“My happy conviction is that pastors ought not to be experts on everything.”
– John Piper

One of the most valuable sentences in a pastor’s arsenal is “I don’t know.” The pressure to know and be everything everybody expects us to know and be can be pride-puffing. I once worked at a bookstore where we were told never to say “I don’t know” to a customer. We must give them some answer, any answer, even if it was a guess or a likely wrong answer. Customers don’t want to hear “I don’t know” from service people, but even a wrong answer makes them feel helped. I confess the temptation to “satisfy the customer” has persisted through my ministry days, for a variety of reasons. I want people to feel helped. And I also don’t like looking like a rube.

Why is it important for pastors (and Christians in general!) to say “I don’t know” when they don’t know?

1. Because it’s the truth.

First and foremost, if you don’t know the answer to something, say you don’t know the answer. Making stuff up is not our calling. We all know some folks who seem pathologically unable to admit ignorance in any area. I don’t trust those people, and neither should you. Better a disappointing truth than a manipulative or misleading fabrication.

2. Because it impresses the right people.
I’ve done more than a few Q&A’s after preaching or on panels at speaking engagements before, and the desire to impress with wisdom and insight can be nerve-wracking. Once during a Q&A after a sermon at our church in Nashville, I got real honest when a question stumped me. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember realizing I had no information available to my brain to even begin formulating a halfway intelligent response. So I just said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know the answer to that.” Afterwards a young lady approached me to thank me for saying “I don’t know.” She said she wished more “religious people” could say it too. The reality is that acting like you know everything impresses shallow, naive, or otherwise easily impressed people. But saying “I don’t know” impresses people who value honesty and appreciate their pastor admitting weakness, ignorance, or just general fallibility.

3. Because it trains others not to be know-it-alls.
A few weeks ago a fellow came up to me after our service to ask about the Old Testament figure Ahimelech. I recognized the name but could not recall his biblical importance or the narrative where he was found. My inquirer expected that, as a pastor, I would know all about this figure and even the references where he would be found. I blanked. When I looked him up later, of course, I “remembered” who Ahimelech was, but in the moment, despite losing face with a relatively new Christian, I said, “Brother, I don’t remember. I just don’t know.” This led to a great talk about so-called “Bible trivia,” knowledge, learning, wisdom, and righteousness and the like. I think it was a teachable moment for both of us, but I walked away believing that when a leader is open about the gaps in his knowledge it trains others to be okay with not knowing everything. Of course, we want to know our Bibles as well as we possibly can, but we want to remember that knowledge puffs up and that the Scriptures and the doctrines they teach are meant to make us full-hearted with Christ not big-headed with minutiae.

4. Because it cultivates humility.
It is good for a pastor’s heart — no matter the reception — to make his “I don’t know”‘s public.

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18 thoughts on “The Importance of the Pastoral “I Don’t Know””

  1. Dan says:

    I found “I don’t know” also fits well with not only answering questions, but in shepherding believers and all that comes with that as well.

    After Christian School, Bible college, internships and now 7+ years as a youth pastor, I find myself relying on prayers like 2 Chronicles 20:12 all the more.

    “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

      Dan, yes!

  2. Staci Eastin says:

    Well said. I have a loved one who had a pastor make up a (wrong) answer to one of his questions. He has since used this incident to justify his own unbelief. I realize this pastor can’t be held responsible for my loved one’s sin, I can’t help but wonder how things could have been different if the pastor had just admitted he was stumped.

  3. Wesley says:

    Great post – thanks for writing this. I confess it is often my fear of man/fear of the opinion of others creeping in that keeps me from saying those simple words, ‘i don’t know.’ Man, even with my kids and especially with my wife, i want to give SOME answer b/c i don’t want to appear incompetent or un-wise. But you’re absolutely right: when i’m willing to humble myself (and yes, at times, look foolish) i have found the rewards far outweigh the risks.

  4. I have found one of the most dangerous things to do is pretend I know something when I do not. It catches up with you eventually and is worse than the original admission of ignorance. What is even worse is a refusal to be willing to admit a mistake even when you are caught in it. There becomes a point where people start to discount your opinion even when you are right, because of past experience.

  5. Dan says:

    Very helpful, Jared. Thanks!

  6. Jason says:

    I have many times been asked questions which I did not know the answer – my response is “I don’t know – but I am going to try to find an answer for you”. Further study, research or counsel from others is a positive way to find that answer

  7. Jason says:

    An important point for everyone, but especially pastors. I would add that we should not just say “I don’t know,” but, “I don’t know but I’ll find out.”

  8. Jared, I want to thank you for your blog. Your words constantly press me deeper and deeper into the gospel and for that I am grateful, brother.

  9. HER says:

    I was blessed during a very difficult time in my life with a pastor who was willing to say, “I don’t know”, but then struggle along with me in the midst of that horrible situation to figure out what the right God honoring thing to do was. I have often thought how different the situation might have been if he was willing to just give a trite answer and move on.

  10. MarieP says:

    I’m thankful to have pastors who do this! Excellent blog post!

  11. Chris says:

    So good. So right.

  12. Peter Krol says:

    There’s at least one more reason to say “I don’t know.” It helps us point people to Jesus. When a question comes that we can’t answer, saying “I don’t know” sets us right up for “but I know who does. He came from heaven and became a man so he could let us know…” What a great way to connect to the Gospel with either believers and unbelievers.

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