Article written by The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
In my 2017 and 2021 surveys of U.S. mainline Protestant pastors about ministry, preaching, and social issues, nearly half of them reported receiving negative pushback when addressing a social issue in a sermon. This pushback takes the form of angry emails or letters as well as direct personal confrontation. Some pastors also report that congregants have withheld financial support, stopped attending worship, withdrew their membership, or called for their resignation when angry about a sermon.
Yet clergy are called to address the public issues that affect the people of God. The prophets in the Hebrew scriptures consistently preached truth to power. Jesus spoke publicly about all manner of social issues including taxes, poverty, hunger, the treatment of women, the status of outsiders, the exercise of power, and capital punishment of which he would become a victim). And the apostles engaged in the public square throughout the Mediterranean world that put them at odds with religious and secular leaders alike.
However, as voluntary organizations, the religious economy of congregations in the United States places pressure on clergy to respond to their local political and ministry context in specific congregations where they could fall out of favor with influential laity or otherwise jeopardize their relationships with the people they are called to serve. So how can pastors navigate the “landmines” when preaching about social issues? Here are ten suggestions adapted from my book, Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019):
1. Teach your congregation the biblical examples of how people of faith engaged topics of public concern. Help them to see that disagreement and conflict are not only part of God’s story with us, but that the Bible itself contains many voices, perspectives, and agendas which sometimes contradict each other. If God is okay with God’s Word having these internal conversations, the church can learn to work with these complicated conversations as well.
2. Tell your congregation about the church’s history of engaging controversial issues. Focus especially on your denomination’s history of engagement and the precedent it sets. This will help them understand both the ancient and recent historical context within which your own preaching will take place.
3. Have preparatory conversation with your congregation’s leadership group (board, council, elders, etc.) before preaching the sermon. Ask them what concerns they have and what suggestions they can offer for best approaching the subject. Note, this is not to seek permission but, rather, guidance. Alert key leadership that you’ll be addressing a sensitive topic so that they are prepared and not caught off guard.
4. Talk with clergy colleagues about your sermon. Test-drive the sermon with them and ask for suggestions to finesse the more controversial parts of the sermon. Seeking advice from trusted colleagues can both keep us honest and give us courage.
5. Consider talking to folks in the congregation ahead of time who you suspect may be triggered by the sermon you will preach. This is being “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Asking for their thoughts about the topic demonstrates that you are willing to listen before you speak. This, in turn, builds trust.
6. Invite different voices into your sermon preparation – and even into the sermon itself. Ask people to share their stories, concerns, and questions either formally with preparation or informally during the preaching moment. Those hearing the sermon will get a more well-rounded perspective while allowing you to frame these perspectives and questions both biblically and theologically.
7. Be fair and avoid creating “straw men” or taking cheap shots against those who you believe to be on the “wrong” side of an issue. Acknowledge the complexities of individual human sin, as well as systemic evil. Use the sermon to lift up the “big questions” that underlie the headlines or controversies. And then frame them within biblical and theological terms.
8. Admit your own struggles with the issue. Allow yourself to admit your own complicity, and ways in which your heart and mind needed to be changed in order to see things a different way. Share your humanity even while you maintain some distance for prophetic critique.
In addition to these suggestions, be sure to maintain strong pastoral relationships, do your homework about a topic, and allow time for dialogue before and after the sermon. Doing these things will help to build relationships of trust so that your congregation will know that you care about them and your community rather than perceiving you to have a “political agenda.” With deep listening and respectful conversation, addressing social issues in preaching and teaching can be done collaboratively which builds and strengthens the Body of Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade recently spoke with The Moses Project 21-22 Cohort. During her discussion she shared a resource that is designed to help pastors discover their "Theologies of Conflict" which was Adapted from her book: Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). If you are interested in obtaining this resource, please email the firstname.lastname@example.org.