In any community, pastors maintain a large network of influence that goes beyond the walls of their assigned congregation. We are seen as God’s representatives in a community and, for better or worse, the community’s moral compass. That’s why many look to pastors for guidance on community issues and concerns.
Many pastors have the ability to serve their communities with grace and humility without abusing their influence as pastors. But, pastors are human and we can make mistakes in judgments just like anyone else. One area where the potential for making mistakes in judgment can occur is when pastors enter into political discussions, especially in an election year. Pastors run the risk of abusing their influence in a community, and in their church, by becoming partisan in their discussion of certain issues or advocating one candidate over another.
For the most part, pastors are unprepared on how to properly engage the political sphere and how to be cautious in an election cycle. The most advice many pastors receive is to be political without being partisan. That is sound advice. However, it raises a question: What does that mean? The pastor is left to interpret the statement for themselves and their congregation. (For the record, my conference has done an excellent job of getting information to pastors about how to be political without being partisan.)
In general, the statement intends for the pastor to not vocally support a political candidate from the pulpit, while leaving open for the pastor to engage the many social issues facing our communities, nation, and world. However, a pastor would be wise to not stop with just that suggestion. A pastor must be cautious in all areas in how to engage the political without being partisan. As a former journalist and public policy writer who is currently a pastor, I offer these few tips to pastors who desire to be political without being partisan.
Do not publicly endorse any candidate: At first glance, it may appear that we have already talked about endorsements. A pastor should never endorse a candidate from the pulpit. It is worthwhile to expand on this to express what this truly looks like. When we think of political endorsements, we often think of national and statewide campaigns (president, senate, governor, etc.). Endorsements can also be made in support of local candidates, such as county commissioner, mayor, and district attorney. There is a fine line for pastors, especially if the candidate attends your church, between wishing a candidate “well” and making a statement that can be used as an endorsement. Pastors should be careful about their body language and doing or saying things that go beyond simple Christian encouragement. Someone can perceive an endorsement without the pastor ever saying the words “I endorse.” A wise tip is for a pastor to ask themselves this question: Am I treating this candidate any differently than I would anyone else in my congregation or community? If the answer is yes then you should reevaluate how you are engaging the candidate. Pastors should also be careful about saying who they will vote for in private conversations, especially with church members.
Be Careful About Door-to-Door Campaigning: When I worked for a campaign in North Carolina, one of our chief strategies was to go door-to-door to solicit votes. It was effective, because it got the candidate out in the community. It also allowed us to gauge his level of support. People often let their basic defenses down when they are at home. which allows a campaigner to gauge a person’s voting intent by their body language. The same is true for pastors. A parsonage is fair game for door-to-door campaigning, even if it is used as your primary office (as is the case with my parsonage). This is an area where a pastor should be very careful. You should be willing to listen to the candidate’s presentation. It is likely the candidate will ask for your support at the end of the presentation. This gives you the opportunity, if you desire, to discuss that you do not endorse candidates or publicly indicate who you will support in the upcoming election.
Speak on what you know: When discussing social issues, we all run the risk of discussing things we know little about. This is also true for pastors. If you are wanting to discuss a certain social issue with your congregation, then you must take the time to become informed on that issue. This is where use of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral comes in handy. A pastor should go to Scripture and seek out what God’s word says or informs us about a specific issue. Second, you should be willing to engage tradition. You are wanting to find out what has the church said about this issue throughout its history. Simply sticking with a modern definition of an issue limits your research and it unfairly assumes that what is known today is right when compared with what was known yesterday. Third, you should understand a community’s experience with an issue. I believe this is the appropriate place for modern responses to a social issue. Finally, you should work with reason by thinking through the issue. If a pastor is unwilling to do the hard work of investigating an issue, they would be wise to not speak on the issue with their congregation.
Be respectful of all sides of the issue: The worst thing a pastor can do is to make light of a social issue. Even if it scores laughs from the congregation or community, it diminishes the office of the pastor and our call to be respectful of all people. When engaging social issues, a pastor would be wise to not demean or overly criticize but to “speak the truth in love.” A pastor may be on the right side of a social issue, but their words will fall flat if they engage an issue in any way other than humility and respect that seeks to glorify God.
Wrestle with your decision to join a political party: When we register to vote, we are asked what political party we want to be affiliated with. This is so the county clerk’s office will know if we are permitted to vote in primary elections. While the votes we cast our private, our decision to be affiliated with a political party is not. It is a public record and can be found by a simple search on the website for your state’s Secretary of State. There are some people who will not listen to a pastor if they are affiliated with the “wrong” political party. As citizens, pastors have the right to be affiliated with a political party, especially in states where primaries are closed and many elections are decided during the primary season. However, a pastor should be willing to think about their decision to join one party over another and what message they could be sending to their congregation.
Finally, the best advice is to seek to glorify God in all things. When we abandon that purpose, we fall short of our calling to proclaim God’s truth and seek to bring others into a relationship with God, through faith in Jesus Christ. My hope is that these tips will assist pastors in engaging serious social issues and lead our congregations in this election year without being partisan.