Surety for a stranger: Are you sure?

In one way or another, many of us will be asked to vouch for someone at some point in our lives. In my case, it’s been book blurbs/endorsements, serving as a reference on a professional resume and recommending various ministry resources to others. I’ve not always done these services as diligently as I should have, but I’ve become more sensitive to best practices with … well, practice. 

Here are some ways this well-intentioned assistance of an acquaintance can go wrong. I’ve been asked to recommend, through social media, books that I’ve not seen by those I’ve only met. On occasion I have been asked to serve as a reference for someone I barely know, or a pastoral reference for someone whose ministry or cause I have no way of knowing at all. More than once I’ve been asked to promote a movie or event about which I have nearly no information. The assumption is that I’ll be generous to assume the best about a friend, or even about someone who is not yet a friend. It’s tempting to do that. 

What’s made me more careful about these requests is that I’ve been on the receiving end of this well-intentioned folly. In employee or pastor searches I’ve found that sometimes a referring friend barely knows the referred, but means him well. I’ve found book endorsements puzzling, only to learn that the endorsement was not based on having read the book but on personal affection for the author. When I’m disappointed at the details of a particular ministry I have found on occasion that the person who passed along the referral considered any detailed examination over the top, picky or impolite. 

We’re too casual about this, brothers and sisters; I have been and others have been. Proverbs 6, 11 and 17 speak of financial wisdom as it relates to being the guarantor or “surety” for a loan, particularly for that of a stranger. Our reputations, the integrity of our ministries, are at least as important as money. I think we loan them out foolishly if we don’t know well the thing or person we’re endorsing. In the words of Proverbs 11:15, “He who is surety [“puts up security,” in the CSB] for a stranger will suffer.” Serving a pastor search committee a few years back, we avoided asking some we respected for recommendations because they had been too casual in the past. Those men, several I know well and love, “suffered” in terms of their reputation. There is a better way. 

Know your petitioner—If I don’t know a product or ministry, or if I’ve lost touch with a ministry friend, I’ll spend time catching up with him before agreeing to be a reference. If I don’t have time to read a book or watch a movie, I won’t recommend it. If it is not good, I will likewise decline. Understand that someone is asking you to loan him your reputation, or maybe the reputation of your ministry. It’s not too much to ask for more information. 

Ask pointed questions—As a potential reference, ask the questions you’d ask if you were looking for a pastor or a particular resource. Be convinced yourself before you suggest that someone else take your word for it. On the other end of the process, ask the reference pointed questions. I’ve weeded out pastoral recommendations by simply asking, “Have you heard him preach?” or “What ministries is his wife drawn to?” A reference who has neither heard him preach nor spent time with him personally doesn’t know him well enough to help you. You can ask similar questions about ministries or resources: “Does this ministry have a confession of faith?” or “How does this resource approach biblical authority?” and so on. 

Respect the ministries involved—Whether it is your own ministry that needs assistance or if it is the ministry of another person asking for your help, be serious about the search process. Don’t recommend something you don’t use, or wouldn’t use in your own ministry—or something you don’t know well enough to speak knowledgeably about. Don’t recommend a pastor because “this little church might be a good try out for him” or a place for him to rehabilitate. Recommend someone you’d love to have for your own pastor. There should be cases where you decline to recommend a person or resource because of what you know. If it’s your own ministry you’re trying to help, seek God’s best rather than settling for someone who’s willing to come. 

References and recommendations are essential to our ministries. We depend on the help of those who know people we don’t and who have broader experience than our own. Perhaps part of the answer is to say “yes” to fewer requests to endorse or recommend, saving that influence for those things about which we can speak most wholeheartedly. The people and things to which we lend our names can strengthen or diminish our reputations and that of our Lord. We should not lend them casually or to strangers.  

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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