Ever since the 2016 presidential election, the Rev. Dr. Leah Schade has been wondering how to effectively preach to and challenge the “Red” Republicans and “Blue” Democrats.
“I’ve been interested in how we find that sweet spot in the middle,” said Schade, author of the book “Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide,” published in 2019, and keynote speaker for the Orders & Fellowship clergy gathering, Jan. 27-28 online. Another session for the other half of clergy in the conference is scheduled for Feb. 2-3.
Schade spoke from her home in Kentucky (“a blue dot in a sea of red,” she says), where she is assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary.
Not only did Schade share statistics that were used in her book but results of a survey taken recently by 278 pastors in the Great Plains Conference.
She said that 35% of clergy report that three-fourths to all of their congregants are conservative, and another one-third say about half their congregants are moderate. Only 6.5% reported that about half of their congregants were progressive.
Identifying themselves, however, 33% of pastors said they were progressive/liberal and 5% said they were very progressive/liberal. Politically moderates represented 43% of the clergy, nearly evenly between leaning conservative and leaning progressive. Fourteen percent called themselves conservative, 4% very conservative.
“We’ve got red-leaning congregations and blue-leaning clergy,” Schade said.
When asked how frequently they bring up social issues in their preaching, teaching or other venues of ministry, 55% said sometimes and 35% said frequently.
Schade said the criticism that a pastor is “too political” can be translated as code for “making me uncomfortable,” “calling me into account,” “I don’t agree with you” and “don’t challenge my comfort zone.”
She said that pastors in churches for fewer than three years don’t want to sacrifice their relationship with their congregants by bringing up political views.
The Rev. Cindi Stewart, pastor of Columbus First UMC in Nebraska, said she appreciated the conference having this discussion for its clergy.
“This is very timely. This is where the church is at as a whole right now,” Stewart said. “In light of everything we’ve gone through the past few years, this is just good stuff.”
Stewart praised Schade for her conversational style and gentle, caring approach to the subject.
“I’m just absorbing everything we possibly can,” she said.
Stewart said the statistics given by Schade about the conference clergy was a comfort.
“I was nodding along. It was ringing very true here,” she said. “It’s good for me to know I’m not alone with how I see all of this. I do recognize that I am one of those pastors who is serving a church that has that dichotomy of having both sides represented in our church.”
Keith Anglemyer has been pastor of Beloit UMC in Kansas since July and still hasn’t met half of his congregation because the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped in-person worship.
“I think it’s a little difficult for me to be able to adapt this because I’m in a new appointment and a new setting,” he said. “I don’t think I know this congregation as well as I might have already.”
Anglemyer, formerly pastor in Liberal, Kansas, said Schade had “interesting stuff,” and that clergy in a small town have a different perspective from those in larger cities.
“If I’m in a bigger city like Kansas City or whatever, I’m not as likely to run into members of my congregation in everyday life like I am in a small town,” he said. “You’re not just a Sunday morning preacher, you’re an all-day, everyday preacher, which is good for me. If you create conflict, they’re going to be reminded of that conflict every time they see you.”
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., in his opening sermon, congratulated the pastors for making it through an incredibly difficult year, with the coronavirus pandemic, increased racial tension in the country and a hotly contested political season.
“We’ve had a very challenging 2020,” Bishop Saenz said. “Many of you were caught in the middle of congregational disputes — to meet or not to meet, masks or no masks.”
He said churches can either serve as a refuge, an oasis of faith that doesn’t involve politics; a mediator, helping people navigate issues; or as a prophetic voice, believing churches should actively engage in political issues.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Wilson, a clergy member of the Great Plains Conference and associate general secretary of Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, led the opening worship and developed the music and litany for the two sessions.
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