Monday, February 21, 2011

Of Presidents and Pastors: Harry Truman and Leadership

One of my favorite biographies of all time is David McCullough’s Truman: the life story of President Harry S. Truman. I read that shortly after it was released, in part, because I’ve always enjoyed history and biographies and presidential stuff. I had a special interest in Truman because at the time I was living in the Kansas City area. Truman lived most of his life in that area—Independence, Missouri, in particular. I’ve visited his library a couple of times. I’ve seen his house near downtown Independence. I was very familiar with many of the places Truman once walked and campaigned and worked. It was a great read.

But I have to admit one of the things that struck me most in my reading was the way that being a president and being a pastor share some of the same burdens. I’m not saying that being a pastor is as difficult as being the president. I don’t have to worry about terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the economy, and trying to get stuff done with a group of people, half of whom, want to see me run out of office at the next election. (Well, maybe that last one does apply to pastors from time to time.) Pastoral work is not as difficult, the burdens not as heavy, the consequences of my decisions and actions not usually so far reaching. Still, reading Truman showed me there are some similarities. Let me highlight four.

Here’s the first. In November, 1947, Harry Truman wrote his sister and told her that no man in his right mind would ever wish to be President if he knew what it entailed. What he wrote about the presidency often rings true with the pastorate. Listen to what he wrote her: "Aside from the impossible administrative burden, he has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues … The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make 'em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing, and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway." Sometimes the pastorate feels like that. While the church at its best shows herself to be the bride and the body of Christ, she can also be a royal pain in the rump. Someone once said that being in the church is sometimes like being in Noah's Ark: “If it weren't for the storm without, we could never stand the smell within.” And yet that is the outpost to which pastors are called—the church in all its beauty and mystery, its ugliness and pettiness, its divine and human elements. And sometimes pastors feel like no man in his right mind would ever wish to be the pastor of a local church if he knew what it entailed. That’s the first similarity.

Here’s the second. Harry Truman earned the nickname “Give ‘em hell” Harry. When asked why people called him that, Truman said, “I never gave anybody hell. I just told them the truth, and they thought it was hell.” Sounds like a lot of preaching a pastor has to do. It’s a pastor’s task to speak the truth whether people like it or not, whether it’s popular or not, whether it’s gets him a raise in his salary or a boot out the door. So that’s the second similarity.

Here's a third. In writing to Harry Truman about the Kennedy White House, Dean Acheson penned these words about their preoccupation with image: “This is a terrible weakness.  It makes one look at oneself instead of at the problem.  How will I look fielding this hot line drive to short stop?  This is a good way to miss the ball altogether.”  Pastors who are so overly concerned about what others think of them that they try to project an image rather than be true to who they truly are can stand this reminder: be yourself and focus on issues rather than appearances.

Now here’s the fourth. One of the issues that fell into Truman’s presidential lap was the random, senseless violence and blatantly unfair treatment against blacks. In trying to deal with the issue Truman was fighting strong opposition from the South, and even fighting his own prejudices. But he came to this conclusion, as written to one of his critics: "I can't approve of such goings on and I shall never approve of it, as long as I am here … I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be reelected, that failure will be in a good cause." It’s been unusual in any age of politics for a politician to put principle ahead of popularity. We pastors could learn to do the same thing. Of course, like presidents, pastors are wise to pick their fights. If a pastor’s going to die trying to take a hill, it better be a hill worth dying on. But that element of courage is as important in pastoral work as it is in a president’s work. And the underlying integrity of such courage seems to be crucial to a pastor’s overall character.

So there you have it. There are other similarities, like Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” placard on his desk; his wife’s distaste for, discomfort in, and dislike for being a president’s wife; following a popular president who had just been elected to his fourth term and then died in office; and Truman’s refusal to believe he was ever anything other than a common man. Those things also speak to the pastoral life. But I’ll save those things for another day.

I don’t know much about Truman’s religious faith. I do know he was thought to be a Baptist, and he did attend First Baptist Church in Independence now and then (it was only a block from his home). Apparently, his language could be a little salty. But if you don’t think a pastor’s language can be a little salty too, you’ve never played golf with one. Still, whether Truman was a committed Christian or not I’ve learned a lot from him. So on this President’s Day, I’m thankful for all our presidents. But today I’m thankful most of all for President Harry S. Truman who taught me how to be a better pastor.


  1. John, thanks for the great reflections and honest picture of what we pastors face. I have the book and haven't read it -- I will move it up on my list. Thanks!


  2. Charles Spurgeon said,
    that the call to the ministry is an all consuming fire inside a believer.. He warned those who sought his counsel not to preach if they could help it, He added "if he cannot help it,and must preach or die, then he is the man.
    The prophet Hosea was asked by God to marry an adulterous woman...He did her name was Gomer.

    I'm sorry but it strikes me funny, that her name was Gomer,either God has a sense of humor or somebody on Andy Griffen's staff was a Bible scholar
    God does put those called to preach in with Gomers, and like Hosea, God's truley called preachers love them and forgive them. Members of a Pastors flock, need to encourage each other to periodically take the Gomer test, not to identify another, but to make sure they are not a Gomer.
    It is so easy to get into a routine, where we think since we go to church regularly we have the proper relationship with God. Joyce Meyers said, that if all you do is spend a couple hours a week with God every Sunday, are sure your not just dating him instead of being married to him.

    If you disagree with something the Pastor says wouldn't it be wiser to search the scripture and seek the Holy Spirit's guidance in prayer, before blindsiding someone called by God with an off the wall criticism. In other word's don't be a Gomer.