April 2010

The Prophetic Pastor

April 20 2010 by Bill Wilson

One of the most precarious tasks a preacher faces is that of being a prophet. The role of Prophet is one that many ministers feel a deep ambivalence toward. All preachers know that relevant preaching must address the great issues of the day and offer a word from the Living Word. Biblical speaking, prophetic preaching is accurately assessing the current human condition, and offering insights into God’s response to the world we find ourselves in. Since we often assume that prophetic activity is closely tied to judgment, we tend to either become very nervous about preaching prophetically, or we assume unlimited freedom to aggressively address the shortcomings we see in others.

One the one hand, the idea of speaking out against excess or sin or social dysfunction is thoroughly intimidating. “Who am I to tell people how to live, think, play? I know what happened to the Biblical prophets, do I really want to pronounce judgment on others for their actions? If I do that, how will they respond to my inevitable personal and professional shortcomings? Didn’t Jesus teach us not to judge others but to leave that task to Him?”

Such thinking often leads to preaching that studiously avoids confrontation or any semblance of prophetic declaration. It also means we seldom are provocative in the pulpit, that we stick to safe, predictable topics and offer bland, irrelevant sermons. People wonder if we know the first thing about the real world they live in.

The other extreme is no more helpful. Some preachers treat their pulpit time as license to unleash their fury about all that is wrong with culture, the congregation, the local school board, politicians, or the latest denominational misstep. Members of the congregation endure such sermons with resignation, and with a suspicion that the preacher is working out his or her own agenda under the guise of biblical imperative. Eventually, a steady diet of judgmental sermons parading as prophetic utterances produces listeners who develop calluses on their ears that enable them to ignore the diatribes.

While being prophetic is part of a healthy sermon diet, it cannot be the only item on the menu. Pastors who look to scripture for their pulpit roles will find an invitation to not only be a Prophet, but to also be a Teacher, Leader, Comforter, Interpreter, Encourager, Parent, and so forth. Most pastors would be well served to analyze their annual preaching schedule and classify the essential themes and tones of their sermons. Balance among these roles is what is called for if one is to have a significant impact and tenure as a pastor.

I always felt that I had to earn the right to be prophetic by being pastoral and supportive in times of need. People can abide a discomforting sermon if they know their pastor loves them and genuinely cares about their pain and their struggles. Simply making pronouncements on God’s behalf without bothering to know and love the people is a quick path toward resistance and discord.

One story my father told me about Dr. Claude Bowen, the legendary pastor of FBC Greensboro for many years, illustrates what goes into earning the right to be heard. Every Sunday, in the minutes leading up to worship, Dr. Bowen would slip into the organ chamber at the front of the sanctuary that housed the pipes of the organ. He would sit in a small chair in that dark room, hidden high above the sanctuary, where he could see everyone coming into the room. As the congregation gathered for worship, Dr. Bowen would prayerfully look out over each member and family and remind himself of the pain, the joys, the hidden and the obvious issues they brought with them into that sanctuary. That was his preparation for the preaching event. No rehearsing of rhetorical tricks or straining for the perfect word or illustration back in the study. Reminding himself of those he would be preaching to enabled him to stay grounded and deliver a prophetic word appropriately.

When Jesus called for laborers for the harvest in Matthew 9, he spoke from a broken heart filled with compassion for the crowds of people who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” That call still rings true. We need prophetic preachers who courageously stand for God while compassionately standing with the people. It is precarious place, but it is holy ground, indeed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)
4/20/2010 8:38:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 0 comments

What Do You Lie to Yourself About?

April 5 2010 by Bill Wilson

My seminary-student son recently told me about a web site called soulpancake.com. Specifically, he mentioned a thread of responses to the question “What do you lie to yourself about?” 

When I went to the site and began to read the anonymous responses, I was struck by the honesty and the poignancy of what I found. Here’s a sampling of answers to “what do you lie to yourself about?”
  • That I know where I’m going in life.
  • That things will be better if I make more money.
  • The biggest lie I tell myself is that I do not judge ... except I’m possibly the most judgmental person I know.
  • That I’m happy.
  • I lie to myself that I don’t feel sorrow, separation.
  • I tell myself that I’m comfortable with my body, and that the media and it’s perception of “beauty” doesn’t affect me.
You get the drift. Reading these comments is sobering and thought-provoking. I began to wonder how ministers would respond to such a question. All too often, I’m afraid they would say “I don’t lie to myself.” Such honesty and transparency is rarely encouraged in the clergy world, and that is a huge problem.

One common clergy struggle is the ability to reflect on our lives critically. We are trained to see the faults, sins and foibles of those around us, and we are generally up to that task. The prophetic role is one that many clergy relish and practice regularly. However, when it comes to honest self-reflection and self-assessment, most of us suffer from the delusion of grandeur that our position inadvertently encourages. We begin to think that because we are invited to speak for God, we must share some of the same attributes as God. Namely, we must appear to be sinless. Of course, we would never claim such a thing, but there are times our people must wonder if we don’t secretly harbor such a thought.

I regularly meet clergy who are clueless about how they come across to others, how their prejudices are obvious to their congregants, or how their unresolved personal issues are driving their behaviors. They lie to themselves rather than face up to the truth about who they are as a sinner in need of God’s grace.

We ministers must regularly fight the multiple expectations that we will not sin or struggle or doubt or wonder. We must constantly invite the Holy Spirit to continue to bring salvation to the parts of us that have not yet heard the gospel. We must admit our limited vision and invite trusted friends to coach us along our way. In short, we must daily humble ourselves, confess, repent, and start anew.

Of course, there are those clergy who suffer from the other extreme: unrelenting guilt. Such a hell-on-earth is as much a lie as is our denial of our flaws. To fixate on all the ways we are a failure is to believe the lie that we are on our own, that the grace we urge others to find in Jesus Christ is not available to us.

If we are to stop the lying, perhaps it is time to reclaim these two words: humility and grace. We need them both, in full measure, if we are to be the men and women God has called us to be.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)
4/5/2010 7:30:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 0 comments