The late Christian ethicist Foy Valentine used to quip, “I’m not just preaching, I’m telling the truth.”
Truth telling, one might think, would be a primary concern and function of preachers. But the truth is that when it comes to professional credentials often it’s not.
The Rev. Mark Burns, a South Carolina minister who stormed the political arena this summer, is the latest to get caught puffing up his professional creds. He rushed into the spotlight while forgetting that it shines in hidden places as well.
His politicized prayers, tweets and TV appearances revealed rather quickly the lack of theological (as well as much logical) thinking. It turns out some of his even modest biographical claims are bogus.
When first caught, the Rev. Burns alternately cast the blame on the journalist who uncovered his sins and some unknown manipulators of web site content.
When those deflections failed, he finally confessed to embellishing (i.e., lying about) his credentials. For example, he only attended for one semester the Baptist college from which he claimed to graduate.
Had he been honest up front, the reverend said, he feared that people would not take him seriously. Of course, he didn’t mention the harder option of actually earning the credentials claimed.
Whatever happened to “just as I am?”
This is not an isolated example of one “overstating several details of my biography.” Ministerial fraud is rampant in church traditions where congregational polity is practiced.
This is especially true of academic claims — where degrees are practically purchased from unaccredited or poorly accredited schools (some nothing more than a post office box or a spot in some church basement). Honorary degrees are dispensed and often those titles are proudly worn to suggest achievement more than honor.
Pastor search committees face a real challenge in reviewing resumes of candidates. Digging into the claims of candidates is important due to the abundance of inferior and even bogus degree programs offering up diplomas and even the “Dr.” title for little effort.
Churches without denominational connections that require certain credentials can ordain to ministry — and employ as ministers — anyone of their choosing. So an ordination certificate and a diploma together don’t tell the whole story.
Not to be overlooked, however, is the good, effective ministry of many who did not have the opportunity for the kind of academic preparation they might have liked. Telling the truth about their life experiences enhances rather than harms their ministries and reputations.
Having assisted some churches in this sometimes-unwieldy process, it is staggering how much the credibility of candidates must be addressed. Some of the most glowing resumes get traced to a horse stall.
Call it embellishment if it makes you feel less guilty. But it’s really bearing false witness — something warned about on stone tablets of old.
Or maybe it’s just easier to preach on Hell if your pants are on fire.
-John D. Pierce, executive editor of Nurturing Faith Journal, was the first Rhodes Scholar to simultaneously be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, swim the English Channel, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, break Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak record and win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes — all imagined while commuting to junior college.