Preachers: Maintain Your Prophetic Edge

willimonA couple of years ago I took a seminar with a United Methodist Bishop, by the name of William H. Willimon. The man served as the pastor of 800 minister in his particular area. He has since retired and now serves as a professor of ministry at Duke University. The topic for our seminar was A Theology of Preaching. Willimon spent 30 years not only preaching, but doing some serious reflection and writing on its theological implications. It was a pleasure to be in class with this man and listen to his southern drawl and penetrating insights into the life and ministry of preaching.

He had many insights, but here’s one I’ll share with you today: Preachers are Prophets. 

lionMore than anything else, Willimon loves to view the preacher as prophet. His observations of a prophet begin with the fact that they have an uncommon access to God that usually remains hidden to other people. Which means they are uniquely people of God. Of the biblical prophets, we typically know little about where they came from. Hardly no personal background is ever provided. They just show up out of nowhere and start talking. Which seems to de-emphasize any significance of their own. And their words are daringly out-of-sync with the general populace. People don’t typically flock to them and listen. Prophetic speech is often noted for its dissonance and specializes in its disruption. Willimon values these characteristics in a preacher. He thinks a preacher should always maintain a prophetic edge.

lambsAnd here was the surprising thing that he said about preachers. Preachers have degenerated into pastors! And what he means by that is pastors naturally have the tendency to focus their energy on protecting and meeting the needs of their people… (to a fault). They are so consumed with meeting needs that they deal strictly in anthropology, and forget about theology. And Willimon contends that there comes a time when love can kill preaching. How do you climb out of your embedded context – your intimate knowledge of your congregation – to be able to speak a word from the Lord? Sometimes our love can make that difficult. So the trick is to get to that radical place of pastoral nearness and yet never lose the prophetic distance.

Willimon would claim that maintaining a balance is good for the pulpit. A good reminder for those who tend to be pastoral in their preaching: keep your prophetic edge! But, for those who are inclined to be prophetic: keep your pastoral warmth. But, it’s the edge that Willimon is concerned about for our particular day and age. Preachers are to be prophets.
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