How to preach sermons that make people wiggle and keep your job

portrait-angryMy last post was called, How to preach sermons your people will love, and many of you noted how helpful it was. One reader, David, took it one step further and asked, “Margaret, can you address how to preach sermons that make your people wiggle and keep your job?”

I laughed when I read this comment. First: it’s terrific that David is wanting to push the envelope and is embracing his leadership role. Second: I hear this question all the time: How can I take a stand about something important without stirring the waters TOO much?

So, here we go:

1. Define yourself.

Don’t tell them what to think. When you want to preach on a topic that is controversial or challenging, use “I,” not “you.” This allows the audience to hear you more easily, and play the role of observer. Think through your own values, principles and positions, then carefully write a sermon using clear, simple language that takes a stand for yourself. As you write this, let go of any expectations about whether people will agree, disagree, come along or not. Think of it as an exercise or an experiment. See how curious you can get about what the response will be, without being overly anxious about it. When you come from your own perspective and claim it with clarity, not to mention kindness for those with another view, it is much easier to push the envelope without causing turmoil.

Logistical Note: consider your length of tenure when you decide what you are going to talk about. You can get away with more when you have been there longer.

2. Prepare yourself: don’t get reactive to the reactivity.

This was Edwin Friedman’s mantra about taking a stand, whether around a leadership initiative, or with staff, or even moving the pulpit from one side of the chancel to the other. When people try to engage you in an argument, stay light about it. One of Friedman’s lines was: “The Lord moves in mysterious ways to put you and me in the same church…” When I actually used that line once upon a time, the church member responded, “Well, I was here first…” Yet what it did was help me avoid feeling defensive. It put the whole exchange into a bigger picture. Your goal in this is not to change others, but to manage and express yourself with clarity and compassion.

3. Stay connected to the people who disagree with you.

Don’t avoid them. You don’t have to talk about the topic of the sermon, necessarily. Just stay in touch. If they want to engage on the topic, you might simply get curious about their position on the issue. (See Ron Richardson’s wonderful book Polarization and the Healthier Church for much more on this.) It is often so easy to join with the people who are on your side, and ignore the rest. But that’s not the goal here, so be proactive and stay connected.

There are no guarantees, of course. However, if you can stay non-defensive and relatively light, chances are good you will keep your job, whether you are addressing a controversial social issue, the ministry direction you want to go, or what you believe about the spiritual life (in relation to money, for example).

Pushing the envelope in an established structure is not easy, and I don’t recommend you do it every week or every month. But for the times when you are called on to take a stand, this is what I recommend.

I want to leave you with two questions to consider. The first one is a big question that you can mull over for a while, and the second question is a direct one that I want you to answer immediately in the comments below. Ready?

Big Question to Mull Over:

What issues or beliefs do I feel compelled to take a stand on in my ministry?

Immediate Question To Answer in the Comments Below:

Who have I seen take a stand for something in their ministry that was inspiring?

Take a minute and write your answer to the Immediate Question in the comments below. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Thanks for exploring this with me!

2 Responses to How to preach sermons that make people wiggle and keep your job

  1. Rev Lynda McClelland says:

    Thank you for this article. Bishop Pierson has inspired me by taking a stance stating that God wants all people to survive happy and whole, therefore God is not perched on a tree watching every move we make so we can be punished in a burning hell. I am parphrasing, but hopefully all can hear the point.

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