Every year when seminarians make the transition to ordained ministry, they find themselves confronted with a common set of problems typically lumped under the category “Things They Don’t Teach In Seminary.” Seminaries are very good at teaching certain things, to be sure. And this isn’t meant as a critique of particular curricula or institutions. However, if you are reading this and know someone who might find it helpful, what follows is the amalgamation of “Things My Homiletics Professors Taught Me” and “Things I Have Stumbled Upon In Weekly Preaching.”
Since I started weekly preaching as a 2nd year seminarian in 1999, I have learned that I engage in a two part sermon process. The first part is guided by these questions:
- Why is this scripture important for this congregation now?
- Why is this scripture meaningful for the community(ies) in which we find ourselves all week long?
- What is God calling us to do and to be through this text?
- How is God’s call challenging us?
- How is God’s call threatening our own personal status quo?
- How does this text help us grow as disciples of Jesus?
- What help will we need from the Holy Spirit to keep us on track if we decide to follow where God is calling us to go?
- What gifts do we already have to get started right away?
At the end of this process, I almost always have a sermon that, with a few small adjustments, really is ready to preach. Typically I feel excited about this sermon. Because I’ve spent time listening for God’s voice both in the text and in the community, I feel confident and energized by the Holy Spirit and truly feel that I am doing what God called me to do and what the Presbyterian Church, in its wisdom, confirmed when I was ordained as a Teaching Elder (a.k.a. Minister of Word and Sacrament).
This is rarely the sermon I preach.
There is a second part to this process which each sermon undergoes before it is preached. I call this “editing.” The following questions function as filters through which the sermon also passes in the editing process.
- What advice/direction have staff offered in order to make the sermon more appropriate for their particular constituencies?
- What committees have specific needs for a given week?
- Is it child-friendly?
- Is it of interest to the youth?
- Can seniors relate to it?
- Is there something for boomers, gen-xers, millennials?
- Is the context broad enough so that visitors can connect?
- Is the context narrow enough so it makes sense in the given community?
- Will it resonate with those who represent the various cultures, education levels, and socioeconomic statuses present in the sanctuary on any given Sunday?
- Is it too spiritual?
- Is it spiritual enough?
- Is it too open-ended?
- Is it too buttoned up?
- Is it too academic?
- Is the imagery too feminine (asked by the female preacher)?
- Does it contain too much of any one person’s or group’s agenda?
- Does it use inclusive language for God? For people?
- Who is left out of this sermon?
- Does it appropriately represent the heritage and traditions of the congregation/the denomination/Christianity?
At the end of this second part of the process, I arrive at the sermon I typically preach. I am rarely happy with this sermon. I worry up to and through the preaching of it because I know it is next to impossible for a piece of writing to pass through all 19 filters. I am typically filled with anxiety that nears dread as I preach this final draft because I know that Monday or Tuesday a staff person, an elder or a congregation member will send me an email or ask to sit with me and tell me how it fell short. And next week the whole process begins again. This time, with the addition of a set of new filters which have been added based on the concerns of those who take time to share what they need from a sermon.
Maybe I’m the only one who is dealing with this. But just in case I’m not, I offer up these questions for our consideration.
Preachers: What do we understand to be our responsibility when we are preparing and preaching? Who is in our hearts/minds when we prepare? How do we discern God’s voice amid the myriad voices that demand our attention through the week?
Listeners of sermons: What is the purpose of a sermon? Why do you want to listen to them? Who else is in the room when you are listening to a sermon? What do you think they want/need to hear?
NB: As additional grist for the mill for those Presbyterians who may read this, I also offer this small portion from our Presbyterian (PCUSA) Book of Order which has been a significant part of the foundation for my work as a pastor.
G-2.0501 Teaching Elder (a.k.a. Minister of Word and Sacrament) Defined
When they serve as preachers and teachers of the Word, they shall preach and teach the faith of the church, so that the people are shaped by the pattern of the gospel and strengthened for witness and service. When they serve at font and table, they shall interpret the mysteries of grace and lift the people’s vision toward the hope of God’s new creation. When they serve as pastors, they shall support the people in the disciplines of the faith amid the struggles of daily life. When they serve as presbyters, they shall participate in the responsibilities of governance, seeking always to discern the mind of Christ and to build up Christ’s body through devotion, debate, and decision.