Advice to a Young Minister

A meeting between two ministers, one the descendant of the other's spiritual ancestor.

William Sloane Coffin died on April 12, 2006.  This article first ran on Beliefnet in June of 2004.

William Sloane Coffin is considered the most important liberal white preacher of his generation, in the line of great American prophetic voices that began with Henry Ward Beecher and extended to one of Coffin's models, the great Social Gospel theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch. Invited to speak at Rauschenbusch's seminary in Rochester in the 1960s, Coffin arrived to find he'd forgotten his gown. No problem, said his host, who furnished one, adding meaningfully, "That's Walter Rauschenbusch's."

It wasn't the last time Coffin would carry Rauschenbusch's mantle. As senior minister at The Riverside Church in Manhattan and Yale University's chaplain, Coffin created a spiritual space in which the civil-rights, anti-war, and anti-nukes battles of the 1960s and '70s could be waged. Like Rauschenbusch before him, Coffin urged Christians to examine how their faith informed the ethics and life of their nation.

Paul Raushenbush (Beliefnet's Pastor Paul) is Walter Rauschenbusch's great-grandson (the spelling of the family name was changed slightly in the 1940s). He is the first of the theologian's descendants to be ordained. A university chaplain at Princeton and a former associate pastor at The Riverside Church himself, Paul has long looked to Coffin as an inspiration. This Spring, Beliefnet sent Paul to interview Coffin at his home in Vermont.

Something I wrestle with is the balance between pastoral presence and prophetic witness as a minister.


My own feeling is you have to be as pastoral as you can be without surrendering one single iota of ethical initiative. Nothing ever stops a minister from saying, in the middle of the sermon: "What I now want to say it’s hard for me to say, so I can imagine how painful it’s going to be for some of you to hear. Let us remember that in the church, our unity is based not on agreement, but on mutual concern. So let me tell you what’s on my heart and mind and then you be good enough to tell me where you think I went wrong."

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