On Liberating the Preacher

Preaching may have been my chief cause of anxiety. I come from a tradition where the pulpit and pulpiteer hold a central place both architecturally and vocationally. People come expecting a lively, relevant Word of the Lord. I never shook the audacity of preaching. And I never found a deaf ear to the responses to “how I did.” Often, too often, it seemed to be about me.

So, I see liberation in the idea from family systems’ theorist Murray Bowen, filtered through friend of preachers, Walter Breuggemann (“The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” Theology Today 47 (1990). 237–47).

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). For instance, a tripod is more stable than a dyad. When two human beings become anxious they will likely “triangle” in a third person or issue or symptom as a way to reduce the tension. You know all too well the experience: two persons in conflict “triangling” you in as problem solver or the “problem” or the one left to worry about their problem. If it works, you hold the anxiety, they walk away feeling lighter. These lethal triangles are “bread and butter” challenges for pastors.

But here is a positive use of “triangling.” Often preaching is seen as what happens between pastor/preacher (A) and people /congregation (B). It sure looks that way. Preacher in the pulpit addressing people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting, people agreeing or not agreeing. A two-way conversation, A-B, it seems. And when the conversation is controversial, it’s predictably a win-lose proposition, some agreeing with the preacher, others not. In either case, the focus remains on the preacher and sermon.

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? I’m not talking about “tipping our hat” to the text, seeing the text as a jumping off place for our pet ideas. Rather, in Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It is the sense of God’s Word through words, scripture and ours, that matters.

I find this perspective liberating. As I confessed above, I can become overly preoccupied with my voice, feeling the pressure of crafting a correct interpretation, a polished sermon, a brilliant message. Yes, quite a burden to carry.

But can you feel the burden lifting when you turn up the volume, both the voice of the text and the voice of the people? Your voice becomes more prompter than expert. You are free to honestly struggle, play and fuss with the text—out loud—hoping that your words will provoke a similar engagement between listener and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with God. When it works, or better, when the Spirit works, your interaction, “A” with “C (text)” stimulates the congregant’s interaction with “C” (text). We say in effect: “Folks, this is what I see, feel and hear in this text. What do you see, feel and hear?” The shift occurs: the sermon becomes about God, not you.

I see in this idea an addendum. It occurs to me that “triangling” in the “text” can also be a way of pastoral leadership. Note situations of potential win-lose debate between “A” and “B”—e.g. differences over budget figures or couples in conflict or controversy on health care reform, homosexuality, illegal migrants or any controversial topic. Can you feel the difference, when in such a situation, you intentionally “triangle” in the “text” as “C” (i.e. church mission, God’s love, mind of Christ, covenants, etc.) and ask, “How does our faithfulness to our mutual commitments speak to this problem? What would faithfulness to the “text” look like?” Recognizing that beyond differences is the common desire to love as God loves, your ask, “What shape would this Love take in this situation?”

Maybe we do our best work when we “triangle” in the “texts” of our mutual calling in a variety of conversations, including preaching. What do you think?

2 Responses to On Liberating the Preacher

  1. Ben Wagener says:

    I felt immediately drawn to how this intriquing triangle fits with Jesus’s call for disciples to “follow him.”( Mark 8:34-38)
    With rare exeptions,I believe that joining a church today is too casual and without defining challenges to the radical call to deny or disown yourself and live into the excitement of being a disciple. The Biblical call is not just between the call of Christ and myself or between myself and belonging a community of faith. The call involves all three entities-myself,my faith community,and the ongoing invitations of the Christ that I believe are found especially in the gospels. Thank you Bowen and Brueggemann!
    Ben Wagener


  2. Stan Dotson says:

    It’s a great misdirection tool to simply ask what Jesus story or biblical text is at work whenever I’m in a conflicted conversation with a church member. It takes the focus off the anger and venting, and requires some thinking about how the story can inform our thoughts and feelings.


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