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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Preaching in the Face of Controversy

We all know how important it is to have some understanding of the context in which we are preaching. Sometimes, though, knowing the context can make the task of preaching more complicated. How does a visiting preacher preach, knowing there is conflict, chaos, controversy, or other concerns in the congregation? Here is our question this week:

What text and/or topic would you suggest I use as a visiting preacher at a church where there was an altercation this week involving physical contact and violent threats during a meeting about firing the music director?  The police were called and one or more persons have already contacted an attorney about a law suit.  Though I'm known by some of the parishioners because I've preached there before, I don't really know the principals well, including the pastor, who was the one who said, "Call the police."  I don't think preaching about the midwives in the time of Moses (Exodus 1), as I'd planned, will address any concerns those people have at this time.

Muthah+ responds:

It is times like these that I REALLY appreciate my denomination's centering on the lectionary!  It means that I cannot use the pulpit to hit people over the head.  If there is an particularly apropos reading then I can blame it on the serendipity of the Holy Spirit; we can all smile and move on. 
When emotions are high it is important to hear that God is still in this place, that peace is still possible and God is forgiving.  Church fights are always 'family quarrels' and can be much more debilitating than any other disagreements.  I would not preach prophetically in this case, but preach with the intent of healing, of the coming together of people who are hurt and looking for some salve for their woundedness.  Do anything you can to dial down the emotions in the congregation.  You can do this better than the pastor because he is evidently on one side. 
In this case I would preach something about finding peace in the love of God.  I would not use the Matthew 15 passage because you are not the pastor.  The story of Elijah on the mountain after the whirlwind and God speaking in the still small voice might be good. Or perhaps even the story of Jacob and Esau reconciling after Jacob's stealing his birthright.

And Sharon offers:
Oh my goodness!  You really can't make this stuff up, can you? 
I would probably default to the Lectionary texts.  I have found them to be rich sources of good news, perfectly timed for all kinds of weird situations.  Using the appointed texts helps me rely more on the Holy Spirit than on my own decision-making and comfort levels. That said, if the Spirit is (or was) already leading you to another text, by all means go with that.  Most (all?) of the Bible's background scenery is controversy and conflict, if not outright war. Even Bible hero Psalm-writing shepherd David had a dark side!
Can you also look for ways to bring in your faith tradition's values?  In the UCC, for example, unity is a core value with both biblical and historical roots.  Also, if you know anything about that church's history, or the history of the "neighborhood," I bet you will find something to share from that, too.
My prayers are most definitely with you!


Thank you so much, Matriarchs, for your thoughtful responses. What about the rest of you? Do you have advice for our colleague? Let's continue the conversation in the comments, and, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dolt]com.


  1. I have no qualms whatsoever about leaving the lectionary, and especially in a case like this one BUT I wouldn't do it as a visiting preacher (and I have a LOT of experience as visiting preacher.)

    You are not the pastor. While it's good that you know about the situation and can address it within the pastoral prayer--gently, briefly, without making a strong statement--and perhaps as a paragraph within the sermon, I wouldn't deviate from what text you'd planned to preach (lectionary or not) because it's just not your place. You do not want to be triangulated into this argument. You do not want to appear to be taking anyone's side. You won't be there to handle the fallout (if any) from a sermon that appeared to be leaning one way or another.

    (Assuming that you were not asked to preach on this topic as a neutral outsider. I'm assuming that you were asked to preach and THEN this happened.)

    Last, remember that 10% of the congregation is involved, 30% heard about it via gossip and care, and 60% either haven't heard about it or have heard and don't care. All of them need to hear a sermon that reminds them that their faith is bigger and broader than any human circumstance and that argument or no, God's love prevails, and the church is still called to proclaim that love, even, especially, when it's hard to do so. I, personally, might begin a sermon with a line or two that acknowledges this is a challenging week in the life of the congregation and I will be praying for them in the weeks to come.

    Preach the good news. Be cognizant of the situation in how you phrase things in your sermon. Pray for everyone in your pastoral prayer. Then, step away and let (make?) the pastor be the pastor.

    That's my 2 cents.

  2. Susan, that is great two cents. Thank you for sharing!

  3. The voice of experience was very helpful for me too - thanks Susan.

  4. I think Susan has wise words. Let this situation linger in your thoughts, but I don't think you have to approach it directly -- as others have stated, the Bible is FULL of conflict. Any passage you choose will speak to the situation, whether or not you address it directly. I think the midwives are perfect -- they, too, are in conflict and had difficult choices to make.

  5. and they chose life. Always a helpful reminder.

  6. What Muthah+ said about the lectionary--AMEN!

    And Susan's 2 cents is worth a WHOLE LOT more...good words applicable to many situations. Thanks!

  7. What wise women we have on this ring. I am just so happy to be a part of ya'll. Good stuff, Susan.

  8. Yes! The wisdom here is always invaluable. I'm with you, Muthah+ - so happy to be a part of such a great sisterhood.


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