No winners

By Bill Wilson

One of the most painful parts of our political process is the heated rhetoric of the campaign season. Most of us are so disgusted by the vitriol of political ads that, by election day, we are willing to vote for Daffy Duck if we can just have no more political ads!

Someone has decided that the way to win a political election is to smear your opponent, rather than promote your agenda. Every election season, I am stunned to watch Bible-believing, committed Christian candidates uncouple their campaign from biblical truths and commands and violate numerous principles of ethical behavior. Engaging in half-truths, distortion and deceit, they turn political campaigns into juvenile contests of name calling and borderline slander. I’m sure there are numerous statistical studies that confirm the wisdom of this tactic. However, as my dad reminded me often, just because something is true, doesn’t make it right.

The waning of “social capital,” and the rise of incivility in our culture is a primary concern for any thinking American. My deeper concern today, however, is not politics; it is life in the local congregation. Unfortunately, clergy and laity alike are proving better at conforming to the ways of this world than transforming it. Time and again I hear fellow Christians engage in two practices that are dark, evil and sure to bring chaos to a community of faith.

The first is the temptation to demonize our opponents. When others disagree with us, one of our first reactions is to discount and invalidate their opinion or idea. One way we do that is to create a caricature of that person or group that is exaggerated and negative. We see them, not as needy fellow believers, but as a dark, sinister opponent. We begin to associate that person or group with evil, assume they are seeking our harm and are opposed to God and his spirit. Our caricature of them supersedes who they really are, and when we look at them, we see an evil presence. If we allow this demonizing to continue unabated, we will eventually excuse all sorts of inappropriate behavior toward them. After all, they represent the Prince of Darkness, and we must be firm and forthright against such a foe!

Sadly, in demonizing an opponent, we lose the ability to look beyond our differences and see what is really happening. Often, we both want the same thing, but are going at it in very different ways. Demonizing allows us to rationalize our position without ever taking seriously the possibility that we may not have as firm a grip on truth as we hope. We lose the chance to learn from someone who has a different opinion than ours. To resist the temptation to demonize an opponent requires spiritual and mental health, depth and courage. For the finest example in history, read the Gospels and watch how Jesus deals with those who oppose him.

The second great temptation that snares many of us is the lure of assigning motives to those we disagree with. This is that wonderful game we play where we make up what a person is thinking and create scripts and scenarios that portray them in a negative light, with us as the victim or hero. In assigning motives, we usually assign the most insidious and evil intent to our opponent, while naively assuming that our motives are pure and beyond reproach.

Unfortunately, that is never the case. We are all a mixed bag of motives, and our opponents are as well. When we choose to assign motives rather than engage our opponents in thoughtful and open-ended conversation, we lose the chance to gain insights that elude us otherwise. Rather than assigning them a nefarious motive, a much more mature and Christian approach is to ask, listen and seek to understand what is at the heart of their concern or conviction. Again, such a Christ-like way of relating to others is not easy or popular.

To choose the narrow path of Christ-like behavior in relationships is to avoid the broad path temptations that plague our social culture and that have infiltrated our congregations. It is to seek to transform the way we treat one another, rather than to be conformed to the way our world encourages us to act. When we choose to be civil and mature, we become salt and light to a generation that is rapidly losing the ability to engage in helpful conversations about things that matter most.


Things Jesus never said

By Bill Wilson

There are some things you will just never hear. Ever seen those lists?

“Next on ‘Jerry Springer’: Two happily married couples with their normal children.”  Sorry, that’s just not going to happen.

Or maybe you’ve seen the list of comments a pastor is likely never to hear:

“Pastor, I hope you’ll do that 10-week stewardship sermon series again this year!”

“Since we’re all here early for Sunday school, let’s go ahead and start.”

“I just love singing hymns we’ve never sung before.”

“I think the temperature in the sanctuary was just right for everyone today.”

“Pastor, would you consider letting me be the permanent teacher for the middle-school class?”

“Hey, it’s my turn to sit on the front pew!”

While there are some things you will not be hearing any time soon, the Bible is filled with familiar sayings and ideas that we hear quite often. In fact, one of our problems is becoming so familiar with biblical texts that we no longer hear them. That familiarity allows us to repeat words that are life changing, while not allowing them to change us. Commands like “Pray without ceasing,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” have been handled so often we have rubbed them smooth and they have lost their bite and become tepid.

Another issue with our Bible reading and understanding is our tendency to inject into the Scripture tweaks or modifications of its wisdom that are actually contrary to its teaching. I compiled a list of “Things Jesus never said.” See if it rings true for you. Better yet, write your own.

Jesus never said that the end justifies the means. To see how some of us go about doing church, you would be hard pressed not to believe this. The tendency for congregational leaders to try just about anything to get people in the pews or money in the plate is toxic. The effect is either to water down the scandal of the gospel in order to make it more palatable to the public or to use unethical or dubious methods to ensure our success. What Jesus did do (John 6) was to present a demanding call to discipleship and not back off, even when it proved unpopular.

Jesus never said that the first would be first, the last would be last, so look out for No. 1. 21st-century Christianity seems to have lost its way with regard to our place in the world. To hear some, the church’s appropriate role is at the head of every line in culture. We want acclaim, political power, recognition, and status. The same goes for our parishioners and clergy. We easily overlook those in need and on the fringes of our society. Our practices belie an insatiable appetite for the limelight that seems incongruent with the one to “came to serve, not to be served.”

Jesus never said we are to live by the rule of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. In fact, that ancient code of retribution and retaliation was overtly overturned when he offered a radical alternative in Matthew 5:39-42. Our calling is to be unreasonably gracious and generous. Watching us nurture our grudges, wounds and prejudices while allowing them to cripple our witness must be heartbreaking to him.

Jesus never said that when we come and follow him, we will find success, fame and fortune. In fact, the biblical and historical witness is directly contrary to that silly folk wisdom. The cross most people bear in order to be faithful is real and significant. Some of God’s most faithful servants seem to have suffered the most. The benefit of biblical faith is most often internal, not external. Our most meaningful rewards cannot be deposited, driven, or worn, for they are eternal not temporal.

You get the idea. We are all guilty of distorting the gospel to make it fit our preconceptions and personal convictions. A needed antidote to this illness is a hearty dose of biblical truth.

Try this: Read the Bible regularly without anyone telling you what it says and means. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide you, and see what emerges. If you need a place to start, try Matthew 5-7, the finest and most famous sermon ever preached. Warning: this is dangerous and will change your life.

The 20-year test

(Editor’s note: Although Bill Wilson’s commentary pieces — written as a column for the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald — have appeared frequently on Associated Baptist Press over the last year, with this edition ABP will begin the regular biweekly publication of his column, called “Vital Signs.”)

By Bill Wilson

There is a school of thought running rampant in congregations these days that sounds something like this: “This is the worst Pastor/Group/Recession/President/Situation/Era/Event that we have ever known! We must get rid of him/her/it/them immediately or we are doomed.”

As a result, we hear regularly about congregations and clergy that make hasty and ill-informed decisions that actually extend and expand their problems rather than resolve them.

Let’s think for a moment about what we are saying in the midst of difficult days. Something bad happens at our church or with a minister, and we react by saying: “This is awful.” Right so far.

We then go on to say: “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us.” Could be, though we tend to under- and over-remember such things.

We close by saying: “We are doomed.” Whoa. We just went from being God’s people walking by faith to being fatalists. This is a huge leap into despair.

Let me suggest another way of thinking about difficult days that is at once more biblical, more hopeful and more likely to be true.

In the city where I last pastored, the local high-school football team had a remarkable record of success. The Dalton High School Catamounts, should they have a winning record this season, will have amassed a winning record for 50 (!) consecutive seasons. That is nearly unprecedented in high-school athletics. Over many of those 50 years, Bill Chappell served as the head coach. Now retired, Bill is a humble, intense and thoughtful man. He is a person of strong character and integrity, and is beloved by nearly everyone in the state of Georgia.

One day, at an obligatory preseason dinner appearance before local fans who are way too invested in high-school football, Bill was asked, “What kind of team are we going to have this year, Coach?” He thought for a moment and replied: “Ask me in 20 years.” Thinking that the coach had not understood the question, the fan asked his question again, with more passion. Bill calmly responded with the same words: “Ask me in 20 years.” Exasperated, the fan raised his voice and asked more ardently, “Coach, what is the team going to be like this year?!”

Bill responded: “Look, I know what you are asking, but what you are asking is the wrong question. We’ll have a fair football team, but we won’t really know what kind of team this is until 20 years have passed. You see, we are about building character in young men, and we won’t know how that turns out for at least 20 years.”

I’ve adopted The 20-Year Rule for working with churches and clergy. I urge you to do the same. When someone looks at a painful situation in your congregation and asks you if you think that all is lost, just respond by saying, “I don’t know, ask me in 20 years.”

It’s biblical. Think about all the characters who, had you asked at the moment, would have failed the success test. Moses as he runs from Egypt with blood on his hands into the back side of Midian. David as he sends Uriah into the heat of battle. Peter as he denies knowing who Jesus is. Saul as he executes innocent believers. Think about all the churches across the ages who were brought to their knees by scandal or sin or foolishness and who seemed on the verge of closing.

The 20-Year Rule says that biblical faith and faithfulness is more of an endurance contest than a quick victory. Some of God’s finest servants have had to navigate personal failure, deep heartache and devastating loss. Some of the most remarkable congregations I know have endured trials and tribulations that seemed overwhelming in the moment. By remaining faithful over time, what they have found on the other side of despair is hope.

The Good News is that God’s people can recover from mistakes and that life can regenerate even when it seems all is lost. That is the gospel story that we want to personify to a world wondering if, indeed, this is a time to give up on the future.

A good word about preaching

By Bill Wilson

Healthy churches hear good preaching.

Few would disagree with such a statement. However, the definition of good preaching is about as easy to agree upon as is good taste in fashion. Our definition of good preaching usually reflects our point of view and the preaching to which we are accustomed. Unfortunately, for many clergy and laity alike, the preaching event has become associated with personal criticism, unfair expectations and disappointment.

These days, the pressure to deliver a powerful sermon is higher than ever for clergy. Everyone has access to a variety of media outlets that feature superb preaching and create high expectations for your local pastor. Pastors know this and recognize that our skill sets may not measure up to those of the high-profile pastors by which many laity measure us.

For most clergy, preaching is at once the most challenging, humbling, rewarding and frustrating endeavor in which we engage. Most pastors I know treasure their time in the pulpit and regard it as an awesome privilege and responsibility that demands ardent study, divine inspiration and thoughtful preparation. Most lay persons I encounter come to worship hoping to hear a fresh and encouraging word from the Word. When we can put our agendas and egos aside and invite the Spirit into the equation to both inspire the one who delivers the Word and the one who desires to hear the Word, the result is usually an event that honors God.

I hope you will find ways to affirm your pastor and his or her sermons. Know that their sermons are labors of love that represent their interpretation of what God intends for you and your congregation to hear. To be sure, preachers are flawed, earthen vessels who often distort or confuse the Spirit’s guidance, but the miracle of grace happens every time we serve up the Word, and God’s insights bubble up in spite of our shortcomings.

If you are a pastor, I hope you will be reminded of the centrality of the spoken word, and the hopeful expectation your people bring to worship each week. Make it your highest priority and give it your best effort.

I recently heard a beautiful word about preaching from Brett Younger, the gifted preaching professor at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. He was speaking to a group of preachers about the value of preaching. He said:

Several semesters ago, I had a good but petulant student, who said on the first day of class, “I’m not sure I believe in preaching. Why should we preach at all?”

I wish I had been quicker with my response. The next day I said:

Why should we preach? 

We need to preach because the world lies, and someone needs to tell the truth.

Because we love war, and innocent people die.

Because children starve, and we could stop it.

Because our neighbors are lost, and we only wave as we drive by.

Because advertisers tell us to want everything, and we forget to give. 

Because entertainers teach us to lust, and we don’t know how to love. 

Because People magazine is dull, and the stories of faith are anything but.

Because creation is being destroyed, and we have to sound the alarm.

Because we live in denial, and don’t remember what honesty sounds like.

Because we are tempted to despair, and we need hope.

Because the church has gotten lazy, and we need courage.

We need to preach because when people have been tempted to compromise, Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of preachers we’ve never heard of have taught us to dream again.

Why should we preach? Because the world lies and God needs us to tell the truth.

How about we resist the temptation to critique and criticize the preaching we hear, and instead renew our commitment to be thoughtful listeners? How about we pastors redouble our efforts to speak the truth in love and take ever more seriously the privilege of preaching?

The world desperately needs healthy churches and clergy who love to preach and hear God’s word. I hope your pulpit will be that wonderful place where his truth is thoughtfully shared in the midst of a supportive and encouraging congregation. When that happens, God’s Kingdom truly comes on Earth as it is in heaven.



Assessing conflict in churches

By Bill Wilson

So what do we make of the rising tide of conflict in local congregations? First of all, is there actually an increase in conflict? Anecdotally, the number of calls and conversations we are having around conflict seem to indicate that local church conflict is becoming more frequent and widespread. Statistically, patterns of terminations for clergy suggest that, indeed, life as a minister in the 21st century is more stressful, more toxic, and more likely to end in termination than ever before. (An excellent source for multiple studies can be found on this website.)

The rate at which parishioners change churches is increasing. No longer do members endure dry seasons in the life of a church patiently. If a favorite minister leaves, or music styles shift, or relationships fray and conflict erupts, the exits are clogged with people on their way to another church home. The resulting loss of attendees invites conflict.

Many times conflict renders a church wounded for at least one generation (15-20 years) after it occurs. Clergy may move on, protagonists pass away, but the church continues to limp along for years as a result of a season of conflict.

It is difficult to measure the impact of conflict upon the unseen aspects of congregational life. The loss of passion and vitality for the gospel, the reduction of sacrificial giving, the jaded spirits, the ministry thwarted, the disillusionment among younger people, the loss of hope, the cynical attitudes that conflict leaves in its wake are all very real, but not easily quantified.

Our witness to the world, at a time when it has never been more needed, is in danger of being derailed by critical spirits and incivility. Mirroring the mood of the public square, local churches often share more in common with the harsh rhetoric of political parties and incendiary talk radio than with the spirit of Scripture, the stories of the Bible or the witness of Christ.

How might we begin to turn this tide of turmoil?

Healing from conflict begins when we humble ourselves. Humility and repentance precede any healing for God’s people. We must turn to God in humility, admit our own shortcomings and confess our own sin. As tempting as it may be to confess the sins of all those around us, the path to healing begins in the prayer of David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit in me.”

I am struck by how difficult those words are for us to pray with integrity. Forsaking genuine humility, we settle for self justification. We honestly believe that if the facts were known, we would be exonerated. When honest, we think we are right and others are wrong. Deep down, we refuse to consider the notion that our motives are mixed and our intentions impure. We see ourselves as we wish we were, not as we truly are.

God’s people have always had a love-hate relationship with humility. We want and demand it in others while we excuse its absence in ourselves. From the Garden to the Exodus to the Prophets to the Disciples and the church, the Bible is filled with examples of people taking themselves far too seriously, and God far too lightly. When Jesus established his church, humility was a foundational ingredient for the new community. Christ is the head of the church, and no one else need apply.

When conflict visits our fellowship, the beginning point of turning away from a dead-end future is for all Christ-followers to humble themselves, turn from their sins and seek to embody his spirit and presence. It is only then that the journey back toward health and life can begin for a church.




By Bill Wilson

Upheaval. That’s one of the nicer things we call moving. Our household’s recent move has been a journey into disorganization, disorientation and general discord. A genuine necessary evil. More than once during recent weeks, we vowed to never move again — all the while knowing that it is inevitable.

We have hauled more boxes of unnecessary items to donation sites than I would have imagined. How did we accumulate so much junk? We have lost items we can’t live without and found items we thought we had lost in previous moves. We have new-found appreciation for those who work for moving companies and load and unload in the oppressively hot and humid conditions of the South.

Our upheaval, of course, has been an opportunity as well as an endurance challenge. We’ve had the opportunity to decide what really matters when it comes to housing. We’ve had to choose what to keep and what to throw or give away. We’ve been convicted about the need to live more simply and to be more focused on people than things. We’ve been reminded of the value and power of community and friendship. We’ve had to get clear about God’s leadership and learn to trust in him anew.

During our moving saga, I’ve given thought to what moving means to a local church. The local church is notorious for resisting moving. I don’t mean physical movement from one site to another, but movement in attitudes or movement toward a Kingdom vision or movements of God’s Spirit. Some days it seems that new things only happen outside the property lines of established churches. Only later do local churches respond to the opportunity to move from what was to what could be.

Our experiences with moving have reminded me how resistance to movement of any kind can take hold and hold sway. Change can become the enemy when we focus on the inconvenience rather than the opportunities. Our first response to possible movement is, “What will this mean to me?” We don’t start off asking, “What does God want?” or “What might this mean to the Kingdom?” Our starting point is, “What does possible movement mean for me?”

As a pastor who has moved from three pulpits to other opportunities, I was always disheartened to realize that this was the essential question most people met me with when they heard I was leaving. Seldom did I hear anyone initially celebrate God’s providential leadership or express trust that I might actually have heard a call and that responding was in everyone’s best interest. Most eventually got to such a point, but that first response is instructive. We process potential change and movement through the lens of self-interest. When talk of moving arises, we think first of the discord and upheaval that we may endure, and often respond with resistance.

Thank God for moving, however. Do you realize that the essential metaphor for God’s calling of his people in both Old and New Testaments is movement? It was God’s children enslaved in Egypt who heard the call to rise up and move out from the known for the unknown promised land. Thus began a generation-long, complicated and history-changing move that puts our moving woes into proper perspective.

Jesus begins his ministry by inviting potential disciples to “come and follow me.” Movement is the order of his new day, and the pages of the New Testament record encounter after encounter in which he invites men and women to move from where and who they are and discover a world of abundant life they cannot imagine. Paul’s journeys are about movement and change and learning and discomfort. If you are not comfortable with movement and change, the Bible is not for you.

We all have our moving woes to recount and commiserate over. What we also have is the disguised gift that moving is and the promise it holds. God is still in the business of calling his people to move from where they are to where he intends them to be. It is a journey worth all the inconveniences and impositions, for it is a journey to the life we can only find in him. Thanks be to God for moving trucks, inconveniences and disruption — and the promise they hold.



Clergy and grief

By Bill Wilson

A friend and I were talking a few weeks ago and she made the following statement: One of the hardest parts of long-term ministry is burying your friends. I buried a dear friend on Monday. It was all I could do not to burst out crying in the pulpit. Thank God for Easter!

Your pastor probably could say the same thing. Grief is a steady companion for ministers, and a healthy church will recognize that dealing with grief is essential if your ministers are to help you navigate the difficult waters of grief and loss. Have you thought about all the ways clergy encounter grief in their work?

I’ve been thinking about grief a good bit lately. My wife and I have left friends, a home and church family we loved dearly to come to a new place of ministry. As we walked out of our house for the last time, grief ambushed us, and we found ourselves quite emotional. This was a transition that we chose and felt was undeniably of God, but it still hurt and evoked deep emotions for us.

I recently preached at a church I formerly pastored. Although I have been gone nearly 20 years, I found myself deeply moved by the experience. One of the most emotional moments for me was when I stood in the pulpit and looked out over the congregation and found myself seeing the empty seats of those who were missing. Death had visited numerous times in the congregation, and many of the people who had shaped and loved me are no longer among us. Marriages had ended, and families had become inactive. I was nearly struck silent by a deep sense of loss and had to work hard to regain my composure for the rest of the worship service.

I have talked regularly with clergy and laity alike who are in various stages of grief with regard to their ministry or church. Some are angry, some are sad; many are confused and bewildered by events they experience. Some find themselves being transported back to unresolved grief experiences in the past by things happening to them in the present.

When a minister and congregation live with one another in the midst of the ups and downs of everyday life, it becomes essential that they give one another room to grieve and permission to be human. My colleague was articulating a truth that many clergy feel guilty for experiencing. Dealing with death and serious illness on a daily basis requires a level of disconnectedness from a minister to be able to function. When everyone else in the ICU waiting room is panicking and emoting, it is extremely helpful for the minister to be the voice of controlled, calm assurance. Even if you are devastated by the prognosis, the family needs you to be able to help them think clearly and make good decisions. Shedding tears isn’t taboo; it may just need to wait for an appropriate time.

The point is, ministers need to make sure there is a time when they grieve. After you have been part of a church’s life for a few months, funerals become times where you bury friends, not strangers. God grants us the ability to speak words of comfort and encouragement even when they are words that are directed back to ourselves.

Ministers need to grieve the losses they see in the lives of others, as well as the losses that are part of our own personal and family story. When we do, we model the hope that Christ enables us all to feel in times of loss. When we do not, we set ourselves up for darker experiences that produce despair and hopelessness.

Remember your minister the next time you encounter grief. You may need to check in with him or her and encourage them to grieve the losses you and your church have endured. You may need to grant permission for them to be human. Some days we clergy try to deny that we have feelings about losses, but grief is one of those emotions that will not be denied. When we are able to experience our losses as believers, we embody the hope-filled grieving that the Bible calls us to know.



Is discomfort at church good or bad?

By Bill Wilson

Here at the Center for Congregational Health, we spend many hours each week helping clergy and congregations navigate the tricky waters of expectations and living together in positive and encouraging relationships rather than confrontational ones. I’ve recently had three insights that bear repeating.

First, my colleague, Nelson Granade, introduced me to a novel title for a minister: The Concierge Pastor. In a superb article that first appeared on Duke Divinity School’s Faith and Leadership website titled “Congregational Concierge”, Nelson decries the tendency of clergy and congregations alike to establish a pattern of relationship whereby the minister and staff members are primarily expected to meet the needs and expectations of members of the congregation. Like a fine hotel’s concierge, the ministers are there to make church members comfortable and happy. Nelson accurately notes that clergy are often complicit in this un-biblical model, and that everyone loses in the end. Extravagant expectations are never fully met, clergy grow discouraged, and the Kingdom agenda is relegated to an afterthought. I have to admit: that has described me on occasion!

My second insight came not long after reading this perceptive piece, when I heard someone ask a group of church members if they really wanted to be part of a church that never challenged them. They had been complaining, with great vigor, about changes that had been introduced to their congregation. Admittedly, the staff and other leaders could have handled the process better. Assumptions were made, relationships not cultivated and warning signs ignored. Given that, there still seemed to be a prevailing attitude that anything that did not align with one’s preconceived notion of how to do church was wrong and to be resisted.

Into that conversation came this query: “Don’t you want to be part of a church that challenges you to be more than you are? To do so will require some amount of pain and inconvenience. If not, where in the biblical text do you find yourself? If your church simply exists to make you happy, is it actually the church of Jesus Christ?” There was an awkward silence around the room, as the implications of the conversation sank in. I wish I could tell you that the result was an enthusiastic embrace of costly discipleship. Unfortunately, my sense of the people in the room was that this was a group who wanted a church and a faith that affirmed their life choices, opinions and preferences rather than challenged them.

A final insight came from another brilliant colleague, Melissa Clodfelter. In a piece titled “Kindness vs. Being Nice,” she suggests that our propensity for being “nice” at church comes at a great price: We fail to be God’s people for each other. A far more rewarding model for leadership and church membership is to “speak the truth in love” to one another. Compassionate confrontation is how Jesus operated with those he loved. He never saw his role as one of making his followers comfortable, but of helping them become the persons God intended them to be. To think that we can do that significant work without challenging one another or pushing each other out of our comfort zones is at best naïve.

God’s people, the church, will only be able to flesh out our Kingdom agenda (“thy Kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven…”) when we accept the fact that our task necessitates each of us agreeing that we are not all that God intends us to be. What if discomfort is a necessary prerequisite to finding genuine meaning and purpose? When we understand that truth and join with other believers to discover the joy of costly discipleship and follow-ship, then clergy and laity alike will find the harmony we seek in the midst of meeting challenges, and the discomfort they bring.

The prophetic pastor

By Bill Wilson

One of the most precarious tasks a preacher faces is that of being a prophet. The role of prophet is one toward which many ministers feel a deep ambivalence. All preachers know that relevant preaching must address the great issues of the day and offer a word from the Living Word.

Biblically speaking, prophetic preaching is accurately assessing the current human condition, and offering insights into God’s response to the world in which we find ourselves. 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.

On 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 in which they live.

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 Claude Bowen, the legendary pastor of First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C., 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 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 his 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 a precarious place, but it is holy ground, indeed.