The power – and problem – of saying ‘I don’t know…’

If you think that saying ‘I don’t know’ means you’re a failure (because you’re paid to know, you ought to know) then you will never learn anything.

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When I was ready to finish at school, I  was given some exams to sit.  Ditto, university.  With hundreds of others along the way.

Want to drive?  Pass a test.

Can you play the piano?  Prove it, by passing an exam.

Show that you can help an old lady across the road –  take the test, and get a badge.

And on it goes – I not only had to pass exams to get out of school, I had to pass a test to get into it in the first place.  I had to pass exams to get ordained.

Now, I don’t regret or resist that.  I’ve been on the other side of the assessment equation, and I do believe that many subjects are well tested by a good exam.  That’s not the point.

This is the point.

A system of tests leads you to the place where you think that if you’re asked a question, then you ought to know the answer.  And not knowing the answer is a mark of failure. Ignorance is shameful, and to be hidden away. Wouldn’t it be awful to be found out? Because we can all remember what it’s like when we didn’t know the answer. Humiliating, probably.

Those of us who are preachers are boxed firmly into this: people ask us questions, and we’re expected to know the answer.  It’s our version of the imposter syndrome – if someone asks us about an obscure verse in Haggai, we feel a fraud if we don’t know.

It’s our version of the imposter syndrome – if someone asks us about an obscure verse in Haggai, we feel a fraud if we don’t know.

But here’s the treasure – try saying ‘I don’t know’, and think what that unlocks.

  • ‘I don’t know – what do you think?’
  • ‘I don’t know – how exciting, because we can learn something!’
  • ‘I don’t know – what’s God going to do to solve this for us?’
  • ‘I don’t know – what do other churches do?’
  • ‘I don’t know – tell me.’

So here’s the trap – if you think that saying  ‘I don’t know’ means you’re a failure (because you’re paid to know, you ought to know)
then you will never learn anything.

Think about that.

If you always know the answer to the questions, you’ll never grow beyond the limits of your current knowledge.

That ought to scare us deeply.

So, at the risk of a bit of personal pride, try saying those three little words.

‘I don’t know.’

And feel the weight of being the perfect pastor slip from your shoulders.

Doesn’t that feel better?


This post was stimulated by reading A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger. You can buy it here

1 comments on “The power – and problem – of saying ‘I don’t know…’”

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