If you preach a BAD sermon in a colleague's pulpit?
If you preach a BAD sermon in a colleague’s pulpit?

For the Illustrious Matriarchs~

What would you do in response — or would you respond at all from the pulpit — to an egregiously BAD sermon by a one-off guest preacher? I don’t mean just thin, or shallow, or ineptly delivered, I mean WRONG and in flat, hurtful, contradiction of the Gospel of the day and the gospel in general?

Are we ever justified in preaching a “My reverend colleague to the contrary notwithstanding” or “OTOH” sermon? Or would you do the classroom-thing of taking a student’s wrong answer and kindly reframing it and handing it back to the group?

I would like to hear your thinking and your experience in this “fix,” Gals. I don’t want to seem ungracious or hateful but dear G-d in heaven, I can’t let this stand… or can I?
Blessings and thanks in advance,
A Matriarch Myself

Dear Matriarch-

I think I might come at it from the back door. Do you have a regular newsletter in which you could publish an educational article prefaced with, “Recent conversation at (church) have resulted in my writing this article.” Even if the conversations have been between you and your dog, it’s a way to get the facts out in a plain and simple way. I wouldn’t mention the colleague. Use it as a teaching moment but by publishing it, you can measure your words, there will be no misunderstandings of what you said and if people feel a need for more conversation, you can take it from there.

Good luck!
Heidi aka revhrod

Hi Friend and Colleague,

You know your context, and how the members of the congregation you serve would react to the guest’s sermon as well as the prospect of addressing a sermon which sounds like it was offensive to you. You know if the guest preacher has any relationship to the congregation. And you know the theological make-up of the congregation you serve.

I think an “on the other hand” sermon sounds fine, especially if your preface is gracious and thoughtful. People of good faith can certainly disagree, and my hunch is that the congregation you serve will be pleased to have you model what a respectful difference of option looks and sounds like.

All best to you as you continue to think about what’s right for your setting.

Jennifer at An Orientation of Heart

Dear Matriarch,

Isn’t it frustrating to relinquish our pulpit to someone and to have to clean up their theological mess? Well it is frustrating to me. I don’t have advice but a couple questions.

1. How did you come to know the sermon BAD? Has their been a response of any type from the congregation?
2. What is your relationship with the preacher? Ongoing relationship? Random preacher? How do you want this relationship to continue?
3. Will it benefit the overall life of the congregation or open a needed dialogue in your church about theology and belief?
4. Where are you in the picture which you describe?

In my ministry, when I have a strong reaction to the actions of a colleague, I try to figure out why I feel that visceral brain cramp in the situation. When I figure it out, it usually helps me discern the next step. Best wishes,

Shelly McNaughton-Lawrence

These are the tough ones aren’t they? I think that you should speak to it because unlike the children who are learning and vulnerable, he is in a position of authority. If you do not use your voice and your power, your education and knowledge, your silence affirms what he has said and there is no correction or learning. You, too, have authority and now is the time to use it.

How you use it may or may not be from the pulpit. An all church letter that sounds like a fireside chat not a lecture or a “What *does* the Bible say? inquiring minds want to know” church hall meeting or informal questions you raise asking people you trust what they thought are all ways to start engaging the conversation. If you find that he was dismissed by a majority of people, you may not have any issue at all. If he was adored by most, you would want to be sure to address it.

Rather than just question his credibility. it would be good to help others understand how they can see things differently and learn for themselves. Education is powerful. Thoughtfulness is powerful. Give the people more avenues for reflection on their own faith. Access some articles from the academic world. Are there scholars who agree with him? It’s okay to say, I just can’t stand to let this be, even though there are scholars who support him, or say there are no scholars who support support this. Be fair about it even if you hate it. (I live in Texas, I have plenty of scholars and non-scholars alike!)

Sarah at The Vicar of Hogsmeade

Dear Matriarch,

I love the idea of an OTOH Sermon. You can offer words of respect for the guest preacher, but share that you have a different take on the scripture passage. What a wonderful learning experience this has been for your congregation! It sounds like they have learned that 1) they are fortunate to have you as their pastor and 2) that not all pastors interpret scripture the same way – for better or for worse. And you have learned to be careful when scheduling guest preachers!

Blessings,

Jan at A Church for Starving Artists

Dear Matriarch Myself —

This is an interesting question because it raises the role of the preacher and the purpose of preaching. It also reminds us that people hear many words from the pulpit and not all of them are trustworthy! It also raises the reality that — although we frequently refer to the presence of the Spirit in our own preparation and preaching — others find that Spirit leading them in opposite ways.

Did the preacher propound on a matter of theology that contradicts your denomination’s doctrinal stance? My guess is that the answer is No, and instead the preacher responded to a social issue in a way that you disagree with, perhaps vehemently. Perhaps the person knew that to be the case and jumped on the opportunity to “set your congregation right”? Either of those two situations present additional issues. A doctrinal issue may need to be brought to the attention of higher-ups. (For example, I am Presbyterian and if someone propounded about the Rapture, that would be a matter of correction/discipline.) If the preacher was knowingly interfering with the life of the church you serve, that is a matter to address with that individual, perhaps one-on-one. (I would begin with my curiosity about why this person did what she/he did. Also, are they a threat to other churches to which they have access?)

But all of this talk about responding to the preacher doesn’t address your question, which asks about a response to the congregation. To answer that, I would consider: Who is being hurt by this “bad sermon”? Can I trust those persons to sift through the matter? It is always possible to reach out to vulnerable individuals who don’t have the necessary tools to reflect theologically.

In any case, this presents an opportunity for you to underline the importance of what is said or not said from the pulpit. Perhaps this matter should be considered by your governing board. If the governing board wants to send a letter to the preacher or print an announcement in the bulletin, that is much different from you responding alone. A “preacher vs. preacher” approach will smack of turf war (even if that isn’t the intent) and will lend credence to the supposition that the church is essentially a bully pulpit.

Let us know how it goes MM! I wish you every blessing of wisdom and equanimity as you proceed.

Ruth Everhart at Love the Work (do the work)

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Readers, what are your thoughts? We hope you will share them in the comments. And if you have a question for our panel, please send it via email to askthematriarch at gmail dot com.

7 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Responding to a BAD sermon

  1. I confess, I have never heard this exact complaint about a guest preacher. One time I heard loud and clear that the preacher shouldn’t come back, but it was a question of style not theology. The answers here are varied and all sound quite good… sounds as if the questioner has a lot of options to choose from, based on the context of her congregation. Terrific column!

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  2. Believe it or not, I don’t think you have to do anything…the people already have. They have decided. It is no reflection on you that this was a bad sermon or style; let’s just hope it wasn’t too painful a moment for the giver. If folks need to talk about it, you can handle it with prayer and generosity and forgiveness. I might be feeling angry and embarrassed, and it is those things I would need to take care of first.

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  3. Dear friends, I do thank you for these wise and generous replies… I am chary of offering too many circumstantial details because I really don’t want to identify any person or congregation more precisely. Suffice it to say it was Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday, the gospel was the Luke account of “the ten leopards” as the little Sunday schooler once told me, and the preacher had one main theme — the impossibility of our ever repaying God for his THE TERRIBLE BURDEN AND DEBT of his generosity — and one minor one, “at least we in the church are the ones TRYING to say thank you, even though it’s inadequate, unlike THOSE people OUTSIDE the church who don’t even TRY” (silly old Jesus, commending that low-down Samaritan unchurched furriner, i thought). That was the point at which I began to see red spots before my eyes.
    So I paused several times during the week to assess just how likely it was that anyone in the congregation had even been listening to Rev. Visitor, any more than they listen to me (the imaginings of vanity, there)…and the probability that no harm had been done because everybody was thinking about what time to get the turkey in the oven etc.
    And the next Sunday I said, “Rev. Visitor’s words have lingered with me this week and Really Made Me Think”… and then I set over against “debt” (our reading of God’s goodness) the idea of “delight” (or what is in God’s mind when he is so lavish). And I talked about feeding the little granddaughters, and how thrilling it is when they LIKE what we’re presenting on the spoon. And I believe I asked them to imagine God making airplane noises and brandishing the spoon over and over and over in the hope we might TAKE what he’s offering. And I quoted somebody I’ve forgotten who said, “The God we worship is NOT a passive-aggressive JERK.” And I talked about the astonishing willingness, yearning, of people OUTSIDE the community of faith to draw nearer (like the tenth leper) to the source of all good gifts, while too often we INSIDE the community are content to treat it as a demilitarized zone or a mutual non-aggression pact with the Almighty.
    I thought that was enough. Anybody who wished to, could draw the lines from one set of propositions to the other…
    It WAS as a whole experience a useful stimulus to say things I really want people to hear.

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  4. I have only once had a BAD wrong awful sermon – and it was damaging to an individual family in my flock too…. the one giving the sermon was actually one of the team (made it worse) and a woman I though I knew (even worse again!) I called her on it… explained why I did not agree, why it wasn’t relevant, and why it was damaging…. working with the family concerned took longer….
    I did not feel I needed to address it again subsequently – it had been so irrelevant, and blatantly wrong I don’t think most people thought much more of it.
    The pain was caused out of ignorance and not deliberate – though she was convinced she was right… For me, at the time, speaking to her directly, asking why she’d used that illustration, with that scripture, and particularly why she thought it was ok – helped.
    I told her, that her story had had a direct affect on one of our families… really tricky to do without giving away confidences… but I managed.
    Now that I have more experience I wonder if I’d do things differently…

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  5. I think it matters how and why this person was filling your pulpit. If it’s a person you chose so that you could be gone, you may feel the need to apologize for making a poor choice, especially if congregants feel betrayed by that choice. If it was not so closely in your control — e.g., a neutral pulpit — it’s a little bit different.

    My congregation is small and close-knit, so I would probably acknowledge that they heard ideas that may have startled/hurt/offended. They know that people of good faith can hold different ideas, but words spoken from the pulpit do carry great weight. It’s always good to affirm what you believe together.

    I agree with those who’ve advised not to make it personal, both because that’s hurtful and because it just won’t work. This isn’t about you or the other preacher; it’s about the Word. Lift that up.

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  6. The only time this has come up for me was when one portion of a very dysfunctional family asked another pastor in town to co-officiate a funeral at my church. They had not asked me first, and when I talked to the other pastor he told ME what HE planned to do in this funeral for a member of my congregation. We are absolutely polar opposites in terms of theology and style, and given that he had already acted unethically, I had a pretty strong suspicion that whatever he said was probably going to have to be essentially unsaid in my sermon. So I made sure I got the last word. I actually didn’t say anything directly addressing what he said; and my people have pretty good sense. I heard from them afterward that what he said was offensive, and they just waited him out until I got up to preach something one of them described as “worth listening to.”

    I also went to the funeral home and had a long conversation with the funeral director about what happened and how I did NOT expect it ever to happen again. The younger director, not more than a year or two out of school, actually apologized profusely to me on the way to the cemetery; it was his oversight that he didn’t contact me before telling one part of this family it’d be fine for my colleague to co-officiate the service.

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  7. Oh my, I could actually see that happening at just about any church I have ever served or could potentially serve as long as I stay in Texas. If the “right” retired pastor was called on to preach for the Stewardship keynote. Please keep in mind that there are potentially more than one of them. I appreciate the way in which this has served as a warning because I had thought of just about every other scenario and had forgotten to included this one because it’s been a few years since I’ve had the Stewardship keynote guest preacher. ::sigh:: #fictionwillneverbeatrealLife

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