Seth Pierce, PhD, is an assistant professor of communication and homiletics at Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska, United States.

Sarah1 had recently escaped an abusive situation with another church member, only to be confronted, from the pulpit, with abuse from the minister, who sided with the abuser without having ever heard her side of the story.

“Sitting there in that pew,” she said, “as the pastor stared down at me, I felt shocked, small, and angry.”

In the sermon, the pastor indirectly indicated that Sarah did not have enough forgiveness in her heart toward the abuser.2

“I could not just forgive and forget and have things return to being the same way,” she said. “He did not seem to understand. He did not ask questions or listen to my viewpoint or even take the time to confront me individually and share his viewpoint. Instead, he decided to give a very pointed sermon on why we should forgive others.”

The pastor preached that if people wanted forgiveness, then they should forgive others. Sarah noticed the elevated amount of eye contact that the pastor gave her. So did her friends. They asked her if she wanted to leave, but she did not want to make a scene. She felt as if all eyes in the church were fixed on her.

“It seemed like the pastor was saying I should return to an abusive situation because it is what Jesus would do. Throughout the entire sermon, my fists were clenched. I was infuriated by the unfairness. It was a misuse of power. He was using his position as a pastor to argue on behalf of an abuser.”

Since then, she has not returned to that church.

Such a misuse of the pulpit should serve as a reminder of the ethical obligations that we have to our congregations and how those ethics can be eroded under the pressures of pastoral ministry.

The passive-aggressive pulpit

No question, there are times for public rebuke and using our voices in a prophetic manner.3

At the same time, far too many clergy members have damaged victims of abuse through the poor application of forgiveness theology. Ministry magazine has produced several articles dealing with this subject, including Roy Adams’s work on Matthew 18, where Peter asks Jesus how many times one ought to forgive. In the piece, Adams concludes that “common sense tells us that a multitude of physical and psychological offenses exist that are so egregious, abhorrent, and emotionally damaging that they could not possibly fall within the purview of Jesus’ response.”4 There exist “offenses so ghastly that the specter of enduring them for even a second time (let alone a seventh or a seventieth) becomes unthinkable.”5

This article focuses on something informally discussed among ministers: passive-aggressive preaching—or addressing congregational issues that target particular members in a way that makes them feel exposed before the rest of the church.

Ministerial folk wisdom says that whenever you write a sermon for specific people, they never show up. However, they often do show up—and, although they expect to hear about Christ, they hear, instead, about their dirty laundry or personal pain. And so does everyone else in the church.

It is basic pulpit etiquette to ask people for permission to use their stories in a sermon, but it is also basic pulpit ethics to leave even vague allusions to a parishioner’s current personal/private pain out of a message. This point is so obvious that it should not need to be stated. The fact that it is stated points to the reality of this problem.

Taking the congregation into the pulpit

In The Witness of Preaching, Thomas G. Long reminds us that all preachers take their congregations with them into the study. “Just so, the preacher goes to the biblical text as a priest, carrying the questions, needs, and concerns of congregation and world, not as an agenda to be met but as an offering to be made.”6 The presence of our parishioners influences our interpretation of the biblical text.7

Without awareness of how the congregation’s presence impacts our preaching preparation, we risk using their deeply personal issues in ways that damage both them and our ministry. Salient struggles often occupy our minds as we prepare sermons. However, those struggles may be more about us than about what the church needs.

Countless pressures

Countless pressures face preachers as they prepare to give the weekly sermon. Pastors have all manner of expectations placed upon them by their families, churches, and themselves. Yet, three specific pressures contribute most to passive-aggressive preaching.

The first is time. The endless succession of worship services can take a toll. As soon as one message is delivered, the need for another looms. Finding time to craft sermon material can be difficult. Without careful time management and boundaries, ministers can be tempted to use the content of personal conversations in a public forum in order to meet sermonic deadlines.

The second pressure is relevance. We want messages to be sensible and applicable. When we know a congregant’s specific struggles, it’s easy to assume these struggles are general ones that the congregation needs to hear about. It’s guaranteed relevant, but it risks repercussions when church members feel like privacy has been violated.

Finally, preachers can feel pressured by parish politics. Church members involve themselves in each other’s lives and develop opinions on how issues and incidents should be dealt with. These opinions have a tendency to grow louder and become directed at the pastor. It might feel as though a refusal to address issues from the pulpit will result in the loss of member support.

None of these reasons justify passive-aggressive preaching. But is there an ethical way to address important issues occupying the congregants’ minds related to personal situations within the church community? In tight-knit fellowships, how can we address those painful realities that weigh heavily on the hearts of those under our care? There are at least two possible pulpit paths under the concert of being pastorally active rather than passive-aggressive.

Pastorally active versus passive-aggressive

The first path involves engaging in the work of pastoral care with the abused. Preachers need to earn the right to speak to these painful realities. Addressing abuse from an academic distance is not enough. Understanding the painful rhythms of the hurting requires a participatory homiletic. If we have not spent time conversing with the hurting or been granted permission to enter their lives, how can we do justice to their experience?

Second, there are times when a participatory homiletic is not possible due to a lack of permission. We are not entitled to people’s personal pain, especially as sermon material. Not to mention, even if we intend to speak on behalf of the abused, it may put an uncomfortable spotlight on them and open them up to further abuse. In those cases where we do not have permission, consider taking an invitational rhetorical approach. For example, instead of talking about how you think someone should forgive, talk about your own struggle with forgiveness or a time when someone tried to put a band-aid on something deeply hurtful by asking you to forgive. Then, reflect on what you learned from the experience. Often this is enough for people to see how they might apply this to themselves.

In Overhearing the Gospel, homiletics scholar Fred Craddock discusses this type of invitational rhetoric. He suggests using personal narrative to create distance between speaker and audience: “I am much more inclined toward a message that has its own intrinsic life and force and that was prepared with no apparent awareness of me than toward a message that obviously did not come into being until I as a listener appeared, and then was hastily improvised with desire for relevance offered as a reason for the sloppy and shallow content.”8

This distance is vital to separate the narrative from the victim’s circumstances and make it appear about the pastor instead.

Especially important here is not to identify with what you think the victim should do (including what the congregation thinks the victim should do). Perhaps you can identify with a time that you felt hurt, maligned, and abused and with how the trite responses to your problem hurt you. You may even share a time when you were the one who hurt someone or failed to respond correctly. After all, it is not good to consistently cast ourselves as the hero in all our sermons.

Incarnational ministry

Each of us is called to active pastoral care, not passive-aggressive preaching. When troubles come to our people, we need to make sure it is not the personal pressures of parish life that lead us to make public speeches. When we do feel led to speak to a struggle those in our congregation face, it must be born out of an incarnational experience and with permission. If not, it must be rooted in our personal experience instead of the appropriated experience of the hurting, shared as vague gossip.

The story of Sarah reveals a crucial point: we are called to speak up for victims of abuse, not to add to that abuse from the power of our pulpit.

  1. The name, and some details, have been changed to protect those involved. This was related directly to me.
  2. This was not a case of general conviction sometimes felt when the speaker happens to be speaking on a general topic they are wrestling with. Some details have been left out to protect anonymity.
  3. See Greg G. Scharf, “The Pulpit Rebuke: What Is It? When Is It Appropriate? What Makes It Effective?,” Journal of Evangelical Homiletics Society 15, no. 1 (March 2015): 60–78.
  4. Roy Adams, “Seventy Times Seven”: How We Misinterpret Peter’s Question and Jesus’ Answer,” Ministry, July 2017; https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2017/07/forgiveness.
  5. Adams.
  6. Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 73.
  7. Long, 175.
  8. Fred Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville, TN: Chalice Press, 2002), 104, 105.

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