Beyond artificial words: The pastoral heart in an age of AI

ChatGPT may be efficient, but pastors can't give up on specificity and authenticity, writes Jeremy Wilhelmi.

Colleges are struggling with the prevalence of artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT. Imagine simply typing, “Give me a 3,000-word essay about the effects of climate change upon crocodiles in the Nile River,” and in seconds your paper is produced. Thanks, ChatGPT!

We live in a novel world where educators must defend academic integrity in new ways. However, ChatGPT is not an exclusive temptation for college students. Pastors also have this alluring apple hanging in front of us.

Several months ago, I was preparing my prayer and benediction for the University of the Ozarks’ December commencement ceremony. Each year, I struggle to write new words for this event. For 12 commencement ceremonies, I’ve prided myself on creating something unique for each graduation, reflecting that specific group of students. In the grand scheme of things, few people will remember the prayer or benediction from their commencement. Nevertheless, it’s something I try to honor. I am the first and last words of the ceremony — that’s significant to me as their chaplain. As I struggled to write my words last December, I suddenly wondered: “What would ChatGPT say?” Could it write a better benediction than me?

It lacked … a heart.

ChatGPT’s attempt seemed flawless at first. The words, perfectly crafted, covered all the things one should say in a commencement benediction. Yet something was missing. I didn’t feel anything after reading it. It lacked … a heart. The words were fine, but the artificially crafted statement felt … artificial. It could be said to anyone anywhere, but my closing words needed to be said to this graduating group of students.

I needed to confirm if my intuition was true, so I did a small experiment with two of my closest friends in ministry. I told them I had written two different benedictions and asked which they preferred, and more importantly, why. Sure enough, both chose the one I had written versus the ChatGPT offering. They felt it lacked a personal dimension as well. That helped me reevaluate my benediction.

As hard as it is sometimes to write yet another benediction, another sermon, another worship liturgy, another prayer, another church newsletter article, I still believe that it makes a difference. If there’s an opportunity to be authentic in our ministry, we need to embrace it and take the extra time it may require to produce what is needed. Sometimes that’s hard. It’s certainly easy to pull up lovely, crafted words from various resources. However, there are moments in ministry when what is needed most is not perfect grammar or sound theological prose but words from the heart.

If there’s an opportunity to be authentic in our ministry, we need to embrace it and take extra time it may require to produce what is needed.

Maybe ChatGPT can offer a new perspective or help to get our creative juices flowing. That seems to be permissible for a resource like this. But be warned, as my seminary internship pastor told me often, “The congregation can easily spot a fake. Be yourself and practice what you preach.”

Sure enough, as I looked upon my graduates and gave them a ‘good word’ to close their commencement, I locked eyes with many of them. I could see from them, and I believe they saw in me, that my blessing went beyond words from a page. They could feel the heart behind my words, knowing that it was about them specifically.

AI may be the future, and sure, it will help society in ways we don’t yet know. However, it can never replace the pastor’s heart!

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