James Ellis III is an ordained Baptist pastor and writer based in Holland, Michigan. Presently pursuing the Doctor of Ministry degree at Asbury Theological Seminary, he is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, and the University of Maryland. He and his wife love bowling together, even though they aren’t good at it.
What were you hoping to achieve with Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil?
From my vantage point, at times Christians play dodgeball with the truth. They avoid it at all costs for fear of reprisal or being misunderstood. I have known many pastors as well who have become world-class actors, pretending that everything is hunky-dory while they suffer in silence. You don’t have to yell in order to tell the truth, nor must you be bitter or seething with malice, but perpetually turning one’s frown upside-down in the name of unity isn’t healthy or godly. Before sharing what would be a sobering comment, Jesus often said, “I tell you the truth.” The truth is that the complexities of the pastoral vocation are uniquely challenging, so instead of safely dancing around the issue, I hope that this book will help give all Christians, but pastors especially, permission to speak the truth in love because therein lies freedom.
You spoke in the introduction about looking for a resource like this book while you were a young pastor. How do you think it would have helped you to have access to the types of stories in this book?
A book like this would have been a godsend for me while entering the pastoral vocation. I wasn’t raised around Christians. My childhood wasn’t peppered with either the blessings or shortcomings of church life. Attending Bible study and worship and otherwise being engaged in discipleship at my church paled in comparison to coming face-to-face with the inner workings of church life once I began serving vocationally. Who knew that sin is often tolerated and encouraged or rewarded behind-the-scenes? Surely not I. At least for me, I doubt that being exposed to sobering yet hopeful, constructive stories like those in this book would have discouraged my moving in the vocational direction that I felt called to move in, but the wisdom would have been invaluable. While enduring my own “dark night of the soul,” perhaps a few times over, which I share in the book, it would have been a joy to have tangible evidence that others had faced similar challenges and were still standing.
What surprised you the most as you read these essays for the first time?
Recently, actually on the day of her retirement from Wesley Theological Seminary, I was chatting with Dr. Youtha Hardman-Cromwell, a professor there, when she made a powerful statement regarding the nasty, pervasiveness of evil. “When we wink at evil we excuse it,” she said. Frankly, in first reading the essays for this collection I was bewildered and disappointed by the ways in which so many pastors have been wounded, but I was likewise absolutely comforted by how faithful God was to them before, during, and after their situations. This isn’t to imply that everything was peaches and roses simply because these women and men love God. We have all endured immensely unpleasant experiences, but how we have chosen to respond is beautiful. I see God there.
Do you think the “evils” inflicted by congregations have changed over time?
How the evils are inflicted, how pastors address such evils, and how society or communities see those evils may have changed, but fundamentally the evils themselves haven’t changed much, I don’t think. Ecclesiastes 1:9 comes to mind: “What has been is what will be and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Some congregations have unhealthy, unbiblical expectations about who a pastor should be and what a pastor should do. That has existed for a long time. And while congregations must accept some responsibility there, pastors are to blame as well. I don’t mean this to sound cliché, but people can only treat you how you allow them to treat you, so part of the task of pastors is both to teach and model for their congregation what a healthy, godly pastor can look like. While I am at it, to be fair, I must say that as much as congregations inflict evils on pastors, pastors most certainly inflict evils on their congregations as well.
What value do think Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil holds for laypeople in the church?
When laypeople get ahold of this book I hope they are alarmed as much as they are encouraged. I don’t intend to scare away those who have been pondering the call to the pastoral vocation, but for some these testimonies may represent a small part of God trying to lead them elsewhere than into a life shepherding two-legged sheep. It is always the better choice to follow God. What is read in this book will upset some, comfort others, and spark countless other emotions. By and large, I would be happy for a sense of righteous indignation to overcome those who read what some of the contributors have shared. Much of it is not only unfair, but represents an abuse of power and manipulation that the body of Christ should not sweep under the rug, but address head-on. Another thing I hope laypeople, in particular, take away is that the Church of Jesus Christ is weird. Like super weird. For better and for worse, we are an odd bunch of characters. And to a large degree, that is okay. We are battered and bruised, confused ragamuffins who need God’s grace and truth to carry us through this topsy-turvy thing called life. As I mention in some concluding thoughts at the end of the book, every contributors’ experience doesn’t reflect my personal theological wheelhouse. And that too is okay.