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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - When a Guest Preacher Hijacks the Pulpit

Many faith communities participate in pulpit exchanges during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January and during Lent.  But what do you do when a colleague uses the opportunity to proclaim a message quite different from your congregation's mission, vision, and values?

I have a fresh-from-Sunday-morning question:

I'm looking for advice on the best way to follow-up (if at all) with a colleague who I invited into "my" pulpit and who consequently spoke poorly -- in fact, harmfully -- to the congregation. This was an arranged multi-church intra-denominational pulpit exchange, so actually I feel that I should follow-up with two colleagues: the minister who preached to my congregation and the minister who coordinated this swap without sensitivity to differences of theology. (My congregation is gay-inclusive. The visiting pastor directly referenced homosexuality as sin in his sermon.) I am strongly inclined to avoid this pulpit exchange next time, and to stick with making my own invitations to colleagues I trust. But I felt that I should trust the process, trust my colleagues to be professional and mindful of the audience .... and now I'm feeling duped (even if unintentionally) and very much responsible for opening up my pulpit to someone who caused harm. Your thoughts? 

(I should add: the congregation was both gracious and direct in response to the guest pastor, saying clearly both in and after worship that they were hurt but also inviting the guest pastor to consider a new understanding. I continue to listen to and ask about reactions among the congregation.)

Sharon at Tidings of Comfort and Joy writes:

Great question!   

As clergy colleagues, we have incredible power to bless and support one another, and we have many occasions to do so.  When it's good, it's very very good; and then, at times, it's rather horrid.  I confess that I have high expectations for clergy professionalism and a low tolerance for "unintentional" boundary violations by people who really do know better.

Offering one's pulpit to anyone, especially to another colleague, is an act of very high trust, and your trust was violated.  This preacher took advantage in a self-serving and harmful way.  

Avoidance behavior can be quite the creative strategy; however, I don't advise it in this case.  Initiate a meeting with those you named.  Describe what occurred in your worship service: what the preacher said, the response of your congregation, how this affects your congregation.  Name the reasons why your congregation can no longer be involved in the swap.  I encourage you to document this incident for yourself while it is fresh.  

Because truth-telling is important in  your congregation, consider saying something to them in next week's worship service.  I like to say three good things about a difficult situation and then the one hard thing, for example:  (1) the intention behind the swap and your desire to be part of it, (2) your own good experience with another congregation (?), (3) your own congregation's truthful and loving response to a hard situation -- and then -- (the hard one) tell them the truth about your response to what happened, and let them know that you are following up with the other clergy.  

You will probably also want to go over this with your church's council (board, consistory . . .) so that they will understand why it is important for you, their pastor, to personally and carefully hand-pick those who occupy your church's pulpit.
Muthah+, who blogs at, adds:

Dear Trusting Pastor,

We all trust the first time.  You have now found that you can't trust the group to accept the position of the parish.  I am not sure what the 'process' that this pulpit exchange entails--is it interdenominational or is it from your own denomination?  

If it is trans-denominational, such as a clergy association, then I would suggest that you ask to discuss this at your next meeting.  Using the pulpit to undermine a sitting pastor is TOTALLY not cool and needs to be addressed. If the preacher who preached that sermon knew of the stance of your parish before he preached, he was meddlin' and that should not be permitted by your group.  If he did not, the group of you need to talk about your congregations with one another so such grave errors cannot happen again.

 If it is a denominational discussion, you can always teach your parishioners how to listen to differing opinions without excluding them.  The important thing is that your LGBTQ folk need to be supported when such a person is speaking.  Faith is not furthered by excluding the excluder.  But it is important that your LGBTQ persons and supporters be able to listen even when such folks are acting like idiots.  And fellowship time needs to provide some good discussion rather than intransigence.

I am glad that the members of your congregation spoke up about the sermon and confronted the preacher.  Often that can mean more than even your critique.

I have a well-developed 'hermeneutic of suspicion' and if you are fairly new, or seem to be a 'nice girl' the preacher might have thought he could get away with something to elevate himself in the eyes of your parish.  This cannot be tolerated.  There are still guys out there who like to play such games.  If it was a woman, she's playing by boys' rules and she should be confronted too.

If you still want to follow the process because you value it and there seems to be no change from the errant pastor, then preach on  Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch when you go to his church.  

And from Kathryn:

I definitely think you should follow up. First and foremost with your congregation, so you can affirm how they responded. Secondly, with the two colleagues. And I think you have every right to take a break from participating in this pulpit swap, or at least being very hands-on in the selection of who comes to your church.

Thank you for your ministry.

Have you been faced with an experience like this...or do you have insight you'd offer to those who have?  Let's talk about it...

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. Affirming all posted above, I wonder about when I preach a more inclusive message than a congregation hears or wants to hear.

  2. The local clergy group in my area includes a congregation in which women's participation is very limited. Yet I am allowed to stand in that pulpit and preach when the "rotation" says it is my turn.
    I really appreciate that they stretch themselves for me. And I would NEVER challenge their position head on while I was a recipient of their hospitality. My presence, and the fact that the roof of the church doesn't fall in on me, seems like challenge enough.

  3. how 'bout when a purple hat in one's own denomination comes in to address an area gathering of both clergy and laity, and has made solemn promises in advance not to touch on or mention in any way the Hot Issue (which was not on the agenda for the gathering), and then breaks his/her promise? Complete with smirk?

  4. "When it's good, it's very very good; and then, at times, it's rather horrid." Well said. Your guest did know better, I am cerain.


    Please do follow up. We all know that there are differences among traditions and denominations, and we all know that a pulpit exchange offers an opportunity to affirm the faith we SHARE.

    As I am likely one of the more "conservative" among the Rev Gals, I am saddnend that any minister would treat a fellow clergy--and the congregation--in such a manner.

    But the times when pulpit exhanges, even with colleagues who were more "liberal" (I hate those liberal/conservative labels) went well were SUCH a joy that I hope you can find a way to engage in this again.

    If we just stick to those we know, that might mean we are limited, since different clergy move in different circles. All that to follow up. Loudly.

    And Crimson Rambler, I am speechless at your comment. That "purple hat" should be--tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

  5. Not totally certain of the meaning of that particular "purple hat" reference, but it could be someone who is part of the Red Hat Society (some of whom wear purple hats) or perhaps a sign of a "church lady" type person?

    Crimson Rambler, back to you on this one!

  6. I'm pretty sure she means a bishop. ;-)

  7. As a frequent guest preacher, I am *horrified* at this person's behavior. I always, always, try to be a good guest.

    But. I have offended people, completely unintentionally, and the regular preacher let me know (he was actually glad I had offended these particular thorns in his side, but I digress). I was glad to get the feedback, reflected on what I had preached, and made my own judgment on whether I would have said it the same way given another chance. All that to say, I definitely think some feedback to the guest is a good idea, whether his/her offense was unintentional or not.

    But I'm still horrified.


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