I’m doing a series at Grace Cathedral, Charleston, S.C. on my book, Aging: Growing Old in Church. Here’s an interview with Bryce Wandrey of the Grace Cathedral team.
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
Since we couldn’t be with the grandchildren for Christmas I recorded this story from North Carolina author, O. Henry. Though written a century ago, O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi continues to be a Christmas favorite. Merry Christmas!
The Christian Century has published a review by Johanna Hartelius of my new book Preachers Dare with whom I also recently spoke when she interviewed me with Crackers & Grape Juice about the book. She writes:
The most profound insights in the book appear where Willimon traces his title’s assertion that “preachers dare” to the eternally and “lovingly loquacious” God of the Trinity. Even “before God spoke the cosmos, God enjoyed constant colloquy—the Father engaging the Son, the Divine Logos (John 1 doesn’t call Christ ‘the Word’ for nothing) in conversation with the Father, all in the communicative power of the Spirit.” Creation itself is an issuing forth of God’s articulation, the principle of Deus dixit. Humans ask, “Who are you Lord?” and God’s Word of reply is Jesus Christ, the Truth.
Mark Connolly had me back on his More Christ podcast to talk about my book The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything which has recently been republished by Paraclete Press with a new foreword by Lillian Daniel. We talked about what Jesus has to say to well-off folks without needs they’re aware of: he gives them an assignment to be part of the working out of his redemption in the world.
During the Dean’s sermon on Sunday at the National Cathedral, Randy quoted from an old sermon of mine. Here it is in context:
Advent proclaims that there is something more out there, something more that is coming, that the urging felt in the midst of our everyday lives is real, the emptiness we feel even as we accumulate more possessions is no accident.
Will Willimon the now retired Dean of the Chapel at Duke University once wrote, “Show me the person who is not waiting for something more to come, not yearning, not leaning forward, standing on tiptoe for something better and I will show you a person who has given up hope for anything better, someone who has settled down too comfortably in present arrangements and that’s sad. The future belongs to those who wait, for those who know we are meant for something better. The present darkness is not our final destination.”
You see the real function of Advent is not the preparation for Christmas if Christmas only means getting together all the things we need to give and receive gifts and getting all the things together that we need to have a celebration. The real function of Advent is not the preparation for Christmas if Christmas only means that we get the warm fuzzies at the baby Jesus we place in our Christ sets. The real function of Advent is the preparation for the radical entry of God into human history and the creation of something new. That’s why John the Baptist shows up at this time of year and says, “Repent! Turn around! Open up! Make God the center of your life instead of self or business or sports or success or power or money or popularity or status.”The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
Paraclete Press republished last month a new edition of my first book for churches, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything. Now with Paraclete, I’ve made a study guide which might help church groups who want to read through the book together or folks reading alone but looking for a deeper engagement, with questions which invite the readers to examine their lives and compare their experiences with mine which I’ve described in the book.
My friends of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast had me back on to talk about my new book, Preachers Dare. Johanna, Teer, and Jason asked me about Barth’s bold declaration that Deus Dixit, God speaks. We then get into why sentimentality is the enemy of the Gospel. I even sneak a Proust reference in.
I was quoted by Mya Jaradet in this Deseret News article about what pastors should do about differing political opinions within their congregations. The executive summary: don’t worry too much about it!
While many pastors avoid tackling a partisan divide head on for fear of exacerbating tensions, others say that such tensions should be expected and can be opportunities to teach Christian principles loving those you disagree with and finding common ground.
“I remember being in a conversation about the political divide a couple of years ago,” said the Rev. Dr. William Willimon, professor of the practice of christian ministry at Duke Divinity School and a retired United Methodist Church bishop, “and someone saying, ‘If you say that your church is unified then you haven’t done a very good job of evangelism — all you’ve done is collect people with politics in common and what you need is people who have God in common.’”
You can read the rest of the excellent piece here.