On Leading with the Sermon

I was gratified to receive some kind comments about my book, Leading With the Sermon.  Donna Giver Johnston is a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania.  She is currently working on a book on preaching that’s to be published by Fortress Press.  I’m grateful that my thoughts on preaching and church leadership struck a chord with this gifted pastoral leader.

January 8, 2021

Dear Rev. Dr. Willimon,

I just finished reading your book Leading with the Sermon: Preaching as Leadership. I can’t remember the last time I read a book like this; at one moment feeling affirmed, underlining words and writing in the margin “yes!” and the next moment feeling exposed and writing in the margin “ouch!” As I read, I went back and forth between feeling like a competent preacher and courageous leader to feeling like a cowardly preacher and a conciliatory leader. 

You have given me much to ponder and practice. I will mention three points here.

One is the challenge to go beyond caring empathy to daring disciple making. You say that we should not focus on relationships or worry about the people who threaten to leave the church, but preach the truth, even if it hurts. I am one who is not afraid to preach the truth, but I also need to have people to preach to, in order to make disciples to go out and tell, not to mention people who support the mission–and the budget! I think there is a tension between being pastoral and prophetic, between caring for people and confronting people with the truth. 

I heard your recognition of this tension when you said, “good preachers always venture saying more than the congregation wanted to hear,” but you also said, “the twenty-minutes-of-words-worth-saying on Sunday require a preacher who listens” and that sometimes you have to be patient until it’s the right time to preach a word. We pastors live in this tension, which is not always comfortable, but is where I am challenged to be more aware of my strengths and weaknesses, grow as both leader and manager, as well as more dependent upon the grace of God. 

Second, it was jarring to read, “the church is, by its nature, a formula for failure” because so much of what pastors are called to do is have successful churches. But, then I read this striking sentence: “preaching that is faithful is tethered to the One who lived briefly, failed miserably, died violently, and then rose unexpectedly, returning to the same losers who had betrayed and forsaken him.” I understand that it is not about success as much as faithfulness, at least theologically. Practically speaking, we are trying to lead a church, not let it fail. It was helpful to read both the reality that at times “we muddle through,” but with a pastor who engages in persistent practice of transformational preaching and commitment to courageous and fearless leadership, with God, all things, even deep institutional change from a maintenance to a missional congregation is possible.    

Third, you wrote and I underlined “the optimum context for learning the courage to speak the truth is not seminary but in a small, trusting, and trustworthy intentional peer group who covenants to grow together as preachers.” I have decided to take your recommendation and to seek out a few folks to read this book with me. First on my list is the newest member of my staff who recently preached a sermon that offended someone and he threatened to leave. I met with the man asking him to stay. And I talked with her about how to balance prophetic with pastoral preaching. I am re-thinking this now, and have invited her to discuss this book with me, so that we might learn together how to be emboldened to be both prophetic preachers and courageous leaders, for the sake of the church and for the sake of Jesus Christ, who is both the head of the church and the Lord of our lives.

In the end, I agree with your claim: “faithful pastoral leaders find a way to lead from the pulpit” and “the major way that Christians are subsumed into and formed by the gospel story is by preaching.” Yes! And yet, after having read your book, I find myself feeling more anxious about writing my sermon this week, wondering if I am up to the challenge and at the same time knowing that as the one called by God and by my congregation to preach the Word, I will do it, and I pray that with the power and help of the Holy Spirit, it is a transformative word of truth.

For your bold challenge to preachers, your encouraging affirmation that God equips those called, and for your unwavering belief in the power of the gospel to change the world for good, thanks be to God!  

Sincerely and gratefully yours,

Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston

Pastor, Community Presyterian Church of Ben Avon

Pittsburgh, PA

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