Pastoring in Partisan Times
By Fred Koenig
There has been much discussion about how people seemed to have become more entrenched in polarized viewpoints regarding politics issues. When the people on opposite ends of the spectrum come together on Sunday morning, it can be challenging waters for the preacher to navigate in order to make worship the holy experience it is intended to be. The Missouri Conference offered a series of webinars, facilitated by Director of Connectional Ministries Kim Jenne, in the fall of 2017 to give experts the opportunity to offer advice on pastoring in partisan times.
Mike McCurry, director of the Center for Public Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary and former White House Press Secretary (1995–1998), started off the weekly series on October 19. McCurry said that when he considers how to communicate effectively, it comes down to five c’s of communication.
Credibility – This is first and foremost to being effective. You must be authentic, engaged in the community and in leadership groups. You want to be known as genuine, credible, truth-telling person. (This was a challenge for me in the Clinton years).
Candor – Be willing to acknowledge when things are coming up poor, mistakes are made, and people are not telling the truth.
Clarity – You must be crystal clear in what you are communicating. Pastors are lucky because they have something in scripture to address this – Biblical truth in addressing the church. I’m a Clinton person, but part of her problem in the campaign was that she was never clear what her vision was for the country. The other message was Make America Great Again. No one understood what we were being Stronger Together for.
Commitment – Got to be desperate with primacy in preaching the word of God and commitment to being effective communicator with some technical proficiency.
Compassion – As a pastor, you’re in the compassion business to begin with. Your audience is bombarded with shreds of information. But we’ve got gospel truths. Pastors are called to their vocation to enunciate gospel good news. You must be mindful of how difficult it is to be clear. We look at ways we can be effective and make a difference in the tone of public discourse being communicated. This is the most bitter and divisive poisonous time as I have seen. If there is a way we as church can remedy some of sulfur in the climate, we will make world better.
McCurry said as Whitehouse Press Secretary he had a reputation as a spin doctor in politics, and that is not something he wants to be remembered for.
“I would rather be a truth-teller,” he said. McCurry encourages people to use the Wesley quadrilateral based on scripture, tradition, reason and experience when forming opinions and not to be shy about changing positions on an issue when you recognize that there is more to it than you thought initially.
The next week Dr. Leah Gunning-Francis, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Christian Theological Seminary, said pastors need to hold true to their faith despite political leanings.
“We naturally want to appease people and make them comfortable, but it is impossible to do that in light of gospel,” she said.
“You can’t hold onto an ideology of bigotry and disrespect when Bible calls us to something different. For those who say, ‘As a follower of Christ, I uphold acts of degradation,’ I can’t appease that. There is absolutely nothing right about the president of the United States standing at the presidential podium and calling U.S. citizens SOBs. There is nothing I can give you to say to make that O.K. There is a lack of respect or human dignity there. There is no way to make that O.K. for folks who refuse to have a problem with it.”
Gunning-Francis said Christians must be willing to speak up and speak out about things that are inappropriate, immoral and anti-ethical to God’s way.
“For Jesus to heal on the Sabbath, it was political move. For Jesus to talk to women, it was political. It was counter-cultural.
The Bible is fraught with stories of how Jesus was engaged in the politics of the day. It’s not about bringing politics into the church, it’s about being human and following the ways of Christ.”
She said pastors who are successful at bridging the political divide approach the task with openness, understanding and compassion. It’s important for pastors to have a kind of openness that allows them to understand that each of us is more than our political persuasion. She noted that next spring is 50th anniversary of assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and we recently celebrated that 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protestant declaration.
“We can bridge the role of both reformers, who forged onward into the future filled with hope,” she said.
Rev. Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, headed up week three. He explained that the area immediately surrounding his church was overwhelming Republican, and his congregation is about 60 percent Republican and 40 percent Democrat. He realizes he can’t spout off about his own personal convictions without considering where his listeners are coming from.
When asked if he’s liberal or conservative, he replies, “Yes, of course.” He feels both sides bring valuable things to the table, and labels shift, noting that Martin Luther would have been considered liberal in his views at the time but conservative now.
When addressing a controversial topic (which he defines as having a large number of people on both sides), Hamilton spends a lot of time on research to fully understand the issue. In the sermon, he’ll spend about 10 minutes laying out one side of the issue, so people with that position can see that he understands their perspective. He’ll follow that with 10 minutes on the other side, and then conclude with 10 minutes on what his perspective is, trying to find common ground and acknowledging that he may be wrong.
He said pastors must consider their goal when it comes to prophetic preaching. Irritating people is easy. Influencing them takes much more work. In the Bible, prophets would show up, have their say and go away. Pastors are with their congregations week after week for years on end.
“I could preach things at year 10 that I couldn’t have preached at year five,” he said.
Pastors should first build trust with a congregation before they expect anyone to listen to them. Leadership capital comes from years of things like showing up at the hospital when someone is sick.
He also suggests not overdoing it – if you try to stretch something too far, it doesn’t come back. After a stretching sermon, it should be followed with something like the Gospel of John, with reaffirmation and reassurance. He only preaches four or five sermons a year on critical issues.
Hamilton recalled that earlier this year after a sermon on immigration a “second row” person stopped coming to church. He called the man to ask if he could meet with him over coffee to talk about it then asked the man to tell him what he heard in the sermon. The man replied that he thought he was saying in the sermon that we, as a nation, should take in all six million refugees, and he is afraid for his grandchildren. Hamilton said he didn’t think taking in that number of refugees was possible, but he also didn’t think it is right to eliminate all immigration to the country. The man agreed. They found common ground, and he returned to church.
“Picking up the phone to call someone to do that… we’re hesitant. I learned how to eat crow. I found at times I clearly didn’t communicate in a way that was helpful,” he said. “But when a pastor takes the time to initiate a conversation and sits down with you to hear your perspective, it’s pretty hard to look at her or him and say ‘I’m leaving anyway’.”
Hamilton suggested that small group studies are usually a better format for addressing critical issues than a Sunday morning sermon. They allow for deeper engagement and dialogue.
“People have formed their understanding of an issue after many years of consideration. You have to be realistic regarding how much you can change a perspective with a 30-minute sermon,” Hamilton said.
Rev. David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, led week four. He said a church taking action or articulating a posture relating to a public policy it natural and important, in moderation.
“My experience would tell me addressing issues either in action or proclamation is part of a balance diet in the life of the local church,” he said. “It should be part of the overall agenda of the church, advancing but doing so without overshadowing everything else.”
He cautioned against reducing the entire purpose of the church to tackling controversial issues.
“The people of your congregation have all kinds of problems in everyday life, including death and dying,” he said. “Sometimes the controversial issues are not the most important thing to someone.”
On the other hand, he cautioned against not addressing issues to avoid controversy.
“Default to silence out of fear is a failure,” he said. “There are issues that need to be addressed with character.”
Gushee said he tries to let issues emerge naturally from the text that he is preaching. If someone isn’t taking their scripture from the lectionary, she or he has an even great responsibility to not be a “hobby horse” preacher, who just hits on personal pet issues.
Gushee admonished the politics of outrage, seeing equally on both sides, in which rather than trying to understand the perspective of someone with a different viewpoint, someone simply expresses outrage. He advised setting and adhering to limits on social media consumption because the environment is too toxic.
Noting that Christianity is a 2,000 year old tradition rooted in a 4,000 year old tradition, Gushee said that defaulting to the talking points of a political party shows an individual’s real lack of theological identity.
“I’m concerned about the vitality of Christian ethics. Methodist ethics have a heritage, we need to be aware of it. We need a social vision that goes beyond The New York Times,” he said. “You need to feed minds and spirit with resources beyond the news, with the greatest voices of our heritage. If what you say from the pulpit on any issue is indistinguishable from a political party talking point, you’re probably in a great deal of trouble.”
Gushee advises pastors to avoid speaking in clichés that make them sound like Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity.
“When you engage, do so in a way that the political grounds for it are unassailable,” he said. Gushee said he feels we (as a society) are doing the 1960s all over again now.
“If it feels like you’re surrounded by swarming bees that are always trying to sting you, it’s because you are,” he said. “Stay theologically grounded, and give yourself some grace because you’re not always going to get it right.”
Following the webinars, retired Mark Twain District Superintendent Dale Stone and Rev. Fred Leist of Missouri UMC had a Facebook live video conference to discuss the webinars. Stone said he agreed with what he heard about being a pastor to the people first.
“You have to build up trust, or people aren’t going to listen to you,” he said.
Leist said he tries to listen, learn and lead, in that order.
“We exegeses scripture, but we also need to exegeses the congregation or community,” Leist said.
Stone said in every community he was in, he was involved in a political party or group that worked on political issues. He had life outside of church in the political realm. The only time he had someone leave his church over a political issue was when someone got mad at him for putting up a sign for a school board candidate.
Leist said he grew up in a small holiness church, in which you had to adhere strictly to the beliefs set down by the denomination. It was a different world than he’s in now.
“Methodism is a big tent,” he said. “I was amazed how people could have such divergent opinions and still be in communion together.”