When I was in high school and college, I fancied myself a prophet. I was a young woman discerning a call to ministry in a Southern Baptist context, and I knew in every wrinkle in my brain, beat of my heart, and conviction of my soul both that God calls women to be pastors and that we are up to the challenge. And I wasn’t hesitant to tell anyone exactly what I thought.
I might have said a prophetic word here and there about egalitarianism, but some of my bra-burning rants were more about pushing others’ buttons or reacting when they pushed mine. Fourteen years into ordained ministry I understand something that I didn’t back then: that there’s more to being prophetic than simply saying something edgy.
Sometimes God taps us to say hard things to people who won’t be eager to hear them. But there’s a second task in the prophet’s job description: we have to prepare our intended audience to listen to what we’re saying. Too often we expend our energy yelling into the void because we haven’t cultivated the relationships that prompt our hearers to pay attention, to give credence to our impassioned points. All the wordsmithing and protesting in the world won’t make up for neglecting this responsibility.
In congregational ministry we tend to believe being a pastor gives us, well, a pulpit for our positions. To some extent it does. Our title and role provide some level of authority. But to be truly, effectively prophetic (read: prompting people to real action based on beliefs they hold themselves), we must first prove ourselves to be our constituents’ priest. We must get to know them, care for them, learn from them, minister alongside them, share our own stories with them, be a trustworthy presence for them, and show our ministerial abilities to them. (Even as public figures we must prove ourselves relatable to hearers we might never meet by finding ways to listen to their concerns and by living with integrity, compassion, competence, and appropriate self-revelation.) Only then will the soil be well-fertilized for the prophecies we share with them to take deep root.
Taking the time to relate to our people is as important – more important? – than ever. In an election cycle that is turning out to be like no other and in a Church that is often held captive by anxieties and outdated expectations, prophets are much needed. And without real bonds, the only people who will care about our messages are the ones who already agree with us. Not only will few hearts and minds be changed, we’ll continue to speak past each other (or worse, talk at one another). So may God equip us in this critical time not just with the words, but also with the courage, empathy, persistence that give the words lasting impact.