Alex Trebek was not happy.
The thirty-year host of the TV game show Jeopardy was hosting Kids Week on the program during the first week in December.
One of the contestants ended up $1400 in the red, and according to show rules, she couldn’t compete in Final Jeopardy.
Trebek said to the girl: “We have bad news for you, because you’re in a negative situation, it means you won’t be around for Final Jeopardy, but you’ll automatically pick up $1000 for a third place finish.”
The girl was visibly upset and ran backstage.
The girl’s mother later wrote a letter to Sony, the show’s producers: “If he had taken the time, he would have known, like you do, that my daughter is not a sore loser, and does not become emotional solely over losing a game,” she wrote. “She was upset about not being able to completely play the game to the end… I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for that.”
Trebek was accused of not making a credible effort to make the girl feel better and was asked to re-tape the moment right before the girl became upset and ran backstage.
Pastors go through this stuff all the time.
During my first pastorate, I was reading William Manchester’s biography of General Douglas MacArthur called American Caesar. I discovered that I knew next to nothing about MacArthur or his accomplishments … like writing Japan’s constitution after World War 2 ended.
During one sermon, I selected an illustration from the book, a story where the Americans won and the Japanese lost.
A young couple attended our church. The wife was Caucasian … and her husband looked Caucasian.
His wife later told me that he was part Japanese, part Caucasian … and that because of my story, he probably wouldn’t be coming back to the church.
How could I know that he was part Japanese … and how could I know that my story might offend him?
From the beginning of my pastoral ministry, I wrote out my sermons word for word, and then discarded my manuscript as much as I could.
I realize this style isn’t in fashion nowadays because congregations expect their pastors to speak without notes.
But one reason I chose to write out my messages was because I had time to think through how to say what I wanted to say so I would offend the fewest possible people.
But just like Alex Trebek, a pastor never knows when he’s going to say something offensive … or who is going to be offended.
My wife runs a preschool in our home with about 25 kids attending at various times. She can say the exact same thing in the same way to 24 kids and they’ll comply, but the 25th child will burst into tears.
Should she then aim her directives toward the 24 kids or the one kid who is overly sensitive?
And should a pastor speak to the congregation as a whole or change his language so some people won’t be offended?
I once heard Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Church say that about 15% of his congregation might be classified as dysfunctional, while the other 85% were pretty healthy people. (This was at least twenty years ago, so the percentage of dysfunctional people might be higher now.) Hybels believed that a pastor should direct his message toward the 85% and direct the 15% toward counseling.
How does that sound to you?
Pastors have two choices when it comes to preaching: they can speak in a politically and emotionally correct way … in which case they won’t say much at all … or they can be themselves before God and just let it fly.
But it’s not just up to the pastor, but up to the church board as well.
If the church board backs the pastor’s right to say whatever he wants before God … even if some don’t always agree with him … that pastor’s ministry can flourish.
But if the board demands that the pastor speak in such a way that he doesn’t offend the wrong people … that pastor’s ministry may not succeed because he’ll always wonder if he’s offending somebody by what he says.
During my last ministry, I said something in a message that really upset one couple. They complained to the church board and wanted my head.
The board chairman listened to a recording of my message, felt I didn’t say anything wrong, and told the couple just that.
They didn’t stop their crusade against me until they left the church … livid … but I felt supported, and free to continue to say whatever God wanted me to say.
In the end, Alex Trebek wrote the following words to the show’s producers: “If you all think I should retape the opening, I will. But I want to say that for 30 years I’ve defended our show against attacks inside and out. But it doesn’t seem to operate both ways. When I’m vilified, corporate (and certainly legal) always seems to say ‘don’t say anything and it’ll blow over,’ and I’m not feeling support from the producers, and that disappoints the _______ out of me.”
As a former pastor for 36 years, I understand where the Jeopardy host is coming from.
When you’re attacked, if you sense support from those you account to, you’ll forge ahead with greater confidence and boldness.
But if those you account to collapse on you when you’re attacked, your morale will plunge, and you’ll start looking for a way out … which is why Alex Trebek ended his statement by saying, “Maybe it’s time for me to move on.”
My favorite verse on preaching is John 1:17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Fundamentalists focus on speaking the truth … but often without grace.
Liberals focus on speaking with grace … but usually have little to say.
But biblical pastors prioritize truth in content … and grace in presentation.
And those are the ministries that make it to Final Jeopardy.