Thursday, June 10, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Pastoral Advice Re: Pastoral Advice

I have three beautiful moles on my face. This isn’t an opinion—it’s a medical fact. When I was 20 years old, about to fall off from my parents’ insurance, I went to a dermatologist to have them removed (the moles, not my parents). The doctor said, in his thick Indian accent, “If I do this, I will scar you.” I inquired about the size of said scars, to which he replied, “It does not matter. I will not cut you; these are good moles. They are nice-looking moles.” And so the mole triangle remains. After all, he’s the doctor.

Those words freed me to truly love the sacred mole triangle. These days, when my sister starts talking trash about our gorgeous governor (don’t worry—my wife knows), quoting Uncle Buck’s “Have a rat gnaw that thing off your face” line, I don’t die a little inside because of my own facial moles. Not at all. After all, I know mine are “good moles.” Still, though. The nerve.

If, on the other hand, a doctor some day tells me that one of my moles looks suspicious—if he furrows his brow and points at the one closest to my nose and says, “I don’t like the look of that one; I think we should remove it,” then it’s goodbye Cherith! (note: I named him Cherith). I’d miss him like Dr. Chris Turk (obscure pop culture reference), but I’d get over it. You don’t want to mess around with your health over mere aesthetics, accessories, and beauty marks.

I actually trust doctors quite a bit. I’ve heard all the horror stories about missed diagnoses and I’ve read the statistics regarding the number of patients who wake up during surgery each year. . . I’ve even overheard my mother—an RN whose range of jobs (from jail nurse to ER nurse to college faculty) is downright Cherry-Ames-worthy (obscurer pop culture reference)—talking to her coworkers about the very human foibles and failings of the doctors with whom she has worked.

All the same, as a pastor, I find myself a spectator and bystander in hospitals all the time and I’m eternally amazed and impressed by the sheer volume of knowledge in the average doctor’s mind and their ability to sort through and apply it all. So when a doctor says, “I want to take a closer look at this,” or “I want to run some tests on that,” or, “Whoa that mole is changing shape and color before my very eyes and we need to freeze it, scrape it off, and graft some of your butt-skin in its place,” I’m down. You’re the doc. You’re the expert, the one who went to med school, did an internship and a residency. You’ve got the book-learning and the hands-on experience in this case. This is why we pay experts to be part of our lives—because we can’t all be experts on everything.

I would guess that, when it comes down to it, most people share my view on such matters. I don’t think I know anyone who would tell the doctor, “You may think we should remove or at least biopsy this mole, but I think it looks better and better the bigger it gets, so I’m going to disregard your expert opinion and just leave it be.” Sure, we might ask for a second opinion on major matters, but not because we think we know better than the doctor. If we’re thinking rationally, we’re not looking for a doctor who will just tell us what we want to hear; we’re looking to confirm what the first doctor told us.

And yet. . . I have a very different experience when I diagnose. No, I’m not practicing medicine without a license. (I’d throw up the first time I saw an infected wound.) I’m referring to my job as a minister, in which I am in a sense the expert hired by a group of people to guide them in spiritual/Scriptural matters. With another set of people, I don’t have a formal pastor/parishioner relationship, but am the main (or only) source for information and guidance on Holy Scripture and its application to their lives.

As such, I often have people ask me about this doctrine or that teaching or my assessment of a particular television preacher or popular author of religious books. I’m always happy to answer such questions, whether they are posed online, in a class setting, or one-on-one. And yet, I find that, in the majority of cases, if my answer doesn’t jibe with what they wanted to hear in the first place, such people disregard my counsel. They say, “Well, you think the mole is dangerous, probably malignant, needs to be removed. But I’m comfortable with this shape-shifting, hypercolor growth, so it’s going nowhere. I’m going to get a second opinion. And a third. And fourth, until I find someone—be it doctor, chiropractor, medicine man, shaman, or ‘holistic healer’ who agrees with what I want to hear. Or maybe I’ll just ask the mole itself.” Hi, I’m Buck Melanoma, Moley Russel’s Wart.

In such cases, I always wonder: why ask me to begin with? Were you just making conversation? Just asking about “spirituality?” I have no interest in nebulous conversations about a “spirituality” devoid of absolute truth claims. Now that you know, it’ll save us both some time. Did you decide while I was speaking that the TV preacher in question must be more trustworthy than me because he/she has an exponentially bigger audience? Well, this guy has an exponentially larger “patient-load” than your family doctor, but I’d still go with the latter. It just makes more sense.

I’m not suggesting that nine years of college and seminary somehow make me infallible and that my take on anything Scriptural should be followed as Gospel without question. I’m just suggesting that, if you’re gonna go ahead and get a second opinion, approach it with the same rationality that you would if it was your health on the line—don’t just search the web for someone who will tell you what you want to hear (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:3); rather, look to confirm (or not) my diagnosis from the Word of God alone, inquiring of someone who is trained, gifted, and experienced in rightly divide the Law and the Gospel and properly exegeting the text. And as with your dermatologist or family doctor, most cases don't even require the second opinion.

And if you find yourself defending a TV preacher or religious book author against your own pastor, I'd look long and hard into yourself, to make sure you don't have a case of “porno-preacheritis,

Because, while suspicious moles are nothing to mess around with, they don’t have a real agenda or a strategy to bring about your destruction. False teachers have both. And if you ask me, neither one (the iffy mole or the iffy teacher) is something you want to mess around with.

But then again, you don’t have to ask me.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

5 reader comments:

Erin said...

Excellent comparison. I'm glad I don't have to deal with that sort of frustration in my job, but I have to say you deal with it far more gracely than I would.

JB said...

Your moles are cute. They are barely bigger than freckles and blend right into your face. I don't even notice them. Jennifer Granholm looks like a witch, and her mountainesque mole only adds to her evil appearance. There is no comparison between your friendly mole triangle and her mug.

JB said...

As far as people asking your opinion and then completely disregarding it, this social worker/school counselor can identify with that big time.

Scott said...

Governor Granholm may look like a witch, but she looks like the kind of witch you'd want on your side when you're wearing the ruby slippers.

As for professional advice, I try to avoid asking for it, but if I get to where I have to, I pay attention.

Jamie said...

A few other professions may get this same disregard for expertise. In mine a client may ask how long it will take to implement a system. When I answer "Oh, at least 18 months". If their "second opinion" says "9 months", they take the easier answer. 13 months later and 4 contract changes each costing an additional $5 million dollars, they have their answer.

Problem is the arena of spiritual matters there are no "change orders" so that when you're wrong you can just buy your way back to the originally correct answer!