EEL5 Pastor as Prophet (or not)1
For as long as I can remember I have refrained from preaching on political and/or social issues. Oh, I’ve certainly preached on the wide inclusiveness of Christ’s invitation to Christian community and have written publicly on universal salvation. But I have never from the pulpit proclaimed the acceptability of homosexuality, the benefits of socialism, the role of human enterprise in global climate change, etc. The excuse/reason I have given is that I have political opinions I hadn’t been inspired to make any proclamations regarding more “secular” issues.
There is in this a mixture of truth and, for lack of a better phrase, fear-based fiction. Let’s do the latter first. I curb(ed) my tongue in this regard because I believe(d) that proclaiming, especially from the pulpit, would place a barrier, a strain, a hindrance to pastoral care. I still think this is true. Though I do not think it is justification for complete silence on these subjects. I also think that preaching is rarely the medium for this. While there is an advantage to having one’s opinions received with the level of trust and affection that is given to a sermon, I believe this advantage is unfair. A far better medium is the church newsletter or other mailing which puts both parties on a more equal footing but also has the advantage of the written word over the spoken one, i.e. the opportunity to more carefully consider and reconsider what is presented.
There is a prophetic function for the local pastor. That is, there are times and places in which the pastor is called to name and confront the error, neglect or harm (read “sin) of parishioners. To declare, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, specific deeds that are contrary to the will of God, that there are consequences to continuing in this way and calling them to a different behavior. There is an understanding of this calling into question, possible confrontation, condemnation of behavior that is also pastoral. That is, there is something very caring to pressing someone away from behavior that is ultimately hurtful to themselves even if at the time it is discomforting to do so.
So the line between what is prophetic and what is pastoral is not clear and bright. In fact, for authentic and whole ministry to take place both should be present and practiced.
The difficulty for me lies in having a personality and personal history which ill-prepares me for prophetic ministry. I am more comfortable with the interpersonal intimacy of pastoral care. It may be the case that those less comfortable with such intimacy are more comfortable and more inclined to be prophetic.
1Rant alert: I have found the use of the term “prophetic” and the phrase “speaking truth to power” by individuals or representative bodies to describe actions that contained little or no risk as being a trivialization of the work of the Hebrew prophets. I am most familiar with this occurring within my own denomination of the Unite Church of Christ. Let me suggest a couple of examples. In 2005 at the 25th General Synod a resolution titled Equal Marriage Rights for All (http://www.ucc.org/assets/pdfs/2005-EQUAL-MARRIAGE-RIGHTS-FOR-ALL.pdf) was passed with a greater than 75% majority. This was of little/no risk for representatives hundreds, thousands of miles away from their home churches with no compunction to report the vote and armed with the caveat that actions of the GS are not binding on local congregations, etc. etc. Far, far less risky than those lay persons and clergy who have stood in the middle of their congregations and advocated for the acceptance of same-gender love/attraction risking the loss of job, friends, church, etc. And doing so not because they had strong feelings that it was the right thing to do in terms of morality or politics but because they were compelled to do so as persons of faith in Christ, in spite of the cost. That is being prophetic.
I’d add one more piece. Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity UCC in Chicago was often praised for being prophetic. But the particular reason was most often for his public condemnation of U.S. foreign and domestic policies, and especially his sermon of April 13, 2003. But this sort of political rhetoric was well-received, even applauded at Trinity UCC, Rev. Wright’s church. No, it has been Rev. Wright’s long-time and consistent inclusion of GLBT persons into the membership and ministry of his congregation that has probably brought Rev. Wright the strongest criticism, especially as he serves a community that has been slow to accept homosexuality. Being prophetic is never applauded and given headlines. Being prophetic gets you phone calls on Monday morning and visits from discomforted parishioners. That is being prophetic.