Creative Commons image by Ethan Lofton, on flickr
“Sundays Happen” is a monthly column where we can playfully and thoughtfully wrestle with the realities of the process and practice of proclaiming The Word of God. If you have a question that you would like me address, please submit it here and I may include in a future post.
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Over the course of seeking a call for ten years and only getting to preach twice a year if I'm lucky, I'm finding it gets harder and harder. Not the delivery, the writing -- I forget how to do it and my confidence keeps dwindling. Short of writing a sermon every month just for the heck of it, how can I maintain what I've learned? A process outline that's less involved that what I got in seminary (let's be realistic, OK?) would be really helpful.
-- Unpracticed in Virginia
Dear Unpracticed in Virginia,
First, kudos for hanging in there! While preaching each week is no easy task, there is rhythm that one develops in living the preacher’s life. Still, there are many, many, many folks like you who are not in a pulpit each week and realize that this can create different difficulties.
Sheesh, I can’t believe that you don’t want to write a sermon “just for fun.” I am sure Jesus understands. ;-)
So in lieu of that, I would suggest going through the preparation process every few weeks by taking a read of the lectionary passages for the week and taking an hour to outline the foundations of a sermon. Because each sermon demands some contextual massaging, I think you could leave that part out until you are coming up to an actual Sunday. In other words, if you keep your exegesis muscles in shape, there will be more room for the particularities to be integrated as an actual preaching Sunday.
And if you really need to “practice” in front of a congregation, what a great excuse to get a puppy.
Preach well, preacher.
I use a lot of dialogue in preaching, creating an atmosphere of conversation rather than lecture. I have seen little written on this as a technique: What to do, how to do it, what are question starters and stoppers, and so on.
That's my idea... And I'll give you my one hint in answer to the question of “What if it gets away from me?” Meaning, what if the preacher loses the floor? My hint is to step aside from the pulpit when you've opened up dialogue and when you want the floor back, step behind the pulpit again.
-- Pulpit-free in New Jersey
Dear Pulpit-free in New Jersey,
First, using the pulpit strategically to help moderate is a great idea and kudos for engaging in this style and method of proclamation.
But to help avoid the need for this, what is important to understand is that conversational preaching must be learned, both by the preacher who is leading and the congregation who is expected to converse. By the end of my last pastorate this is the only way I preached and it was lovely; rarely easy, but 95.78% of the time, meaningful and engaging.
The best way to avoid you having to police conversation is by teaching the community that conversations do not just have to happen between the preacher and the pew-sitter, but it must also happen from pew to pew. Your role is to set some context for the scripture, maybe even set some context for the topic at hand, but after that, your most important tasks are to encourage, listen, and moderate the conversation so it leads, not to where you want it to go, but to the place where God’s movement is discerned.
As you begin, take “baby steps” as they say. Pose non-threatening questions, not patronizing ones, but ones with which most folks can identify, “What was so exciting about your first job?” or “What are some of the more confusing things about the Bible?” That way you are not inviting in stress and anxiety about actually talking in church. Eventually, as the community gets used to this, they will begin to help direct and lead the conversation into deeper wells of the holy.
By everyone in the room being trained and practiced at this, a sort of self-accountability begins to emerge and you will find that the hardest thing to do is to get people to stop talking about Scripture. A great problem to have and one that sparks even more conversation throughout the week.
Preach well, preacher.
Our senior pastor of 27+ years called me on Sunday morning at 8:30am to tell me that he was too sick to preach the 11:00am sermon that he had spent hours crafting during the previous week. As the only other member of the pastoral staff, it was up to me to come up with a way to proclaim the Word during our weekly worship service.
Neither having the time to craft my own sermon for the chosen text, nor wanting to resort to an “extemporaneous harangue,” I borrowed a sermon from Fredrick Buechner and presented with a clear attribution to this talented writer and teacher. In retrospect, I guess that I could have pulled one of my old sermons from the files, but I just wasn't feeling that on this particular day. So, How might you craft a thoughtful twenty-minute sermon/lesson in two hours or less?
-- Off the Cuff in Georgia
Dear Off the Cuff in Georgia,
When I was in seminary one of my preaching professors, J. Alfred Smith, once said to the class, “Someday you are going to be a gathering and someone will ask you to go ahead and preach a sermon.” As a prepared Presbyterian, my response was, “Not in my tradition, that won’t happen.”
Well, as we all know, things happen and we have to somehow bring some Word to a congregation whether we are prepared or not. Sometimes being unprepared is our own fault and at others, like in your situation, people just get sick. I think what you did is a fine response, but in the future, I might suggest seeing this a great opportunity for some creative preaching and maybe even some experimentation.
Of course, this is all highly contextual to the flexibility of the congregation, but my guess is that, knowing you were tossed this task at the last hour, most folks are going to be pretty forgiving if you wanted to try something a little different. You could leverage this unexpected development into a time to try doing some conversation preaching or by bringing a few folks together to share multiple stories via an interview or even to utilize a different way of interpreting the word.
Now, of course, some of these approaches might take some time to organize with such short notice, but it might also be a way to bring others into the process. Short of that if the alternative is getting up with nothing (which can also be liberating) borrow a sermon, string together some stories, but above all do what seems natural and genuine to who you are as their pastor.
Oh yeah, and the Head of Staff totally owes you one.
Preach well, preacher.