Welcoming the Prophet: Risks and Responsibilities of Leadership from the Pulpit

by | May 24, 2018

Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, ‘Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfil the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.’
Jeremiah 28:5-9.

Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
Matthew 10: 40-42

In an extended letter written for his young son to read when he’s older, a dying pastor ponders the significance of 45 years’ worth of sermons, stored in boxes, all preached from the same pulpit in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa.

Pretty near my whole life is in those boxes.

The quantity of writing is impressive: 50 sermons a year for 45 years, averaging 30 pages each. That’s the equivalent of 225 books, which puts him up there with Augustine and Calvin.

I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what’s true.

But one sermon isn’t there, for the fictional pastor, John Ames, had burned it the night before he meant to preach it.

People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza but it was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life and then it spread into the rest of the population . . . There was talk that the Germans had caused it with with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have. . . It was like a biblical plague, and if it wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what a sign would look like.

So I wrote a sermon about it. I said, or I meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing young men from the consequences of their own foolishness, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers. And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God.

It was quite a sermon. But my courage failed, because I knew that the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive of the war as I was. I seemed ridiculous to myself for imagining I could thunder from the pulpit in those circumstances and I dropped that sermon in the stove and preached on the Parable of the Lost Sheep. But I wish I had kept it, because I meant every word. It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world.   (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004))

Have you ever burned a sermon, or the equivalent in our day, hit the delete button after you’d written it? Have there been paragraphs, or even a sentence that you felt so strongly about but still edited out?

Perhaps you kept in that searing prophetic truth and later wished you hadn’t, because of the unnecessary reactivity it caused (and it wasn’t even your sermon’s main point). Maybe you realized afterwards that you were playing to the crowd, allowing everyone present to cast their prophetic aspersions elsewhere. “We thank you, Lord, that we’re not like those other people.” I’ve done that.

There’s no room for judgment here, preacher to preacher. For no matter how many conferences we attend and inspired preachers we hope to emulate, the work of preparing sermons–writing from our deepest hopes and convictions, sifting our words, trying to say what’s true–is a lonely undertaking, full of risk and responsibility. We face the page or computer screen alone, and as the clock ticks toward Sunday morning, we never know for certain if our choices are the best ones.

Those who preach on a regular basis to the same congregation, or circuit riders like me who preach to different churches within a particular orbit, have more than one relationship to the people who listen to our words. While preaching is rooted in our relationship to God, our interpretation of sacred texts and understanding of their relevance to the world around us, it is necessarily informed by our relationship to those gathered in worship–how well we know and love them, how accurately we can gauge what God’s word for them might be, how we feel called by God not merely to speak to them, but to lead them.

Leadership from the pulpit isn’t simply proclamation. It’s a vocation of movement, guiding a particular group of people from one place to another. It is also public speech, spoken to and for a wider audience that may or may not be listening in. The same discerning questions apply: How well do we know and love those outside our churches, how accurately can we gauge what God’s word for them might be, how we feel called not merely to speak to them, but to lead?

The theme of this festival, Faith and Politics, and the stunning sermons and lectures we’ve been feasting on all week, offer a sorely needed corrective to the ambivalence we preachers face daily, both externally and perhaps within ourselves, about the relationship between faith and politics. We’ve been challenged here to claim our wider vocation and reminded of the temptation of false prophecy, speaking peace when there is no peace.

I don’t know how true this is for you, but for some people in churches in and around Washington D.C., we can’t speak of politics enough. If we don’t respond from the pulpit to what the President tweeted yesterday, we hear about it.  

Others, of course, would rather we talk about anything but politics, and not always because they don’t want to think about hard things. For some, politics is what they deal with all week long, and on Sundays their weary souls hunger for spiritual food. I get that. It’s not that different from the parents of young children who don’t want to volunteer in the nursery. They need a break.

So some of the churches I oversee have consciously adopted a “check-your-politics-at- the-door” policy, so that everyone, no matter their views or jobs, can breathe freely in the body of Christ. They relish the fact that they can sit next to or take communion alongside those with whom they are diametrically opposed politically. Some of our most passionate workers in the vineyards of social justice, and many of our millennials, gratefully attend these churches.

Yet checking politics at the door can have the effect of silencing an entire community on a number of issues deemed too political to discuss. They don’t talk about guns. They don’t talk about the federal budget. They don’t consider the consequence of endless wars that a small percentage of our population fights while the rest of us go shopping. As time goes on, the list of taboo subjects grows. That’s a danger.

Other churches here see themselves primarily through the lens of speaking truth to power, and they do so from their particular place on the political and theological spectrum. People tend to self-select in these churches, seeking alignment with prophetic voices they agree with. Now I am the first to acknowledge the church’s  responsibility for strong prophetic preaching, and judging from the response outside church, there is real hunger for spiritual courage that speaks directly into the moral crises before us as a people and a species.

Yet prophetic preaching also has its dangers. We can all think of examples of religious leaders whose political speech makes us cringe, because we believe they’re wrong.  But even when we know we’re right and feel compelled to speak from that place of rightness, there are risks. “From the place we are right,” writes the poet Yehuda Amichai, “flowers never grow in the spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.” (“The Place Where We Are Right,” The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (University of California Press, 1996).) “When we imagine ourselves to be the good ones,” said our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently, “we don’t see how we ourselves are implicated in the very injustices we decry.” (From a lecture Rowan Williams gave at the conference, Balm in Gilead: A Theological Conversation with Marilynne Robinson. Wheaton College, April 5-6, 2018.)  

Pastor John Ames, God bless him, in the midst of a social crisis of biblical proportion, chose one Sunday morning to be pastoral, not prophetic. He clearly had strong prophetic sensibilities, but in that moment he chose not to preach the sermon he knew was right. In hindsight, he wondered if he had lost courage, and perhaps he had. He had the sense that his young son, when he grew to be a man, would have been most impressed by the sermon he never preached.

How I love John Ames in his struggle, for he gives voice to the excruciating process spiritual leaders must go through when we have make a judgement call, never knowing if the choice we make is the one most pleasing to God.

It’s my observation that every preacher with a pulse and a conscience feels the tension between the pastoral and prophetic. But if we widen our perspective, perhaps we can see how both have a legitimate place within the larger arc of spiritual leadership.  

Before going further, let me clarify terms.

When I speak of pastoral sermons, I’m not talking about false prophecy. I mean those sermons that declare there is, indeed, a balm in Gilead. A pastoral sermon is rooted in the assurance of God’s unconditional acceptance, and it provides space for someone to experience the potentially life-transforming grace of God as we’re speaking. We need to not disparage pastoral sermons. In fact, if we don’t start with a pastor’s heart, it calls into question how well we know ourselves to be unconditionally loved by God and saved by grace through faith.  

In contrast, prophetic sermons are those that speak a difficult truth that some of those listening do not want to hear. More pointedly, prophetic speech gives voice to a truth that everyone listening already knows, but some have chosen to bury deep beneath conscious awareness and therefore beyond expectations of accountability. That pushing down of awareness, the willful choosing not to know something already known, helps explain the sometimes violent reaction to prophetic speech. Rarely does anyone respond to another speaking a difficult truth in love by saying, “Thank you for pointing that out to me.” Multiply that resistance when speaking to a group, or a nation, and we can appreciate what prophets are up against. Prophetic preaching is never easy for those who love.

Consider the prophet Jeremiah who grieved every word he felt compelled by God to speak. He lived at a time, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us, when “his world was literally coming unglued by internal neglect and external threat.” To Jeremiah’s alarm, nobody else seemed to notice. He not only saw what was happening, he had a sense of why it was happening and what God was going to do to save his chosen  people–which was nothing at all. So when another prophet, Hananiah, assured the now astonished and beleaguered Israelites that the Babylonian occupation would be short and there was no need to make drastic adjustments, Jeremiah was stunned. God has spoken the exact opposite to him, that exile would be long and the people would need to make their peace with suffering. But Jeremiah publicly states that he prefers Hananiah’s prophecy to his own out of love for his people: “Amen! May the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied!” Time will tell, he said. History proved Jeremiah right, which is one reason Hananiah doesn’t have a book in the Bible named after him. He spoke peace when there was no peace.

Finally, when I speak of leadership from the pulpit, I mean the particular vocation of inspiring, coaxing, cajoling a people to move from where they are to where God is leading them, from the people they are now toward the people they could by grace become. Such leadership takes into account our collective complicity in the ways things are, and offers not only a vision for the future but also a redemptive path to get there.  

As a spiritual leader, I may not always be the prophet. More often my task, and perhaps yours, is, as Jesus said, to welcome the prophet, that is, to hear and take in the truth of the prophet’s word, and then, with a pastor’s heart, lead a people toward God’s preferred future.

A few things, then, as I’m coming toward the end, to remember about what leadership from the pulpit requires:

First, it takes time–our steady reliable presence over years. Before they will follow us, people need to know that we will be with them on whatever journey we believe God is calling them to take. We can preach a prophetic sermon once and move on. But we can’t lead from one sermon or even one season, or two, or three. This is ministry for the long haul. If we’re in a short term assignment, or we know that we’re on our way out, our capacity to lead prophetically is limited.

Second, to lead well through preaching, we need to have some sense of where our people are on the spectrum of spiritual maturity. There’s little to be gained in preaching about Christ’s call to share in his sacrificial love if they don’t know that love for themselves. To lead, we may have to start further back with the basics of faith. Again, this is long term work, the fruits of which we may not live to see.

We also need an appreciation of context and background. If I’m going to preach with any hope of leading people in the realm of gun violence prevention, an issue God has placed on my heart, context matters. I need to speak one way in southern Maryland, where there is a high percentage of gun owners suspicious of what I’m going to say before I open my mouth and where there was a high school shooting the week after Parkland. I need to speak another way in Southeast Washington, the neighborhoods in Washington that have witnessed the lion’s share of D.C.’s record number of gun deaths this year, most of which were noted in a small paragraph in the back pages of the newspaper.

Third, leadership through preaching assumes a prophetic word that has, in fact, come to us, and that we’ve heard it for this particular community at this moment in time. It’s not leadership to speak prophetically in the abstract, or so broadly that there’s no discernible step for the community to take. We have to get specific. When we do, we aren’t standing apart from our people, as if we were speaking words that didn’t apply to us. We stand under the same judgment and call from God. Simon Sinek, a behavioral researcher and author of the book, Start with Why, said on recent podcast, “The best leaders are actually the best followers. They see themselves as following a cause bigger than themselves It’s the rest of us who choose to follow them.” (Simon Sinek, “How do Great Leaders Inspire Us to Take Action,” on The TED Radio Hour.  National Public Radio, May 18, 2018.)

Remember that as leaders we don’t have to be first in giving voice to a prophetic truth. Our job is to listen for it and receive it, first for ourselves, then for others. More often than not I overhear the prophetic word spoken by someone else.That’s certainly been my experience this week. But once I am convicted by a truth another has spoken, it becomes my job to lead, step by step, those in my orbit according to its light.

Spiritual leadership is a painstaking process of incremental faithfulness over time. There will inevitably be times when we’ll feel discouraged and inadequate. This is not work for the faint-hearted or overly-ambitious. Guiding people on a path that’s actually going somewhere requires dogged persistence, often walking by faith and not by sight. It’s easier to be right than it is to lead.

Two weeks ago I attended the funeral for an Episcopal bishop who served during decisive decades of struggle in our church and society. His isn’t a household name among progressive Episcopal leaders. He was never out in front during the years when our church was deeply divided on the issues racial justice of the 1960s, the push for women’s ordination in the 1970s, and the full inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender people in the decades since. Throughout his tenure, we were arguing about theological issues at the heart of interfaith dialogue. As we engaged with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, how were we to understand the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ?

There were big fights in our church and the country at large.

Bishop Ted Eastman was, at heart, a pastor, teacher, and reconciler. He took seriously a bishop’s vocation to guard and preserve the unity of the church. But he became persuaded by the prophetic voices within the church and society, and he realized that his ministry, like it or not, would be defined by how he led in the tumultuous era in which he lived.

Which is to say, Bishop Eastman welcomed the prophet and allowed to prophetic truth to change him. Then he painstakingly went about the work of leadership–guiding, cajoling, encouraging the people under his care toward becoming a church that fought the evils of racism, embraced the gifts of women, fully accepted and celebrated gay, lesbian, transgendered people in the church, and approached interfaith dialogue in a spirit of humility and mutual respect.

Bishop Eastman was not among those heralded for their prophetic courage. For he led, as it were, from the middle, with the firm conviction, to quote Daniel Berrigan, that we will walk into the Kingdom of God together or not at all. Those more impatient for change were frustrated by the slow pace of his leadership; those believing the church was heading toward apostasy felt he had succumbed to cultural forces antithetical to the gospel. Yet he held steady in the middle and created a space for the Holy Spirit to work.

At his funeral, three African American bishops were present whom Bishop Eastman had supported in their early years of ministry, among them our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “He always had our back,” they told me. He did more to promote diversity in the church than anyone will ever know. Think about that for a moment: Ted Eastman’s leadership in his day helped ensure Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and many others could lead in ours.

And in the midst of the rage that often came his way by those opposed to the direction he was leading, he was, these three bishops told me, always gracious and respectful.

Which leads to the last quality of spiritual leadership through preaching that I’ll highlight here: it creates hospitable space for those who disagree. Respect for others who disagree and even attack in retaliation sets a particular tone in leadership, it creates space to bring along as many as possible. We many never convince those most opposed to what we believe is right, but the way we treat those at the most extreme allows others to move and grow in their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.

I am persuaded that true leaders create an environment where people of strong convictions can change their minds and change course without being shamed. That requires a degree of nuance and gentleness that prophets are not generally known for. That’s all right; it’s not a prophet’s vocation to be subtle. But leaders needs a broad repertoire of skill and many tools in their toolboxes, in order to help others move closer toward wherever prophetic speech is beckoning them.

One day, like John Ames, you will look back and consider your life’s work. I’m here to remind you that the significance of your ministry isn’t to be found in one sermon that you did or didn’t preach, but in the larger arc of your life and leadership, the fruits of which you will never fully know.  I have come to bless and encourage you in the lonely and important work of leadership from the pulpit.

Let me leave you with a few questions to ponder.

First of all, how would you describe your primary vocation?

Not everyone called to ministry is called to leadership. Scripture reminds us that some are called to be pastors; some prophets, others teachers and evangelists. Some are called to lead.

Are you among them?

Having some sense of your primary vocation frees you to focus your energies, which will strengthen your voice in the pulpit. If you are called to lead, it is incumbent upon you to develop a broad set of homiletical tools. Because leadership from the pulpit is a vocation not of proclamation only, but of movement, leading people through the messy process of transformation.

Second question:

If you are called to spiritual leadership, where are you in the ministry arc for the community you’re serving now? Are you in the early stages, the season of full engagement, in transition, or near the end? Knowing where you are helps define the scope and possibilities for leadership, and will inform your preaching. If you’re in the early stages, you have a lot relationship and trust work to do. If you’re in transition or near the end of your time, your abilities to lead prophetically are limited, and attempting to do more than is possible is actually harmful.


How do you assess the fruitfulness of your work as evidenced in the spiritual growth of the people who follow you? How are they growing in love of God, love of self and of neighbor? How comfortable is your community with proximity to suffering? Where are they getting stuck? Where are you getting stuck? To whom might you turn for help?

I can’t stress enough the importance of seeking out support and guidance, accountability partners and sources for your own inspiration. Most of the clergy I serve imagine they are in this work alone. I feel that way sometimes as their bishop. This can be lonely work, but we are not alone. Look around: there are kindred souls everywhere and utterly surprising relationships across the boundaries that we imagine separate us from others.

Remember that as a leader, you are first and foremost a follower. Remember who it is that you are following. The One who has called you to this work is faithful.

If I may, I’d like to pray for you:

Gracious God, I hold before you these your faithful followers whom you have called to lead others.

I ask for them your continued blessing, that they may know that you know how hard they strive to preach from their deepest hope and conviction, trying to say what’s true, to speak what they hear from you.

May they see that you see how they pour their whole lives into their work, Lord.

Help them to see just a bit of what you see. Give them a vision of where you are leading us all.

Inspire them with not only words to speak, but greater capacities to lead.

Strengthen their resolve, revive their spirits, protect their hearts, shield their joy, so that by their courage and persistence, their faithfulness in following you, others may catch a glimpse your kingdom, your beloved community here on earth, and how you are leading us there.


Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at the Festival of Homiletics at National City Christian Church on May 24, 2018.