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How to Shield Our Pulpits from Abuse

Five subtle ways our preaching may be hurting our listeners.
How to Shield Our Pulpits from Abuse
Image: tolgart / Getty Images

One of my greatest regrets as a young preacher was yelling at a group of camp counselors. I stood at the pulpit with my Bible laid open and rebuked them for what I perceived to be their negligence. Truthfully, aside from a few moments when a couple of kids were left unattended, the counselors were giving their best. Nevertheless, in the name of “protecting the children,” I felt justified in correcting them harshly. Ironically, in the process of trying to keep the camp safe, I hurt a lot of people that day. Many of the counselors walked away feeling confused, discouraged, and ashamed.

Our low points in the pulpit remind us that good intentions are not enough to safeguard our preaching from abuse. Even the most well-intentioned shepherds are susceptible to wounding their sheep. This can be a difficult thing to admit, especially for those of us who love our parishioners and take the call to shepherd God’s flock seriously. However, if we truly care for the well-being of our listeners, we as preachers must be willing to open ourselves to the idea that our preaching may not always be benign.

In his book, Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse and Freeing Yourself From its Power, researcher and writer Wade Mullen contends that tackling abuse begins by having clear language to describe abusive behavior. This is a helpful starting point for preachers since abuse in the pulpit is often inconspicuous. In other words, abusive preaching does not always look like an angry pastor yelling. Rather, at surface level, it can look a lot less threatening and even normal.

Below are five subtle ways our preaching may be hurting our listeners. As we consider each description, I encourage us to invite the Holy Spirit to search our heart and our sermons. Afterwards, set aside some time to pray for wisdom and strength to shield our pulpits from abuse of any kind.

Weaponized Words

Most preachers I know are kindhearted and gentle in their demeanor. Nevertheless, the topic of weaponized words still holds relevant. While it is true that some preachers may back their listeners into a corner before laying down a sledgehammer, the weaponization of preaching is usually far less direct.

Haddon Robinson uses the image of a sniper’s perch to describe how this commonly unfolds. This is when a preacher takes “shots” at specific individuals during a sermon—usually someone in the church who has caused pain or frustration. However, like a sniper, the verbal assault is discreet. Preachers will camouflage their retaliation against the backdrop of their sermons. They will share inferential stories that only certain people will understand. In some cases, they may even imply God’s judgment to intimidate their listeners.

One of the times I witnessed this was when a local pastor shared a sermon illustration about a back-stabbing intern. Though the pastor never mentioned the person’s name, it was clear that he was attacking the character of a former colleague by whom he felt betrayed. In a cynical tone he muttered, “Loyal people are hard to come by these days.” Nearly half of the people in the sanctuary sat in horror as they quickly puzzled together who the pastor was slighting. Even though his target audience was small, everyone on the receiving end was hurt that day.

Preachers, have we ever been tempted to turn the pulpit into a sniper’s perch?

Self-Promoting Words

There are times in ministry when our authority as preachers will come under fire. People may question our character or even seek to undermine our pulpit ministry. These moments can be excruciating. They leave us feeling hurt and insecure. They also leave us vulnerable to taking it out on them from the pulpit.

Lamentably, some preachers use the pulpit to inflate their power. One way they do this is by altering the way they teach ecclesiology. As they explain the role of pastors and church membership, they spend inordinate amounts of time talking about authority and submission. Only, rather than allowing the Bible to lead the conversation, they are compelled by alternate forces—the need to mask insecurity and the delusion of self-importance. So, they portray themselves more highly than they ought. They depict themselves as indispensable to the church. They are also quick to draw attention to any threat that might undermine their authority. “Beware of the wolves,” they say. “Stay close to me.”

The damage caused by this kind of preaching is far-reaching. Harm quickly ensues when trusting listeners buy into the illusory messaging of their shepherds. Congregations may even grow convinced that their pastor is “God’s anointed.” In fact, in some settings, an unhealthy co-dependency can form where congregations rely almost exclusively on their pastor to hear from God. In extreme cases, parishioners may even feel pressured to get the “blessing” of their pastor before making basic life decisions. Altogether, the people of God are harmed as they are led to disremember the priesthood of all believers.

All things considered, perhaps the most common way self-promotion enters our preaching is through the stories we tell. Admittedly, I’ve caught myself, on more than a few occasions, framing illustrations to portray myself in an elevated light. This usually takes on the form of needless details that make me look good: “Early this morning, while I was deep in prayer ….” While self-disclosure can be a powerful tool in preaching, there is also a temptation to use it for self-exaltation. For this reason, regularly filtering our manuscripts through the question, “Who is the hero?” can be a helpful practice during our preparation process.

Preachers, how have we been tempted to promote ourselves in our preaching? How have we handled preaching through times when our authority was placed under question?

Controlling Words

One of the great joys of preaching is seeing our parishioners take the Bible seriously and apply it to their lives. A transformed life always calls for celebration! However, there’s a common pitfall that we need to be mindful of when it comes to sermon application. It’s when we grow too preoccupied with performance. It’s when we grow frustrated at people for not applying our sermons in a specific way. It’s the disappointment we feel when, as Bonhoeffer famously coined, people fail to live up to our “wish dreams” or spiritual ideals.

When this happens, some of us grow discouraged and passive in our preaching. Others of us do the exact opposite and start pushing our listeners harder. While both responses require a conversation of their own, the latter uniquely lends itself to controlling behavior. This is when preachers pressure their congregants to behave in a certain way. It is when pastors strong-arm their members to conform to a specific church culture. In the words of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, these are the preachers who “spend the whole time ‘getting at’ their people, and slashing them and exhorting them, calling them to do this and that and forcing them” (Preaching & Preachers, p. 273). In the end, nobody is left standing. Coercion leads to burn out as God is conveyed as a distant fellow whose burdens are heavy and expectations impossible.

One way to combat this in our preaching is to evaluate how prescriptive we are in the pulpit. While looking over several manuscripts from my first pastorate, I couldn’t help but cringe. Not only was I too specific in the way I exhorted my congregation to apply the Bible, but my sermon applications looked nearly the same every Sunday!

One tool I have employed to avoid this is the use of open-ended questions: “Now, what might it look like if we were to live out what the scriptures are speaking to us today?” Moreover, if the passage calls for detailed application, I will often say, “Here are some potential ideas for you to consider this week.” Simple adjustments like this both empower our listeners to think more deeply and to rely on the Holy Spirit for illumination.

Preachers, how might our desire for control appear in our preaching? How do we navigate the line between exhortation and control when it comes to sermon application?

Deceptive Words

Deception in preaching takes place when our words broaden the gap between reality and perception. It’s when we broadcast falsehood under the guise of honesty. While none of us want to be called a liar, there is something to be learned here.

There are two common scenarios when deceit occurs in the church. The first is during moments of crisis. For example, when a scandal takes place, preachers are commonly tasked with being the church’s spokesperson. They will step into the pulpit and break the bad news. They will then console God’s people and attempt to portray the church in the best light. These are critical moments when pastors must lead with wisdom, transparency, and gentleness. Nonetheless, deplorably, church crises often become occasions for great duplicity. Preachers regularly conceal the whole truth, present a fabricated narrative, and even go out of their way to create doubt regarding any negative allegations. In fact, they often do this unknowingly because of their own biases that favor the church.

Another common example of deceit is when preachers use staged vulnerability to manipulate their listeners. Author and professor of counseling, Chuck DeGroat, describes this as “fauxnerability.” This is when preachers share calculated stories of personal struggle that give the impression of vulnerability. They may even conjure up tears as if to say, “I’m a hurting human being just like you.” Yet, the moment the preacher steps off stage, the scripted façade dissipates. The display of showmanship is no more than a ploy to win people over. It is an act of fraudulence to consolidate power.

I observed this in a viral video clip of a worship gathering. As the pastor concluded his sermon, he tactfully transitioned into a time of confession. In a remorseful tone, he announced that he had committed “longstanding adultery.” He then went on to console the church, encouraging them that they would get through this difficult season together. Nevertheless, the curtain dropped when the “adulteress” stood up and disclosed that the pastor had started sexually assaulting her as a young teen. As you can probably imagine, there was a major outcry from the pews. What the pastor had conveyed as adultery was actually criminal sexual assault of a child. Despicably, he had used the pulpit to protect himself and deceive his sheep.

Preachers, is our preaching honest? How have we navigated preaching through moments of church crisis? Have there ever been moments when we were tempted to “fake it” in the pulpit to garner a response?

Unspoken Words

There are times when remaining silent is the godliest thing we can do. Yet, there are also times when our silence wounds the people of God. This most frequently happens when a preacher fails to speak up in the face of abuse and victimization. For example, if a woman is sexually abused by a church staff member, failure to condemn the abuse has dire consequences. In short, the pastor’s silence speaks another story.

Those who suffer the most because of the unspoken words of preachers tend to be victims themselves. When the evil of abuse remains unaddressed in the pulpit, it often translates to the aloofness of God towards the wounded. Victims begin to believe that what happened to them was not a big deal. Even worse, patterns of abusive behavior persist as perpetrators feel safe to prey on the vulnerable.

In these moments, we must be honest about the reasons that prevent us from speaking up in the face of abuse. Sometimes it’s the pressure to protect our church’s reputation. Other times it’s because we don’t want to hinder God’s work. In some cases, it’s simply because we are afraid of people.

Personally, processing through some of my own cultural proclivities as a second-generation, American-born Korean has been illuminating. It’s been important for me to understand how the pressure to “save face” or preserve the honor of my community influences my leadership. Due to my cultural upbringing, my temptation will always be to err on the side of silence. For these aforementioned reasons, personal reflection and self-awareness are of paramount importance.

Preachers, have there been moments when our unspoken words in the pulpit caused others to become more vulnerable? What are some factors that may hinder us from speaking up in the face of abuse?


All things considered, abuse in preaching is not solely reserved for the outlying bully in the pulpit. A lot of times it is committed by everyday preachers struggling to navigate a myriad of pressures that arise in ministry. This is why shielding our pulpits from abuse is such a relevant endeavor.

While our efforts will never be full proof on this side of heaven, having clear language makes for a good first defense. For some of us, we are tempted to use the pulpit to elevate ourselves when we feel small. For others of us, we use it to take shots at people who have hurt us. Sometimes our desire for results pushes us towards controlling behavior. Other times we resort to deception for selfish gain. Even our partiality towards silence may harm the very people we are called to protect.

Nevertheless, there is still hope. God graciously chooses fallible preachers like you and me to bring the good news of Jesus to a world in need of a Savior! Rather than only preaching this message to others, let us also preach it to ourselves. Yes, God’s grace extends to us preachers, even in our mess ups. May this kindness lead us to become better stewards of our pulpits. Let us be vigilant to search our hearts and our sermons in order that our preaching may build up and not tear down.

Timothy Y. Rhee is a PhD in Preaching student at Baylor University's Truett Seminary. Before moving to Texas, he pastored for nearly a decade, serving Asian North American congregations in Illinois.

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