Pay No Attention To That Man Behind the Curtain!

In the book Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice, author Mary Clark Moschella hones in on some painful truths about pastors.

wizard-ofe-ozReligious leaders are often socialized to be better at speaking than at listening. It is understandable that preachers want to teach preach and lead with their voices and their carefully honed understanding of scripture and theology…..Being the resident religious expert gives you a kind of status and a feeling of control. On the downside of accepting this role, however, is that it may lead to what Yogi Berra called ‘talking too much’ (p. 141).

Listening requires a pastor to stop teaching:

Listening is difficult because it requires that we give up the role of expert and become a learner again (p 142).

And listening requires a pastor to give up control of the situation.

…listening also requires some floating, some willingness to tolerate the uncertainty of letting go and seeing what happens. When you really start to listen, people will know. They will start to speak more openly as soon as you communicate that you can stand to hear the truth (pp 142-143).

The meaning of letting go is illustrated in a powerful way by the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Near the end of the movie, there’s a brilliant piece of cinematography that lasts for about two minutes. Watch it for yourself.



The clip begins with the booming voice of the Wizard: “Why have you come back?” It’s an impressive display that evokes terror in Dorothy and her companions. (Moviegoers in 1939 were unaccustomed to special effects. Even color was a novelty. Can you imagine the impact this scene would have had on them?) But this display is the act of a circus performer, generated by the proverbial smoke and mirrors.

The Wizard commands them, “Go away and come back tomorrow!” He wants to get rid of them as soon as possible. He’s stalling for time, hiding the fact that he had no actual ability to keep the promises he had made to them earlier in the movie. But Dorothy and her companions are tenacious; they won’t allow themselves to be sent away.

Soon the Wizard loses control of the situation. He is unmasked by the actions of a curious dog. Dorothy and her companions finally encounter the real man behind the facade. The jig is up.

Disappointed and disillusioned, Dorothy exclaims, “You’re a very bad man!”

The Wizard replies, “Oh, no, my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

Ironically, through this episode, it is the Wizard who finds redemption. We sense in him a great sigh of relief. After many years of role-playing, he is finally free to be himself. He begins to experience grace, friendship, and love. And he discovers that he is not as impotent as he feared. He can offer Dorothy’s companions simple, ordinary but meaningful gifts of affirmation and recognition. And he is now in a position to give Dorothy what she needs: a ride back to Kansas. That discovery comes from the admission that the land of Oz doesn’t need his services; life in the community will go on just fine without him.

The scene of the Wizard’s unmasking deeply resonates with me. Two years ago, I went through a process of being unmasked before the members of my family and my church. The curtain was pulled back, my weaknesses were exposed, and I was forced to stop playing the role of wizard-pastor. The experience was painful and liberating. After some brief moments of embarrassment, I began to experience new dimensions of grace. (At some point in the future, I would be happy to share the details of that story on UBFriends. Doing so in this article would be a distraction.)

At this stage in my spiritual journey, I find it disturbing to encounter pastors who still need to play the role of  wizard. I feel truly sorry for them. Perhaps they imagine they can be more effective preachers of the gospel by projecting an aura of knowledge, strength, confidence and control.  And the prospect of being unmasked is terrifying. But I’m certain that if they came out from behind the curtain, the result would be a liberating experience of grace and love.

The Apostle Paul understood this. In fact, he saw self-unmasking as an essential part of his apostolic ministry. Paul never watched The Wizard of Oz, but he does make an insightful and creative use of a story from the Old Testament. In 2 Corinthians 3:13, Paul writes:

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.

In an oblique reference to Exodus 34:33-35, Paul recalls how Moses would enter the Tent of Meeting to stand in the presence of God. After those encounters, the face of Moses would radiate glory as he delivered God’s word to the people. After speaking to the people, Moses would cover his face with a veil to prevent them from seeing that the glory was fading away.

Why would Moses do such a thing? Perhaps he thought that if the Israelites saw the glory fade, his pastoral authority might be diminished. Perhaps he thought that the Israelites had grown accustomed to Oz-like displays of divine power, and to see his ordinariness might cause their faith to be shaken.

Paul doesn’t tell exactly why Moses covered himself up. But Paul says that “we” — meaning Paul and his apostolic companions — “are not like Moses” — meaning that they do not hide their ordinariness from anyone. Paul goes on to say in verses 16-18 that turning to Jesus and believing the gospel is akin to taking off a veil. It is putting off all pretense to reveal your failings, weakness, and cluelessness, so that the Holy Spirit may work to reveal the glory of Christ. Then, in Chapter 4, he continues to describe the implications of this unveiling in his apostolic ministry. It requires him to be absolutely honest, to renounce “secret and shameful ways”, to put aside deception, and to avoid distorting God’s word by making false claims and exaggerated promises of what  following him would bring people in this present life.

If pastors and church leaders came out from behind the curtain — if they put aside any false projection of authority, power, confidence and expertise — and if they stopped exaggerating about what they have experienced and stop making false promises about what others will experience if they choose to live as disciples of Christ — what do you think would happen? Would the faith of people be shaken? Or would everyone come to a deeper understanding and experience of the gospel?


  1. Thanks, Joe. A few years ago, Christy reached the exact same conclusion as your article based on the movie, in that some particular leaders act tough, domineering, and in control like the mighty Wizard of Oz, when their real true self is really something else.

  2. Very good questions that deserve some further discussion:

    “If pastors and church leaders came out from behind the curtain — if they put aside any false projection of authority, power, confidence and expertise – and if they stopped exaggerating about what they have experienced and stop making false promises about what others will experience if they choose to live as disciples of Christ – what do you think would happen? Would the faith of people be shaken? Or would everyone come to a deeper understanding and experience of the gospel?”

    I agree with your thoughts in this article, Joe. Let it go and see what happens!