The best preachers understand their own voices and the voices of others. They stretch and grow, and this enables them to preach more effectively. Ingenuity equips readers to negotiate tradition, life experiences, and theological conviction in the creative work that makes way for sacred speech.
With Ingenuity, Lisa Thompson offers deep insights for anyone seeking to enlarge their understanding, their language, and their sense of lived experiences, and offers practical help through “In Practice” segments for those who preach.
"Written from the deep well of the spirituality of Black women, Thompson has given us a remarkable guide for what preaching should be and must be for the times we are in. Accessible, thoughtful, probing, pastoral, prophetic—all come together in this text. A must read for anyone committed to faithful excellence in proclaiming the word." -Emilie M. Townes, Dean and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt University Divinity School
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About the Author
Dr. Thompson holds a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and a Master of Arts (MA) in Religion from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is Associate Professor and the Cornelius Vanderbilt Chancellor Faculty Fellow of Black Homiletics and Liturgics at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She previously held posts as the Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; as a Lilly Faculty Fellow at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois; and as Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.
Thompson’s publications include “Disruptive and Generative Preaching Practices” in Practical Matters Journal, and “In Search of our Mothers’ Healings: Holistic Wellbeing, Black Women, and Preaching” in Homiletic, The Journal for the Academy of Homiletics. Her forthcoming books are entitled Ingenuity and Preaching the Headlines. Ingenuity explores the ways in which black women navigate matters of voice in preaching, while often in the presence of cultural histories and contexts that deny their abilities to construct meaning on behalf of a community; the volume mines the preaching practices of black women for the sake of re-thinking theologies and methods of preaching as whole. Preaching the Headlines engages the intersection between social and religious discourses for the purposes of helping communities reflect on and engage everyday issues in life as matters of faith.
Dr. Thompson’s research and teaching are connected— as they consider the roles of rhetoric, culture, ethics, and ritual in theological communication. Some of her courses include “Gender, Power and the Pulpit,” “Preaching the Headlines,” “Voice Imagination, and Sacred Utterances,” “Womanist Proclamation and the Arts,” and “Proclamation and the Black Experience.” She has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religion and Theology, the Fund for Theological Education, and the Lilly Endowment, Inc. funded Program of Theology and Practice at Vanderbilt University. She is the current president of the Black Caucus of the Academy of Homiletics.
Thompson’s primary interests in service, teaching, and scholarship are the ways in which our religious discourses and practices have the ability to influence daily life on both communal and individual levels. As history has proved, these influences can be for the uplifting or destruction of life together. She espouses holding concerns for the flourishing of God’s entire creation alongside intellectual rigor and respect for sacred traditions and texts.
“Our lives are the texture of the texts we preach.” – Lisa L. Thompson
Read an Excerpt
When Bodies and Unimaginative Practice Collide
A preacher's use of tradition has less to do with her acting and sounding like a man, sounding like a woman, giving away her voice, or acquiescing to power and more to do with reimagining expectations for her own purposes. Such a process of reimagining is undergirded and colored by the preacher's own ways of knowing — her voice. A preacher riffs off the expectations of preaching for the sake of her message, her process of constructing meaning, and preaching in her context. This riffing is the work of every preacher.
When a preacher uses a tradition for her own purposes in preaching, these are the moments in which she creatively invents without complete conformity. As one riffs without complete conformity and is allowed to do so, she most fully comes into her preaching voice in community. Her use of the tools at hand creates the opportunity to curate an alternative vision of preaching in the community. Preaching and the ability to make play on expectations become the mechanisms by which one comes into her preaching voice, reshapes communal understandings of preaching, and in its fullest expressions reshapes a community's frameworks of faith.
At minimum this reconstruction is one that expands confining assumptions about who is and who is not a legitimate proclaimer. At best this reconstruction shifts problematic ideologies that afforded such limitations to exist in the first place. Through preaching we are able to help a community fully embrace an otherwise minoritized body in its pulpit space. Preaching also opens opportunities for a community to interrogate its assumptions about who cannot create meaning with and on behalf of the community. Preaching holds the potential to shift the ways in which a community can "listen to a woman say it" and respond with "Yes!" as opposed to meeting a woman with silence or lack of affirmation while needing to hear a man say "it" before responding with a "Yes!"
Although the process of engaging a community's expectations for the sake of preaching is the work of every preacher in time, when black women undertake these actions their actions have a distinct outcome and texture. The location of black women in both their communities and the wider world places demands upon their voices in the work of overcoming obstacles to have their truth received. In preaching, black women have the task of deciding how they will or will not negotiate expectations about their abilities to speak and offer valid speech for the sake of the entire community. And as they make these negotiations, the preaching of black women has the possibility to reconstruct problematic ideologies as they call forward implicit assumptions related to the performativity, value, and place of black womanhood.
Black. Woman. Preacher.
The concurrent existence of black, woman, and preacher reflexively shapes black women's preaching practices. The experiences of being black, woman, and preacher simultaneously converge in the world of the-black-preaching-woman, establishing a particular persona. In addition, there are the expectations of the listener. In other words, the content and style of black women's preaching are extensions of both their social location and the high expectations of their preaching.
Social location and religious practices are not mutually exclusive entities in the lives of black women; they overlap with one another. Their overlap often relegates black women to an outsider-within position, not only in life at-large, but also in their communities of faith. If we are to engage the preaching of black women on its own terms, we cannot adequately do so without considering how their lived experiences are shaped by the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender. The experiences of present-day black women in North America are connected to a history that differentiates their experiences of racism from those of black men and their experiences of sexism from those of other women.
One aspect of black women's history in North America is the experience of being a captured — or caged — group for the social and economic gain of other individuals. The most recognizable aspects of this captivity are in the transatlantic slave trade. The less visible, but no less stigmatizing, aspects of being caged are the domestic servitude that followed the era of slavery and its ongoing mutations; their offspring yield income gaps, healthcare disparities, and higher death rates for these women in the twenty-first century. The realities of slavery and servitude are portraits of the social, and conversely economic, categories to which others have assigned black women based on race and gender. Indeed, both institutions were concrete realities and continue to loom as metaphors for the system of social control that still mitigate black women's struggles for social equality. Black women's assigned social locations have often led to their erasure, invisibility, and a controlled narrative surrounding the significance of their presence in history.
The limited power given to black women to record and document their own herstory perpetuates ideologies about them as opposed to promoting their writing and inscribing their own identities. We see this limited power in the sparse historical documents of black women's preaching and sermons that predate the twentieth century. The result is the perpetuation of descriptors placed upon black women, or none at all, as opposed to descriptions and documentation of the lives of black women written by black women. Historically, black women, as both black and woman, remain(ed) as outsiders within movements that have been classified as either black or woman, as their voices are not directly engaged in conversations that pertain to their existence. Our understandings of preaching are not excluded from this critique, yet these understandings are further shaped by the gendered dynamics in communities of faith.
As communities of faith adopt theological ideas and explications of suffering from early Christian traditions, they simultaneously solidify troublesome gender relations and the injustices perpetuated by such understandings of gender and power. The early Christian traditions rely on themes of male dominance, righteousness versus unrighteousness, and sanctified suffering. The acceptance and adoption of theological ideals and explications of suffering inherent in the Christian tradition have yet to be fully interrogated by faith communities on the ground under the guise of liberation and its implications on the lives and status of black women. This lack of robust interrogation of the tradition by some faith communities results in ongoing gendered power imbalances within these same communities. Many churches continue to relegate the position of black women to a subordinate status.
The symptomatic issues of the intra-group tension between black women and men are demonstrated through the struggles of women who preach, pastor, serve, and attend predominantly black Protestant churches in the United States. Women account for the largest base in black church congregations yet are disproportionately represented in roles of pastoral leadership. While women are often excluded from positions of primary leadership along with ministries of teaching and preaching at senior levels, women are "allowed" to pursue the positions of administrative assistants, teachers of children and of some adult Sunday school classes, and leaders of women's auxiliaries; they are also expected to fully support if not undergird the financial vitality of the churches. Both men and women restrict the participation of women within churches, yet their participation is vital within these churches for the institution's flourishing and continued existence.
These politics of power have led to conceptualizing the black preacher as black and male in rather robust narratives and images. The robust depiction of the black preacher as specifically male sharply contrasts with an underdeveloped, if not lacking, image of the-black-preaching-woman. This underdeveloped image of the-black-preaching-woman leads to underdeveloped understandings of black women's preaching ministries. Evidence of these underdeveloped aspects of both the-black-preaching-woman and her preaching is found within their absorption into conversations about black and women's preaching traditions via limited distinction from their preaching peers in a way that accounts for their experiences as both black and woman. The-black-preaching-woman becomes invisible within discourses about black preaching, as often these discourses have focused historically on black men; likewise, the black-preaching-woman becomes invisible within discourses about women's preaching, as these discourses have focused historically on white women. All the women are white; all the preachers are men.
It is important to say a word here to discourage monolithic narratives about what it means to be a black-preaching-woman. Even as race, class, and gender are common contributing factors in the lives of black women, thus requiring the categories of black and woman to be interrogated more fully, we cannot assume a common experience amongst black women. All black women do not respond to and experience the meeting of race, sexuality, class, and gender in the same manner. There are a variety of black women's experiences, and with these different experiences comes different forms of outsider-within privileges. For instance, the distinctives between women from different socioeconomic backgrounds is palpable. The ongoing iterations of race, class, and gendered discrimination in the lives of black women, as opposed to symmetry in experience, allow us to retain social location as an important starting point in understanding their lives, religious practices, and preaching.
Every black woman does not struggle with trusting her judgment or preaching voice. But to be sure, we live in a world that has violently contested the presence of black women's voices and bodies. These contestations are not disconnected from racist, sexist, and classist frameworks. And these frameworks are connected to the invisibility and erasure of a complex portrait of black-preaching-women, especially within communities of faith.
The Limits and Dangers of Unimaginative Practice
When preaching and its hopes are conflated with the presence or absence of a particular body, that body inherently restricts the possibility of preaching. Preaching becomes an unimaginative practice. The fields in which proclamation may occur are now limited, narrowed, and confined. This mirrored illusion of preaching that is perpetuated by communal rigidity closes preaching off from its own possibilities — the free-expression, unlimited, and unrestrained encounter of sacred-in-breaking. The spirit of God that enables preaching through her free will has now been confined to a community's terms and conditions.
These expectations of preaching have undermined the very rationale of preaching and have replaced it with bodily productions. The oxygen that gave preaching its very purpose and hopes is restricted. And the result is death unto preaching itself, as it permeates into a synthetic image and illusion of itself. And concretely, in this same way historically, the expectation of a particular and preferred type of masculinity in bodily productions of preaching has pushed preaching into a practice of production and imitation. Preaching has been replaced by the politics of the pulpit as a gendered space, and it is this space that regulates the practice of preaching more than the hope of preaching itself.
As opposed to existing as a practice that generates fully new possibilities, the ephemeral scaffolding of preaching has closed preaching off from its own possibilities. In turn, this narrowed scope collides with the bodies that are most marginalized, are least valued, or are desired invisible by the community. This collision happens as these bodies listen to what is offered through preaching and especially when they themselves attempt to preach.
The Collision of Unimaginative Practice with Real Bodies
The push-and-pull experienced by black women who preach is a distinct result of unimaginative practice and bodies others desire to be invisible. There are organizing principles (scaffolding) that have established what black preaching is and, in return, what the "black sermon" looks and sounds like. These organizing principles have been proliferated within and outside communities of faith. This ephemeral scaffolding is influenced by wider cultural myths about black preaching that do not escape racist stereotypes of black performance, which will be discussed further in chapter 2. The established image of the black preacher continues to advance an understanding and practice of preaching in the flesh, and in this regard it continues to reinforce these same established images and practices of black preaching. Depictions of the black male as preacher and the safeguarding of male privilege within black churches regulate the framework of preaching. The framework creates a largely unvaried understanding of black preaching within its various contexts of depiction, while it continues alongside the larger ongoing practice of preaching. Black women's preaching practices are often in juxtaposition to the established image of the black preacher, which is overwhelmingly associated with a black male and a particular performance of masculinity.
The image of the black preacher presents a male with rhetorical prowess, a voice of thunder, and the ability to move the community to ecstasy highs while weaving together the life of the text and life in the world. Similarly, black preaching is etched as holding in tension the experience of the community with an all-powerful God; it is emotive, keeping with a particular rhythm and cadence, and includes aspects of celebration that intentionally bring the heart, body, and mind together in the preaching moment. Whether individuals actively resist or adopt this practice of preaching, it functions as a narrative that links black preaching to a particular performance of masculinity in pulpit space and rhetoric. Thus, it links the practice of preaching to masculinity, privileging the bodily productions of a particular type of a heterosexual black cisgender male over the hopes of an encounter with proclamation.
There has not been "one conductor" or "wizard" behind the image's perpetuation; to the contrary, the image has been "collectively orchestrated" by various facets of history. Black women also engage and participate in this understanding when they preach, both by force and choice. Women, who preach within these traditions, constantly imagine and invent their sermons in conversation with and in juxtaposition to the tradition and its inherent power in a community; this requires both creativity and ingenuity for the sake of (re)imagining both the sermon and preaching. The result is a spectrum of approaches to preaching by black women, who are aware of the elusive yet overt parameters that mark "legitimate" preaching.
When expectations centered on performances of masculinity determine what is and is not valid preaching, these expectations render black women as bodies of difference or bodies desired to be unseen in the pulpit (desired invisible). Black women are displaced from the pulpit and their citizenship status within the community is that of outsider. As these women continue to participate within these communities and around these understandings of preaching, they are inextricably a part of a system.
However, as they are embedded within the structures of these communal expectations, they also creatively engage the power postulated by the tradition and its guardians. Their preaching is the tactical expression of their own creativity and ingenuity. Black preaching women riff off of the expectations of preaching and its ephemeral scaffolding, for the sake of the hope and ethics preaching espouses — a word from God that fosters life abundant. As they do this, preaching becomes the means by which synthetic practices of preaching are disrupted in both more hushed and resounding ways; in turn, the community generates new possibilities and means of understanding preaching as its members are able to say, "This 'too' is preaching!"
Womanist practical theologians and homileticians intentionally work to name the resounding ways of disrupting synthetic faith practices that are overwhelmingly male preferential. Evelyn Parker notes that one of the concerns germane to womanist practical theology is the consideration for how "pastoral and ecclesial praxis bring about life-giving ministries for the flourishing of black women and girls, the black community, and the entire world." To these ends, homiletician Teresa Fry Brown describes black women's preaching as a practice that can directly confront injustices and transform religious spaces and traditions. She specifically describes black women's preaching as having the potential to "renovate sorrow's kitchen" (her metaphor for the black church) through using the "tools of renovation." The tools of renovation involve the preacher using "a fresh reading of the text" and "relentlessly engaging injustices," as she articulates her standard of justice and carves out her own space. Fry Brown makes clear that the presence of a black woman in the pulpit creates new visions for both the image of preacher and the image of justice; and it is equally clear that the work of the womanist preacher does not stop at pulpit presence. In a similar trajectory, Donna E. Allen pushes for a trans-rationale understanding of womanist preaching, which explicitly attends to the linguistic, ethical, and embodied dimensions of liberationist preaching by black women. The emphasis in these intentional modes of disruption is the assumption that black women have the capacity to act and their actions have moral dimensions that affect their lives and the lives of their communities.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ingenuity"
Copyright © 2018 Lisa L. Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface: The Question(s) in the Room xi
Introduction: #Perceived Outsider 1
Personhood and Pulpit Personas 2
Faux Pioneering in the Ministries of Black Women 5
Resetting the Rules of Engagement 6
Chapter 1 When Bodies and Unimaginative Practice Collide 11
Black. Woman. Preacher 12
The Limits and Dangers of Unimaginative Practice 15
The Collision of Unimaginative Practice with Real Bodies 16
An Act of Constrained Invention 19
Chapter 2 Ingenuity for the Sake of Proclamation 23
Preaching as a Communally Defined Practice 24
Proclamation as a Marking Experience 26
The Black Preacher as a Ghostly Image 28
A Practice That Opens and Generatively Disrupts 32
Imitating, Mimicking, and Preaching 34
Communal Choreography and Sacred Vibrations 35
Chapter 3 Mining Life for Preaching 37
Connections and Bridges to Life 39
(Re) Imaginings of the Familiar 40
Ingenuity and Everyday Life 52
(Re)Imagining Sermon Development 53
Using the Familiar as a Resource 61
Chapter 4 Recovering Sacred Texts for Preaching 63
Interplay and Play 65
(Re) Imaginings of Texts 66
Ingenuity and Interpreting Scripture 84
(Re)Imagining Sermon Development 86
Creative Intelligence and interpretation 104
Chapter 5 Finding "A Word from the Lord" for Today 107
Very Present Truth 110
(Re)Imaginings for Here and Now 112
Ingenuity and Truth Telling 122
Immediacy Textured 136
Chapter 6 Locating God and Faith on the Ground 139
A Very Present Help 141
(Re)Imaginings of the Ordinarily Sacred 142
Ingenuity and the Story of Faith 156
(Re)Imagining Sermon Development 160
Sacred Storytelling 172
Conclusion: Risk-Taking for the Sake of Life 173
Leaving Space for Possibilities 174
Cultivating Risk-Taking for Ingenuity 175
Preach, Regardless 176