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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ask the Matriarch – Preaching Unbecoming Edition

As an Associate Pastor, what do you do when the Senior Pastor is preaching things that are blatantly opposed to the theological tradition to which you belong? Particularly when this preaching is exclusionary AND is causing uproar and conflict in the congregation?

~pastor not sure of the proper channel~

Our matriarchs were all quite sympathetic to your plight. Both “Wise Layperson” and “Sally Deo Gloria” expressed some hope that you might be able to have a constructive conversation with your colleague laying out the concerns his preaching is raising…with the following caveats:

From Wise Layperson:

1) If the Senior Pastor has hiring/firing authority you could be putting your job at risk in doing this-- only you can decide if you can take that risk.

2) I firmly believe in talking directly to someone about a problem rather than talking to everyone else around you about the other person. However, that does not rule out having your own support network (though it would be good if your support network were from outside the particular church). Spend some time figuring out what you would say to this person given the chance. Talk to trusted sounding boards and get the venting out of your system before approaching the person.

Then set up an appointment to speak to the person directly and make certain that enough time is set aside to actually discuss the issues. Use "I statements" when explaining your concern. Lay it all out there and see what the response is. (WL followed this protocol when a priest preached an offensive sermon regarding HIV-AIDS, and reports that he appeared to listen, and that she never heard him preach a sermon like that again.)

3) Review the legal structure of your denomination-- they all have different by-laws and reporting requirements. There may be rules in place that you are expected to follow in such situations.

4) Document what is going on around you-- start keeping some sort of record that will help you explain the situation to other people.

5) Find out who should be talking to whom. If congregants come to you with concerns/ complaints then it behooves you to know who they should be talking to in order for their concerns to be heard. I am assuming that you have no authority over the senior pastor-- so don't let yourself become a mouthpiece. Raise your concerns as directly as possible and encourage your congregants to do the same.

Sally adds:

You have the choice of speaking to either the lay leaders (elders? congregation president? wardens?) in your congregation or else someone in the local judicatory. That could depend on the relationships you have. If you trust the lay leaders and if they trust you, that's probably a better step, because it will shore up support within the congregation. If you have good relationships with someone in your conference/synod/diocese/ presbytery, then maybe you start there.

Of course, "blatantly opposed to the theological tradition" of one's denomination can be in the ears of the hearer. Perhaps the wise thing is to polish off one's resume and find a more hospitable place to serve, especially if the lay leaders in the congregation are not stepping up to take action.

Ann suggests:

It has probably already been reported to the head of your denomination by some parishioner. If it is a serious breach of your tradition and not just part of differences within your tradition - go to your denominational supervisor and ask what you should do…If you feel it is really worth confronting - follow your conscience. You have to live with yourself forever.

What advice would you readers offer our “pastor not sure”? Use the comment function to share your experience and wisdom.


  1. Yipes. Coming from my layperson's perspective, and seeing how issues like this tend to swirl around clergypeople without anyone ever actually engaging him or her in dialogue...I'd suggest speaking to the colleague first -- as suggested, in a scheduled meeting, and keeping it on a non-confrontational, "I need clarification," "I'm having trouble understanding how that is supported by our theology" level. If that doesn't get you anywhere, then maybe it's time to find a couple of concerned others in the church and have another meeting, or to talk to someone in the next level up of your denomination's polity. Bishops (or their equivalents) are supposted to be "pastors' pastors," and I'd think this was a matter where it's appropriate to ask for pastoral guidance.

  2. I agree that talking to the senior pastor is the first step. If sermons are recorded and/or texts are printed somewhere, I'd go armed with a few "could you help me understand what you meant when you said..." statements. While I doubt the pastor doesn't know what he's said, there is always that chance, I suppose.
    If SP is unwilling to discuss, then I think I'd tell him that others in the congregation have come to you with complaints, that you aren't the only one hearing doctrinally incorrect teaching. And I would probably then go to my bishop or district supervisor-type and express my concerns, detailing what I have done prior to coming to her/him. If you are in an independent church, that's not an option and I suppose I, too, would dust off the resume.

  3. Oh my! There are times when being an associate certainly has its challenges! I agree that I would try to talk to the Sr pastor, armed with quotes from his sermon either in printed or recorded form. If that gets you nowhere, do you have a church committee that oversees the pastors? That would be the next step, with the understanding that you have tried to have a conversation with him and failed. If that doesn't work, the chair of that committee can go to the next higher level, and your position in that congregation can remain intact. It won't degenerate into a "you vs. him " battle if someone else takes it up the chain.

  4. My sympathies and heartfelt understanding. Sometimes when the SP is a law unto him/herself, it is a daunting task to step up and say you aren't in agreement.

    As others have said, it is entirely possible you are not the only voice speaking up. However, I also know that the "frequent flyers" in my church who kvetch about ANYTHING would also be the most likely to go to a higher up. The biblical model is to go directly to the SP... hard as that is... and his response will determine your next steps as wisely outlined above.


  5. it can be helpful to the SP too...I know there are times when I've ruffled parishioners with my preaching, and our subsequent conversations, one on one, have been nothing but beneficial to all concerned AND to the pastoral bond. Because sometimes our sermons are a lot clearer in our heads than in the pulpit, let alone in the ears of our hearers. And it's good for the SP to have a chance to say, "Heavens no that's not what I meant to convey at all!?"

  6. Deb, I'm fascinated that you assume the SP is a "he!"
    A lot of how to approach this has to do with polity as much as with anything Biblical. It might be Biblical to go to the person who troubles you, but it can also be ministry suicide for an associate. Only you, pastor notsure, can say how trustworthy your denominational executive person is (be that D.S., Conference Minister, Executive Presbyter or Bishop). Try taking this question to that person, asking for pastoral advice. You'll know pretty readily whether you have a willing or helpful listener.
    Do you have anything along the lines of a Pastoral Relations Committee? Sometimes they can be helpful--after all, it's their task to mediate congregational concerns with the pastoral staff.
    Just don't get sucked in to conversations with church members where you are pressed for (or eager to give) your opinion. Respect the professional relationship even if you have a theological difference; you'd want your colleague to do the same.
    Bottom line: figure out what your "channels" are and use them!

  7. I apologize for preparing the post in such a way that assumed the senior pastor was male. I thought I read our questioner's second sentence as "Particularly when his..." but it is "Particularly when this..."

    Guess I need to clean my contacts more thoroughly or get new ones!

    your humble editor,

  8. If it said "his" earlier, I didn't see it! My apologies to Deb for thinking she read that into the post.

  9. Songbird, no offense taken! I actually went back to see if there were gender-specific pronouns! and... "laying out the concerns HIS preaching is raising..."

    But, male or female, occupational suicide or not, at least a casual, "hey did I hear you say" sort of approach initially (as wise people above suggested) is the minimum I would do. Because, truthfully, if there is conflict and an uproar in the congregation, it will come to bite you if it isn't addressed.


  10. Dang it! When will my cats stop using my computer??? LOL

  11. I certainly have a lot of sympathy for this situation. It is difficult to disagree with one's senior colleague, and it is doubly difficult when others in the congregation are troubled by the same behavior you are.

    Any complaints that come to you about SP's preaching should be referred DIRECTLY to SP. "You really should talk with Rev. X about this". Beyond that, you are likely the best judge of whether your talking to your colleague might be helpful, or if doing so would put you in a worse position. If your concerns persist, and assuming they go beyond just personal disagreement --and it sounds like they do--discussing them with someone outside the church - a clergy peer group, mentor, or your bishop or equivalent might be your best bet.

    I am in an analogous situation--not over preaching so much as other issues, and in my case, me talking to senior colleague is pretty fruitless. But I have a trusted mentor in whom I am able to confide and that helps me tremendously. It's how to handle things that are potentially harmful to the congregation that is a minefield. Good luck with this

  12. I wanted to add one more comment...

    Presently there is an explosive situation in my church. I was not a part of the situation, nor its decision, but people are coming to me and asking, "what gives??" While I would love to spout off my feelings... I can't. At least, not to people in the congregation. THAT would indeed be professional suicide.

    I keep pointing them back to the people in the "decision tree" to discuss it and to take their questions to the people who can answer them. Because while I have some "back story" I don't really know what is going on.


  13. Yipes is right! While I serve as a SP these days, I remember with heartbreaking clarity the relationship I had with my former SP. Theology wasn't the issue, though...this one just would not/could not connect with the congregation (or the staff, for that matter). I hope you have such a resource and support mechanism.

    I agree with those who have already advised you so wisely. Speak directly, if possible. My only caution would be to be clear on what was spoken rather than appearing duly armed for the conversation (sermon transcript in hand). It is hard to approach this without putting SP on the defensive - speaking the truth in love sounds wonderful until you really have to do it!

    In my current role, I am often the last to know if someone (or the infamous "they") is upset with me. My Pastor-Parish Relations team does a good job of helping me see these things though we have recently agreed that anonymous complaints will not be aired.

    Prayers for you, unsure pastor!


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