Except in very rare cases, there is always a bit of tension between a pastor and his/her congregation when it comes to preaching, especially prophetic preaching.
We all know a few congregations where a liberal pastor and liberal congregation seem to be perfectly matched. We also know a few conservative churches where the same is true. But we also know how few and far between such perfect matches are, and we suspect that even those pastors hear from an angry parishioner at the back door of the church every once in a while.
For most of us who preach, however, the context is quite different. We preach in congregations that some are calling “purple” churches: neither all “red” (conservative) or all “blue” (liberal). We preach to pews filled with Republicans and Democrats, with a sprinkling of Independents and Libertarians added in.
This inherent tension between pulpit and pew has escalated dramatically in some churches over the last few weeks as the Trump administration has begun to implement its agenda. Some congregations – and pastors – are already showing signs of being stretched to the breaking point.
The question many of us who are pastors find ourselves asking is, “How do I do this? How do I engage the issues the Spirit has laid on my heart and maintain my relationship with these people I love … even if I disagree with them sometimes?”
There is, of course, no “one size fits all” answer to these questions. Every pastor finds him/herself in a unique context and will have to balance many factors in play in that particular congregation.
There are, however, some things I can suggest that may help you sustain yourself during this particular season and maintain your relationship with your congregation over time.
First – and most importantly – attend to your prayer life. Make sure you are spiritually grounded as you take on the taxing work of speaking the truth in love. Remember, in the heat of the Reformation, Martin Luther said, “I have so much to do, that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer.” Part of my current spiritual discipline is to start my morning with the daily meditation sent out by the Franciscan mystic Fr. Richard Rohr His insights always help me frame my day faithfully.
Second, find colleagues with whom you can wrestle honestly about how you all are going to minister with your congregation in these days. I belong to a weekly lectio divina group who meditate together on an upcoming gospel passage in the lectionary. Having a group where I can listen deeply to scripture, sit in silence with God, and share insights into the passage with others gives me a solid grounding for the work ahead.
Third, focus on issues, not on people. Rather than calling out the president by name or castigating his administration’s actions, focus on the deep traditions in our faith that speak to the issues at hand. For example, remind people of the repeated admonition in both Jewish and Christian traditions to care for the alien and the sojourner rather than attacking the president’s proposal to build a wall. As one colleague recently suggested to me, “Let Jesus do your dirty work.”
Fourth, remember that the work of developing prophetic faith in people is a long-term process: a marathon, not a 100-yard dash. Speak your prophetic word into a deeper frame in which you hope to mold your congregation into a more faithful community of followers of Jesus over the long haul. As David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic pointed out in a recent article, “The outrage may get you started, but only hope keeps you going.”
I often use the metaphor of stretching a rubber band to describe the how best to move a congregation to new understanding. Whatever the issue, I always stretch that rubber band in the direction I understand God is drawing us. But I am always aware that I can stretch that rubber band so tautly that it will break, severing the relationship between the congregation and my leadership. Consider how much tension you want that rubber band to be under so that your congregation will keep moving forward.
Finally, remember that we are a people of hope and belong to a God who is always leading us toward greater justice and truth, toward true shalom. Meditate on Dr. King’s assurance that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Know that God will bring us all into the Beloved Community over time.
Some of my suggestions may speak to you; others may not. Feel free to incorporate the ones you find helpful for your own context. Develop additional practices that will feed you over the long term. And know that there is a whole community of preachers out there who are praying for one another … including you.