Last summer I did a short-term pastor gig, bridging the time between an interim who had to leave on a specific date and the new called pastor. My first Sunday was the week after the Orlando night club shootings, followed too quickly by the police shooting of Philando Castile, in our own metro area on July 6th. I was temporary, and had a lot of vehemence built up from not preaching in awhile, so the congregation got everything I had in those sermons. I felt the freedom of being an outsider, and in a way representing my urban neighborhood in a very different context. After the first sermon, which I have posted on this blog (“Demonizing the Other”), I had a phone call just letting me know that they hadn’t ever really addressed what the caller referred to as “the homosexuality issue” at this congregation, but knew they needed to, so a few people were upset. Okay. On my final Sunday, the Council President included in her farewell: “Pastor Lee Ann, you have certainly challenged us! And we hope you will come back and do it again.” It felt like I was the right preacher for the right time.
On the one hand, we claim that with the trust of the congregation, pastors who care for their parishioners well will be best able to change their hearts and minds when necessary. On the other hand, there is a lot of safe preaching (I admit to it too) because you love your people, are tired of griping, or don’t want to start something when there is already enough conflict. Even if the Holy Spirit and/or the news are prompting you: “We must address this!” There must be Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian congregations where the preacher is expected to agitate and unsettle the congregation, and those are probably already branded in our area as “social justice” churches. But I’d wager a guess that the vast majority have some topics they know they should crack open, but haven’t.
So here’s an idea: All pastors get some Sundays off, and require substitutes (we call that “pulpit supply”). What if pastors in the metro area knew of a list of challenging preachers who could say what needs to be said, to open or support on-going conversations which the called pastor may not -for whatever reason – choose to do alone. What if such a list not only included preachers who can speak personally about the impact of ministry in the midst of said issue, but BY THEIR PRESENCE make a point. In some churches, this could be the first experience with an LGBTQ Lutheran preacher, or first theological conversation about racism with an African-American Lutheran preacher or only firsthand account by a preacher who has worked directly with refugees. A “Challenge Us Pulpit Supply” list could support pastors in congregations, and give a wider audience to preachers who might serve in specialized ministries (or are otherwise available during Sunday mornings). It should definitely be handled with consultation beforehand to understand the congregation’s limits and needs for challenge, but the freedom of preaching in the regular pastor’s absence could open a can of worms in a very good way!