Frederick Schmidt: "Dear Rev...."


We sit there Sunday after Sunday.

We do our own faith-work, coming to conclusions about what matters and doesn't, about what we believe and about what we don't believe.

Help us to understand you and help yourself to communicate the Gospel.

Please consider the following advice:

One: Lose the stained glass language.

It's important to connect our faith to the historical language of the church and we know that much of the vocabulary that you use is a form of shorthand. Clergy, just like the rest of us, use that kind of language to condense complex ideas into a single word. For that reason, it's important for you to give us a modicum of theological language to use.

But it has to be explained and you can never assume that when you use it we all get the same thing out of it or that we are familiar with it. String too many theological words together without explanation and you are using stained glass language.

The result? You will fail to communicate with us or we will just stop making the effort to hear you. It's all well and good to tell us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, but what does that mean?

Definitions, please, and only for a few technical terms at a time. Don't bury us in words you can't or don't explain. We are intelligent. We have specialized in other endeavors. But we care, we listen, and we learn. Don't lose the opportunity to bring us into the conversation.

Two: Keep it real.

As a seminarian, you spent three or four years in a rarified atmosphere with other students who shared many of the same vocational, spiritual, and intellectual concerns. Most of those seminaries were in very different settings than the one you are working in now. That means that you spent the first half of a decade attending to concerns that we don't share, many of which were - for lack of a better term - professional in nature.

Our concerns are existential. The reason we come to church is to connect with God and to connect with what we believe about God with the experiences that we have. Try to connect what you have learned with those challenges. Ask and answer the "so what?" question before you get into the pulpit. Otherwise, after a while you sound like the parents in those Charlie Brown movies: "Wah, wah - wah, wah, wah, wah."

Three: Work hard at translating your faith.

If you are going to stand there fifty-two days a year and expect us to pay attention, then refine your ability to communicate.

Avoid the temptation to hide a lack of careful reflection behind a smokescreen of banal generalities, hoping to lose us and impress us all at the same time. On the other hand, don't cop out by getting so simple that a good bumper sticker would replace what you say in the pulpit. "Love is all you need?" Really? That's it? John Lennon? Then who needs church?

Effective communication is a complex, demanding task of translation. It lies at the heart of your vocation and it is important to us.

Four: Don't try to tell us everything you think we need to hear all at once.

That's why they call it a pastoral relationship.

Don't let your anxiety drive you to do and say everything at one time. Don't let your need to impress us, drive you to make us sip from a fire hose or wade through endless quotations from the last few books you read in seminary. (By the way, don't quote those books at all. If it's worth quoting, then you should understand it well enough to put it in plain English. See above.)

Soul care is a process of nurturing growth. Take the developmental, long view.

Five: Preach the Gospel.

There really isn't another reason for you to be up there on a weekly basis or for us to give you our attention. There are people out there in the pews with deeper competence in both political science and economic theory than you. Some of us are licensed therapists and social workers, and (God knows) the world has more social architects than a Dalmatian has spots.

The Gospel speaks to political and social issues, but it also speaks to the personal dimension of life. But - preeminently - it's about God. John's Gospel is still right. The only good reason for going to church is summed up in the request, "We would see Jesus." If what you do in your sermons doesn't make that possible, then there is no reason to sit there listening to you gaff on about your opinions about the nation and the world. That's why God made book clubs, backyard fences, and busybodies.

We don't object to your addressing the complexities associated with bringing the Gospel to bear on the whole of our lives, but when you do the connection with the theology of the church should be clear. Your sermons should also acknowledge the complexity of making that connection and that honest, faithful people draw different conclusions on most of those issues. Ignore that fact and some of us will just drift or run away.

From Fred's blog at

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