is also mostly majority culture. What’s up with that?

Is there a book like sociology for pastors? Might be really valuable for someone to author that.

Why pastors need psychology

Whereas sociology explains the collective, psychology drills down into the individual personality. Granted, the 2 disciplines overlap like a venn diagram, I’ll leave that to the experts for sorting that out more precisely. For instance, I can’t tell you the difference between group psychology or sociology. I’m using broad paint brushes.

One of the few things I do remember from seminary is that people only have 2 motivations: reward and jeopardy. Something to be gained or something to be lost. Gain or pain. I don’t like this, to be honest. I want to believe that some people are altruistic and selfless. I behave that way more often than not.

One thought that comes to mind, then, is why does someone want to believe and live a Christian life? On the reward side, to grow personally through self-improvement, to have a more meaningful life of purpose, to get more of God’s blessings. On the jeopardy side, to avoid God’s punishment and discipline, or to avoid disappointing relatives or friends who are religious, Many other reasons, I’d imagine.

For the pastor who knows a little psychology, that could be a helpful thing or a dangerous thing. We all know of pastors who misuse and abuse their position in so drastically ugly and manipulative ways. On the good side, inspiration and motivation are a necessary part of caring and leading people. Just teaching the Bible in a squeaky clean and accurate fashion has some value, but it will fall short on the front lines of pastoring. There is a place for that, in Bible commentaries and academia, methinks, but getting good theology into people takes persuasion and inspiration.

Best Talk by Tim Keller on Persuasion

The best talk I’ve ever heard from Pastor Tim Keller was from 2008 on the topic of persuasion—he touches on the psychology and the rhetorics it takes to communicate effectively.

Do you know of some good books that’s like psychology for pastors? Perhaps the most closely adjacent subject would be pastoral counseling, there’re many books on that. And, now, we are starting to see books about the church and mental health, much needed.

But psychology and sociology are humanistic, right?

Some Christians are suspicious of any academic discipline that doesn’t come straight from the Bible, in a literal sense, particularly when it comes to the understanding of human behaviors, relationships, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. They believe that the assumptions of psychology and sociology are erroneous and therefore they’re 100% erroneous. Or, at least 80% erroneous. This Bible passage justifies that conviction, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

For those that believe Christian theology is incompatible with secular psychology, and that there’s no such thing as Christian psychology, they too will, and have, formed an understanding of our human condition, one’s identity, and relationships.

All that to say, though Christians have a wide range of beliefs about psychology and sociology, pastors will get valuable insights from these 2 disciplines for healthier and more fruitful ministry.

* Part of the Naive Pastors blog series