“I need to talk to you about what you said in your sermon yesterday.”  I guess I should have expected it. It was in the days after violence had erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As a pastor I’d spoken about the events that had taken place and while my criticisms were measured, they were also straight-forward.

I don’t think you can serve in ministry and escape criticism. We are in a very public profession and the people we serve in our congregations often have strong opinions about their church and their beliefs. It’s a different order of magnitude, however, when it comes to politics. We are as politically divided as a nation as any time since the Civil War and many congregations are on the front lines of those divides.  Congregations are one of the last remaining types of broadly inclusive public institutions that haven’t sorted themselves primarily by political ideology. In many ways that is commendable, but if you’re a minister and you’re in one of those “unsorted” churches you know the very real dilemma and the very real pain of having passionate people on both sides of an issue beating you up for not meeting their expectations.

 Here’s where that leaves those of us in congregational ministry. The Church may not be fully sorted, but the surrounding culture increasingly is, and we can’t pretend that one election or any election is going to change that.

So what do we do?  As a pastor I found myself increasingly unsatisfied with what felt like the most obvious routes available to me.  Failing to speak to important issues felt like selling my soul, but letting it rip and telling people what I really thought about this or that politician was almost certain to end relationships with the very people who might benefit the most from careful yet still prophetic examination of the political implications of scripture.  

With that in mind, I tried to create some ground rules for myself and the way that I approached political moments as a minister.  I grew to believe there were certain ways that I could be both prophetic and pastoral at the same time, but only if I kept the people in mind that I was called to serve and lead. Here’s what I came up with.

Be careful in the pulpit – Those of us charged with preaching have been given a significant privilege and responsibility. It goes without saying that we should take it seriously, even more so when what we say can be heard as divisive. One important question every preacher should ask his or her self is what you’re trying to accomplish. Preaching is monologue. If your goal is to inspire or encourage, then monologue works well in those ways. On the other hand, if your goal is to change someone’s mind, then monologue is an extremely limited tool. 

This is not to suggest that a preacher should avoid everything that steps on people’s toes (including political issues) but when the stakes are high, my level of thoughtfulness, effort, and prayer needed to increase exponentially. Had I done my research on the issue? Had I done my research on anyone I might critique? Could I seek wise counsel from those who might listen or read an early draft of your sermon so that I could know that I was communicating exactly what and how I was trying to communicate.

Engage Leadership Along the Way – In the last couple of years that I served as a pastor before taking on my current role with the Center for Healthy Churches, I had started a process of dialogue with individual leaders in our congregation around the question of healthy ways for our church to address issues.  The conversations almost always started off scaring them to death. My predecessor and I had largely worked to keep our congregation out of the partisan divides that were exploding around us, and the leaders I spoke with took a lot of comfort from that.  At first it felt to them, like I was abandoning that strategy. On the other hand, when I asked the question “don’t you think the Church ought to be a place where people of different political parties can worship and serve together,” I’d always get an emphatic yes. And then when I’d ask “don’t you think the Church might be able to model a different way for people to talk about hard topics” they’d keep nodding. They didn’t exactly know how, but they thought it was a good idea. I confessed that I didn’t exactly know either, but the divides were bad enough that it felt like we had to try.

In divisive moments, a critical shift occurs when people stop wanting to fight and start wanting peace.  The price of conflict becomes greater than the price of forging consensus. And having leaders who felt that way made any risks that we might take far more likely to succeed.

Focus on People and Their Stories – Part of what gave the leaders I spoke with the desire to find a way to create dialogue was a sense of loss. A wonderful couple that had been deeply involved in the life of our church had left a few months earlier citing the tension they felt in their peer group over political issues. This particular couple felt like they were at odds with most of the people in their Sunday School class and the pain of that convinced them to look at other churches.  Ironically, however, in the process of leaving they started to tell their stories.  They started talking about who they were and what had shaped them, and while it was true that were different than several people in their peer group, the power of their story continued to resonate even after they left.  Not long after that, we tried a wild experiment.  We got a small group of people together from both sides of the political aisle, several of whom were known as having strong and occasionally vocal convictions.  We told them we were going to talk about politics but in a different way. Over the course of several weeks, we asked everyone in the group to tell their story.  We asked them to talk about their convictions not in terms of politicians or issues but of the lessons that life had taught them, sometimes with blessed mentors and heroes, other times through pain and difficulty.  We also asked everyone in the group to set aside any temptation they might have to interpret someone else’s story for them, but instead to look for things in that story that resonated with them.  We didn’t solve the world’s problem in our weeks together, but most everyone gained deeper understanding and deeper relationship, and several made commitments to communicate differently. 

Less Facebook, More Coffee – So many of us are frustrated now over what we see happening around us.  A natural human tendency is to reach for some sense of agency amid such powerful emotions.  I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve started and deleted over the years that were born out of that sense of frustration.  Ironically, however, many of us are bypassing at least one thing open to us that stands a real chance to make a difference.  That one thing is dialogue. 

“I need to talk to you about what you said in your sermon yesterday.”  Every minister who’s ever read that message in an e-mail knows the acid in your stomach when it happens.  That church member and I set up a time to have a cup of coffee.  I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.  The only thing I was sure of, was that I wasn’t satisfied with either not talking about what mattered to me, or writing this church member off.  And so that day over coffee we talked.  He asked questions and I answered them, but I made sure to ask him what he thought as well.  And I didn’t just listen politely, I tried to listen deeply.  I was able to share the process I go through when I decide to address political issues, but also to ask if he had any suggestions as to what I might add to that process.  And then, suddenly, I realized that we weren’t having a tense conversation, we were having a rich, meaningful conversation.  It required a lot of effort, but most worthwhile undertakings do. We were talking about things upon which we disagreed but it wasn’t tense, it was constructive.  At the end, I gave him an open invitation that if he ever heard me say something that he felt like was getting close to, or crossing a line that I wanted him to call me and get coffee again.  And I think that he sensed that I genuinely wanted to hear from him. 

These are challenging times for ministers.  The political wars are raging and many of us preach and teach and lead and serve on what feels like the front lines.  I believe that the Church can offer an alternative, one that doesn’t forsake the prophetic for a false peace that changes nothing.  Instead, we need to do the hard, adaptive work of developing new skill sets as ministers and asking our leaders and our congregations to join us in that effort.  If we’ll try then just maybe with God’s help we can help bring about that critical shift that comes when people stop wanting to fight and start wanting peace.  

Matt Cook
Dr. Cook joins the Center as a full time Assistant Director after having
served local congregations for more than twenty-five years with nearly twenty years as Senior Pastor in churches in Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina.He is completed his undergraduate degree at Samford and his M.Div and Ph.D. (Church History) at Baylor University. He has been highly involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on a both the state and national level, having served on the Coordinating Councils of both Texas and Arkansas, as well as having served as the Moderator of CBF National. He was also the founding conveyor of Current, CBF’s young leaders network. He can be reached at mattc@chchurches.org.