It came up again this week in light of the horrendous shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH.
Some preachers are concerned their fellow preachers aren’t doing their jobs. They come to this conclusion if preachers:
didn’t preach on the shootings at all
didn’t preach a “prophetic” sermon against violence, gun violence, or hatred
or didn’t preach a “sideways” sermon against violence, gun violence, or hatred that was more likely to be heard than a “prophetic” sermon
But preaching against violence (or on any current issue) isn’t the only reason preachers pass judgement on each other.
Preachers accuse their fellow preachers of not doing their jobs when:
they preach from a manuscript because the Holy Spirit can’t flow from a static text
they preach without a manuscript because they don’t realize how many extraneous words, hmm’s, and uhh’s distract from the message
they preach short homilies instead of a “sermon” on Sunday
they preach too long
they don’t use a projector system to show images
they do use a projector system to show images
In other words, preachers say their fellow preachers are not doing their jobs when “they” don’t preach like “I” do.
Do you see the problem here?
We’re at risk of creating another class of “us” and “them.” That is, “we” who preach the “right” way, and those “others” who don’t.
While this is not an entirely new problem, I hear of it more and more often from the preachers I serve.
I wonder whether we’re inadvertently releasing some of our angst and grief on each other as we absorb the chaos of tragedy after tragedy—and feel preaching is one of the few things we can control.
If that’s the case, if our colleagues aren’t preaching the same way, then…?
It’s ironic, because many of us are preaching with conviction and integrity about the terrible divisiveness in our country.
We’re preaching unity instead of division.
We’re preaching there is only “us,” not “us” and “them.”
We’re preaching respect for the dignity of every human being.
We’re preaching we are the body of Christ, called to be faithful witnesses to the world, not perfect ones.
We’re preaching that we are called to be One, without judgement.
We’re preaching these Christian ideals to our listeners, while sometimes we act the opposite way toward our colleagues.
But that just demonstrates again that we are only human, still very much in need of God’s grace, like everyone else.
Not only are we very much in need of God’s grace, we are also very much in need of each other.
Now especially is not time to drive away the only people in the world who know how hard it is to preach. Week after week. Making ourselves vulnerable. Sometimes making people angry. Striking out. Being put on a pedestal. Hearing disappointment in parishioners’ voices. Not living up to ideals. Worrying about letting God down. Wondering whether our preaching is good enough. Trying to get better at a craft whose learning curve has no end. Getting it wrong—trying again.
How do we build a community of preachers who can count on one another’s support rather than a lion’s den of judgement? Pray over these three questions.
1. What do I believe is at stake?
When we wonder what our colleagues are doing, we’re likely worried about something.
We’re concerned an outcome we fear might come to pass. What is it?
For example, if you believe a “prophetic” sermon is the “right” way to preach in response to an event, you may be afraid if your colleagues don’t also preach a prophetic sermon, something you fear will be the outcome. Somehow, the floor will drop out from under us.
What might that fear be?
That the same event will keep happening?
That we won’t have done our part to prevent it?
That we won’t have proclaimed the dignity of another?
That we’ll disappoint someone (God, parishioners, parents, mentors, professors, friends, ourselves…)?
That we won’t have lived up to a standard?
When we think the floor will drop out from under us if we don’t do “X,” it’s likely what we fear is not hole in the floor, but the beast we believe lurks beneath it.
But ask yourself this: Is the beast really there?
2. What do I know about The context?
We all share the same goal, right?
To preach the Gospel as effectively and faithfully as we can.
To do so, there are many decisions we make with every sermon: we consider the occasion; the message and its word choices, illustrations, tone, length, and style; whether to use a manuscript, notes, or memorize it, and whether to preach from the pulpit or the floor.
Those decisions are only made wisely in light of the congregation who will hear it, including their biblical literacy, recent history of successes or trauma, their general morale, political leanings, financial state, traditions, and much more.
It takes several years of listening deeply and being attentive to parishioners to gain their trust and be able to discern accurately (most of the time) the sermons they can and need to hear, and how they can best be presented.
How long did it take until you knew your current congregation that well?
Considering your colleagues then, how much time and effort have you spent listening deeply to, studying about, and being attentive to their congregations?
Probably not a lot.
Moreover, how much do you know about your colleagues’ personal contexts? Their energy level, health, and home life; disagreements with the congregation or denomination; whether something hits too close to home to preach about at the moment; and how much trust between them and their parishioners is available to expend?
Again, probably not a lot.
Rather than question our colleagues, perhaps we could trust they know more about their contexts than we do.
We could give them the benefit of our doubts to have done their close listening, that they know their people, the state of their own spirits, minds, and bodies, and have listened to the Spirit.
We could trust in God who called them to that particular ministry, because right now they are the best ones to make the wisest, most informed decisions about what, when, and how to preach.
3) How can I be supportive?
After the first two questions, if you still suspect a colleague isn’t preaching as you believe they ought, flip the equation. Ask them to coffee—to become their student.
Pray for humility to learn from them. Ask them how they are? What’s their parish context? How do they make their preaching decisions? Since they arrived at different conclusions about what and how to preach than you did, what can they teach you?
It extends tremendous support when we demonstrate we want to learn from our colleagues, so ask them questions with genuine curiosity to learn and grow.
And finally, we can also be supportive of our colleagues by posting our sermons online—and asking them to listen and offer their feedback.
With humility, we just might learn something from them.
Need A Supportive Space?
The Collective was created with the goal of establishing a community of supportive colleagues. Together, we discuss the week’s texts and events, seek and offer feedback, and pray for each other as we step into the pulpit each week.
If you’re looking for a place of support rather than judgment in this preaching gig, we’d love to have you.