As the leaders of congregations, pastors occupy a unique position each week: standing before an audience that expects them to speak for several minutes about... something. That vague commission will inevitably lead to the occasional topic one could call political. As we are not likely to find uniformity in the opinions of those seated in the pews, and considering the risk of damage from congregational conflict, how do pastors approach politics from the pulpit?
Before we examine this question, we need to ask the question, "Should they?" The answer is yes. We, as the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, have committed to doing just that through resolutions on nearly every issue you can imagine. Some resolutions simply ask congregations to become more knowledgeable about a topic, which Sunday sermons can help. Others call for the church and its members to stand for or against an issue.
In 1994, delegates to the 127th Annual Meeting called for opposition to casino gambling, a resolution that impacts the current legislative session as the General Assembly debates adding licenses for new casinos in Connecticut.
Michele Mudrick is the Legislative Advocate for the Connecticut Conference. Her job is to bring the concerns of the Conference, as stated in our resolutions, to the attention of state legislators. She also works to organize local church members to make sure their voices are heard on issues of concern. Mudrick is passionate about the issues she studies.
"Once I know something, I feel it's my duty as a Christian to do what I can to change the system," she says. "That's my little part."
Mudrick says this also means getting pastors "fired up" about the issues as well.
"There are so many issues that pastors could talk about politically from the pulpit," says Mudrick. "Sometimes... pastors need to rock the boat a little."
The Rev. Matt Crebbin sees this somewhat differently.
"I'm not rocking the boat," says Crebbin. "Jesus is rocking the boat."
As senior pastor of the Newtown Congregational Church UCC, Crebbin is no stranger to political topics. He ministers in the town where the 2012 Sandy Hook School tragedy took place, and was the public representative of the local clergy association at the time. Since then, he has preached and advocated for stricter gun control laws, both in church and to wider audiences.
Crebbin does not sit down and write a political sermon because he feels pressured to preach on a topic. Nor does he think people need to be taught lessons through sermons. He says the topics to which he speaks come from the Scriptures and from "profoundly disconcerting questions" that make him reflect and struggle. He finds this approach helps him build sermons that are balanced on the issues.
"People don't feel like I'm attacking them," says Crebbin. "I'm asking how we are going to collectively respond... as Christians."
The Rev. Matt Laney, senior pastor of Asylum Hill Congregational Church UCC in Hartford, agrees that approaching a political topic with balance is the key to preaching on social justice issues.
"You can't just go in and 'rock the boat.' There has to be balance," he says.
To Laney, a pastor's job consists of three roles: the Pastoral role — caring for the people of the church and community; the Priestly role — administering the sacraments and guiding church leadership; and the Prophetic role. In the Prophetic role, Laney says, "Ministers are called to speak to our people... through the lens of the gospel."
In this light, Laney bases his sermons on Scripture, just as Crebbin does. He gives an issue context by acknowledging that there are differing opinions, which is necessary to avoid alienating people.
"When speaking about an issue it's important to say that good and faithful people come to different conclusions, but based on my faith and my understanding of the gospel, this is where I am," he says. "As soon as you say, 'This is the Biblical perspective,' you've told [those with opposing views] they are outside God's vision."
Alienation is a real possibility, even if the topic is approached in a balanced way. Crebbin says he has seen people leave the church because of their interpretation of what was said, or because they disagree with the advocacy work he does. He also knows that other people feel he should be talking about issues of gun control. There are always opposing viewpoints.
Laney thinks people should be able to have a conversation with the Bible as their common ground. In church, that conversation does not always happen. Laney agrees and even suggests that pastors hold "talk back" sessions after worship. Mudrick offers a similar idea. She thinks churches could include a moment in the service where the pastor would offer a question of the day for consideration, even if the pastor does not preach a full sermon on the topic. She hopes this would lead to conversations later. She also suggests that churches could include information on relevant issues in their Sunday bulletins.
Rooting sermons in Scripture and acknowledging opposing viewpoints certainly informs us how to preach politically. But why should pastors preach about politics in the first place? After all, the Bible's authors did not specifically address mass incarceration or educational inequity as we understand them, because the issues simply did not exist in the same way then as they do today.
The Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker, senior pastor of First Church of Christ UCC in Hartford (Center Church), sees preaching politically as answering the call to ministry.
"If we do not deal with issues of justice in the world, the relevance of the Church in the world is voided," says Whittaker. "Who will speak up for people in the margins if not the Church?"
There are plenty of pulpiteers in the world proclaiming narrow-minded viewpoints that reinforce existing disparities. Pastors, with their attentive audience, a thoughtful approach, and the Biblical message of "love thy neighbor," can be a powerful voice against the barriers to Shalom.