Leadership seems to be a popular topic in dying denominations. The United Methodist Church is no different. Adam Hamilton addresses an annual conference with a teaching segment that uses outdated computer hardware to illustrate his point. He begins with this statement (that I abbreviated) “change…or die”.  Now Adam goes on to tell great stories about what is happening at his church. It’s inspiring.  I’m sure many church leaders left that gathering fired up with new ideas and energy….. but what churches unwilling to change?


Those churches would never claim this but they have chosen to die.  Any attempts to introduce innovation may fire up a few but create a divide as conflict would erupt over any change.  To these churches new songs, new ministries and new people are threatening.  Adam Hamilton’s wonderful address offers very little to pastors who find themselves in the pulpit of a dying, stiff necked congregation. 


Even the best “leadership” events seem to boil down to “how many did you…serve, preach to, equip?” and every stewardship drive is centered on the offering plate.  Numbers.  Sad to say, but sometimes it feels like THE RIGHT NUMBER IS THE RIGHT AND ONLY GOAL….whether that pertains to participation numbers or proceeds from the weekly offering. 


Worse yet this emphasis gives the impression that a pastor’s worth as a servant of God is based on these numbers.  This is unfortunate because so many gifted and graced pastors are appointed to churches that refuse to innovate.  Those numbers of attendance and money that slowly decreased in the 90’s are now in a full tail spin.  Preaching revival and leadership in this environment is counterproductive.  What is a faithful preacher to do?


I humbly submit this idea for preaching.  Pastoral care and preaching are not separate disciplines; rather they are organic to each other.  Allow the pulpit to reflect the healing and hope for brokenness found in the soul, in other words preach pastoral sermons.  Pastoral sermons differ from sermons with other purposes by creating a safe place in worship for the “exile”, “firefighter” or “manager” to be addressed.  (see the post on Internal Family Systems).  To put it more clearly, allow deep soul inspection without judgment by the preacher. Take a look at these differences:


  • Pastoral sermons accept the tension areas in being human (grief & loss, shame & guilt, for example). This unites the congregation.  Everyone has felt guilt at some time or another.  Everyone has lost a dream at some point in their lives.  The tone is understanding and empathetic, thus creating safety.  Leadership sermons often praise the boldness of leaders (Biblical and otherwise) and shame others for not getting on board.  This creates division as congregants try to figure if they are in the leadership group or the slacker group.
  • Pastoral sermons create a safety that allows comfort through facing the tension (a focus on what is, not what should be).  In contrast, leadership sermons shoot for answers and instruction on how to overcome. 
  • Pastoral sermons introduce the grace of God as a balm of healing.  Leadership sermons point to God as a leader to be followed and imitated. 
  • Pastoral sermon primes the pump for deep stories of hurt and personal hopes to be shared. It encourages vulnerability of the congregation with the pastor and with each other, thus creating trust.  Leadership sermons inspire people to dream about the future of their church.


The task of preparing a pastoral sermon is really a change in the focus of preparation.  Exegesis is important and never let it be overlooked.  But the question of meaning making must take the stage at some point in the sermon creation process.  When that happens, choose a lens that struggles with humanness. 


FOR EXAMPLE  this week’s lectionary text


Mark 7:1-8. 14-15, 21-23        A sermon that is more leadership focused may hone in on the traditions of the Pharisees verses the warnings of Jesus. (Maybe contrast also some Old Testament background on hand washing ritual?)  The preacher may then call upon the church to examine the traditions they have created and provide a standard (from scripture) for doing so.  This would be a cautionary sermon or a self check sermon (for the church or individual).


A pastoral sermon would do the same exegetical work but ask the question:  what spiritual needs are met by NOT doing these things Jesus warns the Pharisees about?  Jesus is cautioning us about something to do with our souls, our emotions, our human needs?  What is it? A good question pondered…..


Dividing the scripture up by the three portions of warning we ask those very questions of the text.  Mark 7:6-8 addresses a betrayal of God.  Mark 7: 14-15&23 addresses betrayal of self.  Mark 7:21-22 addresses betraying communal peace.  (Sound like the greatest commandment?) Within the context of community ritual (hand washing), my take on the sermon would be about feeling spiritually hollow.  Just as hollow worship is useless (on the outside), we often feel useless on the inside.  At some point most congregants have felt nothing inside their soul, dead, dry and lost. The preacher would present this human problem by claiming it for the congregation (everyone has felt this way; you are not alone) thus making worship a safe place for congregants to say to themselves what they would never utter in church:  “I feel empty inside.” Using the comparison of empty worship to an empty soul feeling, the preacher would address the human problem gently applying the balm of grace found in the hope offered by Christ.

Pastoral Sermon checklist

  • Does the sermon speak to the trouble associated with being human?
  • Does the sermon speak to something not readily shared in a group?
  • Does the sermon touch on emotion?
  • Is the sermon absent of judgement?  Do I use the word “should” alot?
  • Is God presented in a healing, hopeful way?


Preaching pastorally to a dying congregation may prove helpful if the preacher is searching for a paradigm for sermon preparation.  This paradigm keeps the focus off numbers.  But there is fruit.  The rewards are reaped when the pastor has more opportunities (given by the congregant) to listen to the soul, sit with their pain, and comfort their loss.  The “change” one would hope for in this situation is an openness among the congregants with each other.  The hope is to impact the church’s culture; making the community more open and sensitive to each other and God’s work among them.


—From one pondering prophet to another—