Is There Power in the Pulpit?
The very first piece of criticism I received when I began to emerge as a preacher, while a student at Lipscomb University, came from one of my peers: “Women preachers just seem power-hungry to me.” The comment seemed so strange to me at the time, but over and over again I’ve continued to hear that particular rebuttal to women preaching. The comment initially struck me as odd, because women’s journey to the pulpit in this denomination is not glamorous. We have not looked to the pulpit as an accessible vehicle for increasing our worldly power. Most women preachers in Churches of Christ became preachers incidentally; many of us were pursuing other dreams when we first began to detect the calling in our lives. The gifting emerged over time, the affirmation arrived from unexpected places, and the path continued to open before us by the work of the Holy Spirit. This journey has been one of tremendous joy, but has certainly been marked by sacrifice, vulnerability, and a constant reckoning of my own weaknesses. So, is it fair to say women preachers in general are motivated by a worldly hunger for power? No. But I do want to spend some time carefully considering why this criticism would emerge in the first place. Clearly, for such a comment to be made, people must view the pulpit as a bastion for power, and I must affirm that there does seem to be power in the pulpit. A quick overview of the history of Christianity would reveal that preachers and proclaimers of the Word have often been the linchpins of congregational change and cultural movement. It was preaching that largely spread the teachings of Christ in the first centuries following the Ascension. It was preaching that helped to define communities of Christ apart from other religious groups of the day. It was preaching that urged and instructed Christians in their discipleship. It was preaching that largely fanned the flames of the Protestant Reformation. It was preaching that drew Christians out to fields for the revivals of the Great Awakenings. And it is preachers today who continue to impact the minds of congregants, and give shape to current expressions of Christianity around the world. So yes, there is obviously tremendous power in the pulpit. But what kind of power?
There seem to be two forms of power that are inherent to the act of preaching: one would be the power of the public spoken word, and the other is the presumed power of God speaking through the preacher. There are two different experiences of these forms of power in the act of preaching: the preacher, who channels the power, and the congregation, who perceives the power.
The power of the public spoken word has led homileticians throughout history to study formal rhetoric and speech theory. Preachers have sought to understand the nature of speech, in order to best wield it. Some preachers develop speaking patterns that effectively stir response in their hearers, some preachers design logical arguments according to classical expositions on argument and persuasion, some preachers have sought to establish a common language between preacher and hearer in order to declutter their message. Hearers who listen to skilled public speakers often accept the pulpit, the microphone, or even the use of the Bible, as symbols of power, thus eliciting the respect or at least the attention of the hearer. Thus, there is the power wielded by the speaker, and the perception (and thus generation) of power by the hearer. Many congregants trust the preacher who can make a strong appeal while simultaneously delighting the senses.
The power of God speaking through the preacher has long been an important component of proclamation in Christianity. In fact, it has its roots in Judaism, as Scripture describes prophetic speech as the “words of God.” For the spiritually formed preacher who believes that God speaks through the preaching event, the power of God is not something to be wielded, necessarily. Rather, the preacher sees himself or herself as a vessel or conduit of that power. Discerning, spiritually formed congregants can typically detect when the preacher has humbly and sincerely sought to communicate the Word of God. The belief that God would be willing to speak through Scripture, and through preaching, is a bold statement of faith. Those who fear the Lord rightfully heed the Word when they hear it, although the interpretive process of the Word varies contextually. The result is that the preacher becomes an entrusted carrier of divine power in the preaching event, and the hearer affirms the power of the Word by listening and heeding.
In these two inherent forms of power in the pulpit, one can easily see opportunity for disaster. Where there is perceivable power, humans will often seek to exploit. Thus, many charismatic figures from history, and in present day, have manipulated language and communication to charm their audiences into submission. Many people with hardened hearts and inflated egos have entered church pulpits in order to manipulate people for their own gain. Likewise, many people throughout history, and in present day, have recognized the ways in which people will submit to a Word from the Lord. Thus, they have posed as prophets, preachers, and leaders who possess access to the power of God (whether by piety, by position, or by some other merit) so that people will follow them.
Not all abuses of the power of the pulpit look like televangelists using phoned-in contributions to purchase private jets. Sometimes the abuse is much subtler (it might even seem harmless). Sometimes preachers do not reflect carefully on the way in which the inherent power disparity between speaker and listener is impacting their own self-identity. Basically, a preacher may not realize how much the power has gone to their head. A preacher may not recognize that some of their own behaviors are increasing the power disparity between preacher and congregants, thereby forcing the congregants into a dependent relationship with the preacher. A preacher may have beautiful intentions, but may lack awareness about these abuses.
Sometimes the abuse of the pulpit looks like a minister who is tired, so he or she decides to recycle old sermons with very minimal revision. The preacher foregoes the entrusted task of listening carefully to God for a Word for today, and rather digs up the archives for a Word that was once for somebody else. The congregation will have little choice but to receive this laziness as a divine Word.
Sometimes the abuse of the pulpit looks like a stubborn preacher who is unwilling to share the pulpit with somebody else, because they have convinced themselves that they are simply that important to the church; nobody else could possibly fill that spot.
Sometimes the abuse of the pulpit looks like a preacher who takes the opportunity on Sundays to align the congregation by coercion to his or her own opinions about matters that are certainly up for debate. Rather than the sermon functioning as an invitation to think through unclear matters together, the preacher uses the sermon as a litmus test of truth, forcing congregants to either align or shut up.
These abuses take on countless forms, and nobody is perfectly immune. All who enter the pulpit must be vigilant against power-hunger. Why do women preachers get criticized for being power-hungry? Because many Christians have learned to see pulpits as a storehouse for worldly power. Perhaps the issue rests not so much in who desires to enter the pulpit, but rather who is occupying the pulpit right now. Preaching at its best is an act of servant leadership. It is an opportunity for a preacher to make a public wager on what they believe God is up to in the community. It is an opportunity for the congregation to consider together, over the Word, what it means to be a Christian today. Certainly, being a Christian today, whether behind the pulpit or beyond, still entails humility and a willingness to sacrifice our own self-interests.