Q&A: The power of the pulpit and the church

Every day, the church must use all its power, spiritual and otherwise, to work for the good of the gospel, says the Rev. Zan Holmes Jr.

As a religious and political leader in Dallas, Texas for almost 30 years, he knows well the uses of power. He served two terms in the Texas Legislature and, as pastor of St. Luke “Community” UMC, helped build coalitions that pushed the civil rights agenda in Texas in the 1960s and 1970s. Known for his community activism, his preaching and his teaching, Mr. Holmes saw himself as a bridge between the powerful and the powerless.

Mr. Holmes was at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., in September to deliver the 2012 Gardner C. Taylor Lecture and spoke with Faith & Leadership. Here are excerpts.

The Rev. Zan Holmes, Dallas Independent School Board Trustee Carla Ranger and Bishop Mike McKee of the North Texas Conference attended the Oct. 26 dedication of the Zan Wesley Holmes Jr. Middle School in Dallas. PHOTO BY SHERON PATTERSON, NORTH TEXAS CONFERENCE

What’s the current state of preaching?

Preaching has always been a challenging task in the life of the church. We don’t have the great princes of the pulpit that we used to have, but good preaching is happening all over the place, and it’s not just a few people doing it.

People see preachers on television, and sometimes that forms their opinion of preaching. That’s problematic, because the public does not get to hear some of the other preaching—different styles and different approaches, with more emphasis on social justice. You don’t hear that on television, but it happens in other places, and it continues to happen in the black church and in other traditions, too.

But you don’t hear it on television. So that forms people’s expectations and impacts what’s happening in preaching. Seminaries have a major responsibility in teaching preaching, but it’s a challenge.

What are the major lessons that you have learned about preaching and pastoral ministry?

One is to never be guilty of homiletical arrogance, to become so self-centered, so caught up in my own preaching, that I cannot learn from others who have different styles and emphases. I must be open to hear others and to seek to hear others. There are preachers I listen to. I may disagree with their theology, their emphasis, but I find that often I can learn from their style or what they say—or I can learn what I don’t want to do.

Another lesson is the difference between charity and justice. Charity deals with what I call social service. Justice deals with social justice. Charity is necessary, but it does not get at the root problems of many issues, like poverty and racism. Acts of charity do not solve those problems; there are also justice issues. In the criminal justice system, it’s not enough to visit, to have prison ministries. We should also be concerned about the criminal justice system, unfair punishment and the whole rehabilitation process.

I also learned a lesson from a time when I had spiritual “burnout.” I did not have a deep prayer life. I was not giving enough attention to devotional practices, to prayer and preparation for preaching. I was treating the Bible as a tool every time I picked it up. I was looking for a sermon. I was not reading the Bible devotionally, and so I hit a spiritual crisis.

I learned from that to place more focus on Bible study, on reading it not to ask, “What is in here that I can use to preach to those people?” but, “What is in here that’s speaking to me that I can preach with power and conviction?”

So pastors should first look for that which speaks to them?

Yes. That’s the first thing, reading and praying over the text and asking the question, “Lord, what do you have to say to me in this text?” If I am not convicted by the text, it’s hard for me to preach with conviction.

When I taught preaching, one of my main goals was to get the preacher into the sermon, enabling the word to happen again, first to the preacher. Another lesson I always underscore is not to say what you need to do—“You want to get your life in order”—but we. “We want to get our lives in order.”

You served in the Texas Legislature, and you were a powerful political voice and leader in Dallas. The Rev. George Mason described you as someone who walked “with seeming ease through both the corridors of power and the streets of powerlessness.” How does a pastor navigate those tensions and move in both those worlds?

That is difficult to do. I don’t know. I think I was able to do that naturally in that I don’t have a problem relating with people with whom I disagree, or the so-called power people. When I understand that my relationship with them can bring them into the struggle to deal with racism and poverty and so forth, I find it easy to be a bridge, to bring people together and to solve problems.

There were times when Dallas was a very divided city. Still is today, but the racism was much more alive during the ’60s. Martin Luther King was marching, and we were struggling to just break through some of the problems. When I was in seminary, I was an assistant pastor to a black pastor who was very involved with leaders in the power structure. He would send me to do the benediction or prayers when he couldn’t go, so I got to know a lot of the power people, white and black, through him. But I was always just convicted to be involved in the struggle with people at the grass-roots level. I could relate to activists. I saw my calling to be a bridge, and so I did. I got involved. Sometimes I had problems. You get attacked from both sides.

That’s the bridge thing. You’re way out in the middle, over the water.

That is right. . . . But my purpose was always to move the struggle forward. I was elected to the Legislature because the first African-American legislator elected in Texas since Reconstruction was killed in a plane crash and the community asked me to run to fill his unexpired term. And I did, and I got elected at large in Dallas County. I had planned to do that just for the six remaining months of my predecessor’s term but was re-elected for two full terms, and I really got involved statewide and nationwide. Everything that happened in Dallas in those days, all the justice issues, I was there.

The Rev. Zan Holmes speaks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast in Boston, in a January 2007 file photo. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE FILE PHOTO BY LINDA HAAS

Serving in the Legislature, in the midst of powerful political and economic interests, is it difficult to be a legislator and remain true to the gospel?

It’s a challenge, because I always knew my true convictions. I wanted justice, particularly for the oppressed, the poor, those who had been marginalized. I was very clear about that. I wanted to kick the ball forward and make progress. I had no problems forming relationships with so-called power people. In fact, they would come to me, because they knew I had influence and leadership in the black community. The tension is I could have easily sold out. I could have allowed them to manipulate me, and the struggle was to be sure I did not allow that to happen.

The church has always had an uneasy relationship with power, often acting as though it is powerless and reluctant to exercise any power it does have. How should the church go about engaging and exercising power?

Yeah, that’s true. . . . How do you use it? How do you keep from abusing it? That’s necessary, you know. The church must participate in the power struggle in the community and in the world. If not, we get run over. The power struggle is on, every day. . . . And the church has to use its spiritual power—all its power—for the good of the gospel, and understand that that is necessary.

Where does the power of preaching fit in?

Martin Luther King is a great example of someone who used the power of the pulpit to mobilize the power of the black church and direct it toward the struggle for justice and liberation. He sought to be a bridge to bring people together. He formed coalitions that helped make the progress that we made during the civil rights movement. It was during [that] movement when the black church was at its best, ministering to its people but also participating in the struggle to bring about the beloved community. Most of the progress was made when we were able to bring together coalitions—blacks, whites. King was able to do that.

It’s a tragedy today that we don’t have a lot of the coalition building that we were able to do in the church community and the community at large. We’re losing that. In Dallas, for example, we no longer have a Greater Dallas Community of Churches. At one point, I was president of the Dallas Council of Churches [the coalition’s original name], and we dealt with all of the major social issues. We were able to form a presence. We were energized by being a part of a coalition of churches of all denominations—white, black, brown. That gave us power. We had more power as a coalition than we had in our individual churches. We desegregated the schools, made some statements, because we came together as a coalition. We don’t have that today. . . . I preach that all the time. We don’t have that today.

It seems that many churches today are aligned with the powers.

That’s right, and it’s sad. You hear a lot of talk today about the post-racial society, as if we’ve overcome all those barriers, and that’s not true. We’re not post-racial. You can just hear some of the political rhetoric going on now and know that’s not the case. Some people say, “We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We don’t need to do that anymore.” But the need is just as great today as it was during the heart of the civil rights struggle.

Let’s talk some about your time at St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church. You went there in 1974 with 50 members and $9,000 and took it to 5,000 members and 100 ministries.

I had no idea that that 50-member church would become a 5,000-member—or more—church. But it did. The community was changing, and the church that was in that building before, a white congregation that left, was not reaching out to the community. In fact, they ran. So we decided to put the word “Community” in our name—St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church—and that worked.

We attracted people in the community. I was in the Legislature at the time, and a lot of people who had voted for me or been a part of the coalitions that I was in—they came. They joined the church, and it grew. We reached out to the community. We were involved. Everything that happened in the community, St. Luke was there. So we grew to become one of the most influential congregations in the city.

Every major speaker who came to Dallas wanted to worship at St. Luke. The first African-American mayor, Ron Kirk, came out of that church. School board members, members of the Legislature.

What are the biggest challenges facing the church broadly, and the African-American church particularly?

One major problem is poverty. We don’t do a good job reaching out to poor people. United Methodism has always been tagged as the middle-class, upper-class church. Pentecostals, for example, come into communities that we leave and succeed, because they have a style that enables them to be more effective.

That’s one reason we have lost members and lost neighborhoods, because when we were in those neighborhoods—and I’m talking about black and white United Methodist churches—we didn’t know how. We did not have the commitment and skills that enable us to minister to those communities. And though we were diverse in terms of having blacks in the denomination, we did not have, in the communities where we served and in our local churches and our boards, the diversity that would enable us to reach out to people in different racial groups.

Another issue is the criminal justice system, with the large number of people in prison, and unequal sentencing and lack of rehabilitation. The whole church has failed in how we minister to that system. We have prison ministers, but we don’t have justice ministers.

It’s fascinating that when I asked about the biggest problems facing the church, you didn’t talk about internal matters or boards but problems out in the world.

Yes. It’s an issue. I’m preaching Sunday in a predominately white Pentecostal church. They have four services. I preach Friday, Sunday morning at three services, same sermon, with a white Pentecostal pastor. They’ve got this diverse congregation, and they’re making a commitment. That’s why they invited me. They’re making a commitment to reach out, to deal with critical issues. I see diversity in some of these Pentecostal churches, and they’re growing like everything.

There’s a difference between growing and swelling. One is healthy. The other one is dangerous. We’re not growing or swelling right now.

This interview earlier appeared at www.faithandleadership.com. Reprinted with permission.

Special Contributor to UMR

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