I’m No Expert
Are church leaders qualified to speak on every subject?
Recently, a pastor contacted me for research help on a sermon he was writing. It was part of a larger series about the struggles we face. He wanted to cover the topic of addiction, so I forwarded him some articles, notes and sermons I had on the subject.
About a week later he followed up with me. He had decided to go in a different direction with this message. It was such an important topic, he wanted to give it the attention it deserves. So he was going to wait until he had adequate counseling help in place.
This experience got me thinking. How much expertise does a pastor need to speak on any given topic? Are there different rules for different topics? After all, expertise is only important when the cost of failure is high. You don’t need much help painting your closet, but you’ll want to hire an expert to rewire your house.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a field. Pastors don’t have that much time each week for sermon prep. You can’t be an expert at everything, but you should be free to preach on anything.
It’s obviously better to speak from mastery and experience. But it isn’t necessary. Some topics are best left to the experts. You may not have an adequate grasp on mental health issues, sexual abuse or even biblical prophecy. But you can still speak adequately about these things.
Admit You’re No Expert
The first step when approaching a topic that you have no expertise in is to admit it. State the obvious. You can’t possibly know everything, even if people treat you like you do.
Parishoners routinely go to pastors for advice. Perhaps your inbox regularly fills up with questions about financial decisions and health concerns. You may field phone calls about grief and suffering. Members may call on you to counsel them on breaking habits and restoring broken marriages.
People don’t come to you with these questions because of perceived expertise on your part, however. They do so because of your spiritual maturity and shepherding heart. They want to know what the Bible says and what God desires. They see you as the best source for those answers.
When people seek out our advice so often, we can slip into thinking we are experts when we really aren’t. We might even come up with a great response, given enough research on our part, and offer up great advice. But that doesn’t make us experts. It just means we are willing to learn and share.
People want to know what the Bible says and what God desires.
Find the Experts
That research needs to begin somewhere. What we learn from others we can pass on. So first find the experts to lean on.
Preaching ministry is most comparable to teaching. Instructors will tell you they are not experts on every topic they teach. But that doesn’t keep them from addressing questions. Even when they don’t have personal expertise and experience, teachers can point students in the right direction. Instructors have learned they don’t have to be experts on everything; they just have to know where to find the experts.
We can do the same. There may be an expert in your own church who can help with your next sermon. Get to know people, and see how their expertise can match up with your ministry.
The first time I wrote a sermon about addiction, I knew I was in over my head. So I looked for an expert to help me. I went to lunch with a counselor from our church and asked him for guidance. It added so much to my understanding of the topic and the application I could offer.
You don’t have to know an expert firsthand, though. You can find experts through books, articles and even videos. You might find a TED Talk that’s helpful, for instance. Refer to more than one source, though, and check their credentials.
Don’t Give Definitive Advice
Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to write and deliver the message. But keep this in mind: Try not to give concrete and definitive advice about topics outside your area of expertise.
Your words as a pastor will hold a lot of weight with your listeners. Many take what you say to heart and gladly put it into practice. Bad advice can lead to headaches or heartbreaks. So measure your words carefully.
If you are not an economist, avoid giving investment advice. If you are not an addiction counselor, don’t promise results from a particular therapy. If you are not a mental health worker, steer clear of diagnosing and treating conditions.
As a pastor, it is your job to encourage and challenge your people toward spiritual growth. It is not your task to correct all their wrongs or fix all their problems. Know when to leave it to the experts.
Don’t worry about looking less than adequate. No one expects you to be an expert in every field. If you pretend to be, your congregants will see through it and eventually lose confidence in you. But if you remain humble, they will be more likely to follow you.
In a culture where so many hold strong opinions, admitting you are no expert is not only honest, it’s refreshing.