The One Thing Every Congregation Could Do to Grow

Stop making your preacher nervous.
Not Me! It would have been JLA in my hands!

Your worship service is the most important effort you make right now to persuade people to a life of the liberal spirit.  The sermon is probably where the content of the service is, at the present. Your preacher articulates liberal religion every week.

(Sidebar: I know that this whole scenario is problematic in a lot of ways. If you want to do church a different way, I am not stopping you. But if you are like most of the readers of this blog -- doing congregational worship as UU's have in contemporary times, this is for you.)

Folks want a clear, understandable and memorable message when they come to church, especially if they are not regular church-goers. They want it to have some bite, and some challenge, and to be clear. They want it to be emotional congruent, that the message and the affect of the minister seem to match.

Is your congregation's practice to encourage brave and forthright preaching? Or is your congregation's practice to make the preacher nervous?

When you rush to let the preacher know every place you disagree with the sermon, or with the examples, you're creating anxiety.

When you send the preacher an email, correcting grammar, or the odd fact, or the misplaced attribution, your making the preacher nervous.

When you let the preacher know that the experience that the sermon reflected on was not your experience, and so you feel offended or left out, you're making it hard for the minister to be clear. (There are a small group of people who really didn't like their mothers; they can reduce the Mother's Day sermon for a nervous preacher to mush-mouthed mumbling.)

The nervous preacher projects an eagerness to please that comes across as insincerity and a lack of integrity.

Unitarian Universalism needs wise, brave, forthright, prophetic, perceptive, and provocative preaching on a wide variety of subjects. Above all, preaching needs to interesting and memorable.

Does your congregation encourage great and brave preaching, or does it make the minister nervous?


  1. As counterpoint, I would guess that hearing feedback from your listeners is an innate facet of the power relationship inherent in preaching. You are speaking what people are believing to be the absolute truth of reality in some sense. The universe should not be misspelled or historically-inaccurate, much less wrong in some real (you feel) way.

    I'm only a basic novice, but it is my idealistic hope that at least some of this problem can be prevented by the preacher checking their humility and making sure they aren't trying to say the absolute truth. But how to balance that with the prophetic voice?

    And is there even a duality there?

  2. Anonymous2:22 PM

    As for Mothers Day (and Fathers Day), nobody should be preaching about it; there should be an annual ritual for it that invites each to ponder the meaning of the occasion as they need to. Annual topics can be some of the most boring sermon preparations of the year, and everyone preaches best when their subject holds their interest.

  3. can I hire you as a consultant, can I send you a valentine's card, can I tell you how much I appreciate you, can I honor you by contributing to your favorite charity, can I start a fan club??????

  4. I have to say, I think my congregation is pretty good at encouraging brave preaching & bold ministry. Whether or not I live up to that enough is another question, of course!

    But, for example, I took a pretty big public stand this week, with little discussion beforehand, and my congregation was nothing but proud, based on what I've heard for the last four days.

  5. Kate Rohde1:40 PM

    I like the basic thrust of what you have to say, but I also like appropriate feedback as a preacher. Maybe the key is "appropriate" --- well timed and said in a spirit of helpfulness or discussion rather than aggrieved. If I make an error of fact, someone should let me know and if I am consistently making a particular error in language usage or pronunciation I would appreciate a heads up in a kindly way. The part of your message I particularly resonate with is that congregations need to expect and accept that their minister will sometimes see things differently than they do -- and that is a good thing.

  6. Parker Palmer might say that the overly anxious preacher/congregation combo has lost sight of the "Great Thing" that the preaching serves: enacting the sacred in our midst, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We can spin toward idolatry if the preaching is just about the preacher's performance or the listeners' feelings. It's about something much greater, our shared endeavor, the purpose of our gathering. Sacred Truth. (for more, see The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer - his description of the Community of Truth is right on for UUism.)

  7. I'm late to the conversation here I know. I agree that a response from a congregant that simply says -- "I disagree with what you are saying, please stop saying it" -- isn't likely to lead to interesting or thought-provoking sermons if the minister takes it to heart.

    That said, I have, on occasion, emailed a minister about a sermon and like to think that if I were in their shoes it would gratifying to know that my words inspired someone to engage in further dialogue. In general, I only email a minister if a sermon speaks to me in some way. If a sermon falls flat, or comes from a place completely alien to me, I see no constructive point in responding. Anyway, I see your point but I also think that the ability have conversations that include respectful disagreement is one thing I like about our culture.


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