The pulpit is a place of holy wrestling, but also a place of power. A visible symbol for the office of pastor, but also a site of hurt.
The occasionally ornate and more often rugged post that is the pulpit has not always been a comfortable place for me. And in many ways, I find myself grateful I do not regularly have to stand behind a physical one. The image of an individual raised up above the flock has never sat well with me, let alone enclosed behind a podium. I have seen it at its best and at its worst. With the latter, I have witnessed a pastor get pissed off at his rural church of 60 for not wanting to fill out a survey, I have listened to people in my own UMC tradition patronize women in ministry in their sermons, and I have attended many a youth conference/retreat where either a prosperity gospel preacher or theologically misinformed speaker draws students toward what I like to call that “infamous last night of tears.” A moment where most youth (myself at one point!) walk away feeling overly self-deprecated.
Who would think an architectural feature or space can become a means of shaming one’s call or permitting another’s oppression? A white guy like me, or we can nuance it even further, an older white guy, sits pretty in the comforts of the preaching post. For the women who are my colleagues in ministry, they have experienced the pulpit as a place where more attention is paid to what one is wearing, the form of one’s body, and the way she delivers the message. Others I know who are living a life of secrecy or who have had to find another a denomination with a similar theology, but one that will let them act on the call God had placed on their heart to preach.
Church culture has been traditioned to view the pulpit as a source of gospel truth when in reality, such an understanding has succumbed to the kind of person standing in it.
It’s hard to stand behind something that has been a stumbling block in your own ministry. And now that I have been preaching without one in front of me for over a year now, I am not sure what it would feel like to venture back to something that really doesn’t represent me at all. For me, the pulpit or even in my case today, the space of the preacher is limiting and carries with it an overly idyllic set of expectations to which my flawed and broken self cannot commit. For awhile, I struggled weekly knowing that somebody was staring at the tattoos on my arms instead of listening to the points I was making. Somebody thinking about whom they could set me up with on a date quickly instead of letting me tend to my personal life. Somebody questioning my authority because my style is styled hair, plaid shirts and a pair of Toms. I recall discussing this image of the fragile pulpit with my preaching adviser, who entered this space of wrestling with me as someone who had faced her own unique traumas associated with preaching out of her story. Our conversations were encouraging and even more so, invitational, because they led me to a place where I was content moving beyond that space, both literally and figuratively. For I was at a place where the prophetic site where I heard some of the most boring and some of the most inspiring messages growing up had proved to be a source of antagonism for my struggles with anxiety, self-image and a desire to speak from my raw conviction rather than prescribed suggestions.
I admire the candor of preaching professor Anna Carter Florence, who writes “Testifying to an encounter with God is terribly risky, putting us at the risk of the community’s judgment. Yet experience itself is not fragile. On the contrary, it is amazingly powerful. It is the awareness, and therefore the mark, of partnership with God” (Preaching as Testimony 80). And the truth in this day and age is that I can’t keep silent. Some cracked, chipped, or wobbly block of wood or metal should not be a stifling agent. The pulpit is another unnecessary idol we’ve reduced to polished platitudes and clean-cut life coaches instead of the raw and open space where a community can seek God’s direction together. We can’t act as if we don’t wrestle daily with God through my own stuff nor can we act as if we don’t know what’s taking place outside a bubble easily marked by the complacency of a preacher or the greater complacency of a church. My call is to speak truth in love and to challenge the a status quo that mars the kingdom of God I know and believe. And if our witness is supposed to always point back towards Jesus, to me the pulpit is not the center, but the periphery.