I was listening to a preacher, who was single, speak about Creation. He described the Genesis 2 account of the forming of Adam and Eve. It was a mouthwatering and romantically explicit description of Adam’s first encounter with Eve and a sexualized picture painted of the couple coming together to fulfill the one-flesh command of their Creator. The retelling of the story of Adam and Eve and the gendered reactions from various congregants heightened my interest in the power of sexualized narrative in preaching and its effects on the spiritual and sexual health of congregations.
For centuries, Christianity has often downplayed or ignored human sexuality altogether as something negative or sin-related. Yet there is no doubt that “God invented sex”1 and that repressing sexual feelings from personal, pastoral, or congregational consideration automatically creates blind spots in pastoral caregiving. Even a superficial reader would acknowledge that sexualized narratives are unapologetically recounted and weaved through the Scriptures.
The issue under consideration here is not if, but when and how preachers will use sexualized narratives from the Bible, their personal stories, or stories of others.
Awareness of sexual dynamics in congregations and congregants
Sexual dynamics that permeate congregations consist of acceptable and unacceptable sexual expressions. Acceptable expressions may be seen in the form of smiles, waves, or compliments. Unacceptable expressions may involve involuntary and prolonged handshakes and hugs, unsolicited and repeated touching, and unwelcome and intimate conversations. These unacceptable expressions are not only unhealthy but also border on sexual harassment for many.
Congregational life, however, may include intimacies of an even more direct and sexually explicit nature, such as sexting (sending sexually explicit pictures or messages) and online meetings while congregants are involved in worship.
Effects of sexuality on narrative preaching
The minister is at the center of congregational life and plays a pivotal role in modeling, fostering, and managing these dynamics. John McClure states, “Preaching can express—through embodiment, performance, voice, manner, and theme—genuine care for persons as sexual beings.”2
Although preaching can be viewed as a mysterious intermingling of the divine and the human and as a conduit for divine expressions or messages, sexualized narratives may be unconsciously mediated as a reflection of the preacher’s personal life. This may be seen as the preacher chooses subject matter; engages in personal, spontaneous illustration; and paints dramatic or explicit pictures with words. Word selection, visual aids, or body language have the ability to direct attention toward or away from the preacher. Some sermons may even be intentionally erotic.
One preacher’s sermon, replete with hand motions and sexually charged words, appeared to titillate some congregants while offending others, particularly victim-survivors of sexual assaults or rapes. Another sermon, located online, included clothing removal to illustrate stripping away sin. Female congregants were seen getting up from their seats in order to take pictures.
It is difficult to know whether the “erotic preacher” is unconsciously expressing a personal or vicarious sexual traumatic experience or sexual need from their childhood or adulthood. What is critical for ministers, however, is to explore constantly their own brokenness and neediness, which may surface during their sermons and create bonds to the sexual needs of vulnerable congregants. “If the preaching is of an emotional character, it will affect the feelings, but not the heart and conscience. Such preaching results in no lasting good, but it often wins the hearts of the people and calls out their affections for the man who pleases them.”3 Thus a preacher’s sexual health and balanced life are critical to congregational health. Unfortunately, many preachers function at the mercy of their unconscious, virtually unaware of the effect it has on their pastoral functioning or the recovery of vulnerable and broken listeners.
Don Saliers underscores the importance of this awareness in preachers and the need for them to be models of healthy sexuality in the way they use their power during preaching. He further highlights the need for preachers to expound on the positive spiritual dimensions to “eros and sexuality” while emphasizing that “the human desire for God has sexual overtones.” What Saliers calls nuptial images, such as Christ as the Bridegroom and the Christian church as His bride, are clear themes with sensual nuances that can be used as springboards to sermons about healthy sexuality.4
Insights for personal and professional growth
A healthy spiritual life is imperative for healthy sexuality. Fervent prayer, the study of the Word, and a closer relationship with God are powerful and necessary tools in keeping a healthy sexual life and effective preaching.
Jesus’ words, “ ‘For whatever is in your heart determines what you say’ ” (Matt. 12:34, NLT) are highly significant. I believe that when a preacher preaches, the sermon comes from what is overflowing in the preacher’s own heart. I have found that the study of the interrelationship of sexualized narratives in preaching, the sexual dynamics in congregations, and the sexual health of preachers has provided me with insights for my personal and professional growth. It is not unusual to see the preacher’s own brokenness, traumas, insecurities, hurts, and weaknesses surface during the sermon.
Word selection, visual aids, or body language have the ability to direct attention toward or away from the preacher.
Thus, I utilize sermons as goldmines for self-exploration and self-management. I have a record of illustrations used and the frequency with which I repeat them. It may point to a recurring inner struggle or weakness. I follow three steps to explore insights into self and unconscious sex and gender issues from my sermons:
Step 1: Adopt an attitude of self-honesty while going through the sermonic process. I have found that I discern more about myself when I leave no stone unturned in looking at my unmet needs, which may surface in my sermons. Ronald Brushwyler says: “First, be uncompromisingly honest with yourself. Besides the sense of call from God to the ministry, personal needs drew you to the ministry. These needs may include acceptance, intimacy, recognition, success, etc. . . . The more you are in touch with what is inside you as a human being, the better prepared you will be to seek out necessary and helpful resources to help you maintain the trust placed in you.”5
Step 2: Select a sexual guardian. A sexual guardian works with the preacher to identify parts of sermons that cross boundaries or may be misinterpreted or misunderstood by listeners. By encouraging or forcing me to see key blind, weak, and even dumb spots in preaching, my spouse functions effectively in this capacity. A sexual guardian is someone (in my case, my spouse) who helps a preacher through the process of self-honesty while flagging existing or potential emotional involvement or even infatuation as a result of the act of preaching.6 My spouse’s input has spared me from innumerable pitfalls and helped to refine my preaching. It has also nurtured in me growing respect for, and sensitivity to, female ways of seeing the world.
Step 3: Analyze past and present sermons to unearth intimacy needs that are more effectively dealt with in person rather than in the pulpit. This analysis places under the microscope self-disclosures of areas of vulnerability: the use of or shift in personal pronouns, such as we, us, you, I, or me; the repeated listing of certain sins; and repeated condemnation of certain people or admiration for others. I remember a preacher at a youth event specifying in his sermon his personal relational issues with women, which were mostly sexual in nature. When it was time for the appeal, he asked the youth to come forward for prayer. What was interesting about the appeal was that he left the pulpit and came forward for prayer for himself.
This story marks an easy transition to the next area of personal growth, which unearths the need for self-care in the form of therapeutic consultation. Having analyzed my sermons, I have caught myself using preaching as a therapeutic tool as I used sexualized narratives of childhood, young adulthood, or current traumatic experiences. Some of these experiences may have emerged vicariously as I was triggered by the traumatic stories of congregants and risked breaches in confidentiality.
There are two common ways I have experienced preachers signaling their need for some form of therapy or intervention. One I will call “cathartic preaching,” where preachers use sermons to vent feelings of anger, grief, or dissatisfaction with their children, spouse, supervisors, congregation, or leaders. This kind of preaching reverses the role of the preacher from pastoral caregiver to care receiver and needy patient. The congregants then may sense the need to care for preachers in order to help them recover from their maladies.
When family life is included in cathartic expressions from the pulpit, however, some congregants might respond by playing the role of a better spouse or partner to help the preacher through his or her relational struggle. Vulnerable congregants might be traumatized by this role reversal as they may have been required to parent their parents or meet the intimate needs of others against their will. This type of preaching signals the need for preachers to find a safe and nonjudgmental place to unreservedly express their pain.
Another common way of using the preaching event as therapy is through sharing personal testimonies in which preachers recount, in intimate detail, “preconversion” experiences years after they accepted the faith. I found myself practicing this kind of preaching early in my ministry. When the details of and descriptions in their testimony are so real and graphic that congregants are caught up in their past experiences, it is more than likely that they are experiencing a form of PTSD.7
I interact with many preachers whose dramatic testimonies form integral parts of their sermons. I sense that their recovery, even after “conversion,” is still in its embryonic form. I encourage them to process their trauma and emotional injury in private with a psychotherapist. I have found psychotherapy to be a useful place to deal with my own past and present trauma, along with processing vicarious trauma brought about by listening to the stories of caregivers, vulnerable clients, and patients. As a result, I now share less personal information and confidential matters in the pulpit while still being able to deal with difficult and sensitive subjects in my preaching.
It is important for preachers to be aware of the possible repercussions some stories may have on the congregants and how the wider community’s cultural narrative regarding sexuality may affect how the congregation views the sermon. Some narratives used in sermons can be powerful tools to foster sexually healthy congregations while contributing to the emotional, spiritual, and professional growth of preachers.
It is also critical for preachers to use the lessons from sex and gender to examine their past and present sermons as an integral component to self-supervision and self-care and to be open to seeking psychotherapeutic consultation as the need arises. Most importantly, a close, intimate relationship with the Lord will guide all aspects of your life, including the sexual aspect.
- “This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one” (Gen. 2:24, NLT); cf. Charles Wittschiebe, God Invented Sex (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1974).
- John S. McClure, “Preaching and Sexual Ethics,” in Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, ed. Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 158.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 301.
- Don E. Saliers, “Public Worship and Human Sexuality,” in Jung and Stephens, Professional Sexual Ethics, 173, 174.
- L. Ronald Brushwyler, Staying in Bounds: Professional Boundaries for Clergy (Westchester, IL: The Midwest Ministry Development Service, 1996), 2.
- See also the term transference, “a situation where the feelings, desires, and expectations of one person are redirected and applied to another person.” “Transference,” GoodTherapy, last updated September 25, 2019, goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/transference.
- See Mark LaFollette, “The Pastor’s PTSD: When You Cannot Bounce Back After the Conflict Is Over,” Ministry, January 2016, 6–9. This article falls short of recommending therapy.