‘Prophetic or pastoral?’ A trio of black women preachers expose this false dichotomy

What if the prophetic and the pastoral are two sides of the same coin? What if the sermons we hear that comfort us are heard by others as a word of judgment? What if the things we hear from the pulpit that convict us are also a source of joy for others?

Of course it’s easier to understand the pastoral and prophetic as separate dimensions of preaching and pastoral ministry. The pastoral psalms feel much different than the prophets. “God is my shepherd” (Psalm 23) has a different ring than “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22). Judgment of the wicked and comfort of the afflicted seem to belong in two different sermons.

And yet….

One of the things I learned in my doctoral research on 19th-century black women preachers is that for them the prophetic is the pastoral. This integrated understanding was essential to their ministries and callings.

“Isn’t that what prophetic means – simply telling the truth to those who want to cover their eyes and ears?”

In her memoir, Zilpha Elaw describes an encounter with a white Methodist church leader who rejects her ministry based on her gender. Elaw notes wryly that his tone was one “in which the commission of the Almighty is assumed.” He seemed to have seen himself as God, speaking as God.

For her, “the line of worldly wisdom … can never gauge the operations of the Spirit of God; and always either rejects them at once, or meets them with ‘How can these things be?’” She prophesies against her detractors, while simultaneously offering pastoral care to women called to ministry who might be reading her work.

The evangelist Julia Foote refused to preach in churches that wouldn’t allow black people in all parts of the sanctuary. In her autobiography, she describes these churches as anti-gospel, claiming “prejudice had closed the door of their sanctuary against [African Americans] of the place, virtually saying ‘the Gospel shall not be free to all.’”

At the same time, she exercises pastoral care for herself (as a black woman) and for the black community, affirming their humanity as fully bearing the imago dei.

At an abolitionist convention, Sojourner Truth watched with disappointment as a preacher who said he was going to preach about antislavery instead muddled through a sermon on the soul’s immortality. She used the same biblical text as the previous preacher and critiqued his sermon thoroughly, most likely tying it back to the theme of abolition. Truth’s criticism of the pastor also functioned pastorally to black people, who often felt white folks justified their mistreatment by focusing on the soul at the expense of the body. Her sermon garnered discussion throughout the rest of the conference.

These three women recognized that in order to be pastoral, they must be prophetic, calling out structures of domination that seek to harm. And as they preached a word of comfort to the oppressed in the congregation (black people), white folks would have heard the judgment in their voices. White supremacy and misogyny had been made into a false religion, and in hearing these women’s words, they knew it.

Today, many of us ministry leaders in the dominant culture are afraid of being prophetically pastoral. Whether we want to appease givers, navigate the choppy waters in “purple congregations” or simply want to avoid the conflict that accompanies prophetic pastoral actions, we tend to bifurcate the prophetic and the pastoral. In doing so, we fail to realize that love – the love for God, the love of God and the love for our parishioners and others – often means speaking truths that are hard to hear.

“These three women recognized that in order to be pastoral, they must be prophetic, calling out structures of domination that seek to harm.”

Indeed, isn’t that what prophetic means – simply telling the truth to those who want to cover their eyes and ears?

The truth can be painful for those of us who benefit from the lies of Christian nationalism, heterosexism and white supremacy. But the truth also heals and frees – both the oppressed who suffer under those lies and the beneficiaries of such lies. We begin to see ourselves more clearly, and the scales of pride are scraped away so we open ourselves to God and others.

Pairing our pastoral/prophetic words and actions with love (for God and our world) checks our motivations and attunes our hearts to be open to the experience of others. After all, didn’t Paul claim that without love, our words and our actions mean nothing?

With truth and love, Jesus models that the pastoral is prophetic, and the prophetic is pastoral. Today, in a world that feels as if it is turning upside down, we are called to follow his example.


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