Saturday, June 23, 2012

Annual Call Sunday - what?

We are in process of moving from our home by the end of June so you can imagine the chaos on every side. Multidimensional chaos as we sort out and downsize!   But just before I return to the grim removing task let me mention one surprise I heard about for the first time when teaching in Tennessee last week.

One of the pastors (with over 30 years experience) shared with the class that he was facing "Call Sunday" that first Sunday of our two week course.  A couple of other students groaned as I asked innocently what this meant.  He explained that this is the designated Sunday each year when the church meets to renew the call to their pastor (and other leaders too).  I asked him whether he had any idea what might happen, and if pastors could be rejected on that day so that they were literally out of their job by Monday.  He replied that actually he had no idea how the vote might go but he was hoping they would invite him to stay a fifth year.  However, he told us that in his first church he had been so surprised by the large negative vote on "Call Sunday" that he had no other option but to resign on the spot.

Of course, as soon as we met after the Call Sunday we were keen to know how it had gone for him. "Well," he commented rather wearily, "they've given me another year!"  Though  he longed for them to discontinue the practice they asserted this was their tradition and common in the Appalachians.

'Call Sunday' certainly makes the pastor (and others) sharply accountable.  But my immediate reaction, knowing how (some) local churches work, is that this assumes a very large measure (too large?) of community maturity.   It does raise the important issue of keeping all of us Christian leaders rightly accountable before Christ and his people.  But what can be said in defense of  an annual Call Sunday?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Four stars - how can I improve?

You can tell from recent posts that my time with Masters students at Carson-Newman College has been very stimulating.  On the last day, one of them asked me a question: ' If I am a four-star preacher and I would love to be a six or seven star preacher, how can I improve?   Should I spend more time in my bible work, or concentrate more on how to interpret with application, or focus on learning more skills in delivery (like preaching without notes), or try to integrate my preaching with the rest of my pastoring more, or something else?'  He said the background to this query came from a conference he attended with John Maxwell speaking on leadership, when the same question was made asked about leadership.  If you are below average -4 star - how can you develop to be above average?

I like the idea of seeking to improve.  I don't believe that any communicator ever ceases to need improvement!  None of us have perfected being an ambassador of Christ!  However, answering this question is complex isn't it?  For a start, preaching is a calling and gifting that depends on God's empowering and the first priority is to stay close and dependent on him and his word.  My character makes a huge difference to my effectiveness (ethos).  No amount of technique and hard work can make up for abiding in Christ and growing in Christlikeness.  Yet, all preachers need to be challenged about those areas in the preaching process where we have developed bad habits or just grown lazy.  The particular student who asked this question confessed he had been preaching for twenty years in exactly the same way each week!

The short answer to his question is that those of us who dare to speak for God and his reconciling work (2 Cor. 5:20) need to keep checking on all those aspects he raised.   Worn habits and (let's admit it, yes,) laziness can dull the flame. And, let's keep working at integrating preaching with the widest possible pastoral responsibilities which, as Leslie reminded us in the last post, include the apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic.  Sermons should not be trapped in devotional boxes but part and parcel of flesh-and-blood daily kingdom living.  Real words from God's word for real living! 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Important but not that important (3)

Thanks to Leslie, a busy Methodist pastor, who commented (to my last post), that in his best experiences,  the weekly pastoral work does feed sermon preparation.  Rather than preaching being a 'set piece' occupying hours in a separate box it belongs within the hurly-burly of pastoral life though, as I wrote last time, the preacher does need some quiet time!

One further point arose in class discussion about preachers who so concentrate on preaching that they spend most of each week locked away in their offices.  This is a more difficult point and we were sensitive raising it.  Is it possible for average preachers to shelter behind the need to produce average sermons by spending vast numbers of hours, and then escape pastoral responsibilities of serving and loving their people?  Arguing that nothing is more important than preaching (Acts 6:2 is sometimes quoted), oodles of hours on sermon preparation are justified and...guess what.... pastoring is avoided!   Can it even be that sermon preparation is purposely elevated to escape the time-consuming difficult task of giving pastoral care? 

This opens up the whole issue of balancing pastoral priorities, doesn't it?  I really believe in preaching but it is part of a bigger package isn't it?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

It's important but not that important (2)

Following my post yesterday, let me underline that in no way do I want to diminish the significance of preaching for bringing people to faith, challenging vision and building community.  I see it as God's essential way of communicating truth for life.  We have a speaking God who uses preachers!  When you are called to be a preacher it is the highest calling. Yet, God also calls us to be pastors. Indeed 'pastor' seems to be the preferred title for Christian ministers in most churches I visit.   However, being pastor involves preaching and more!   Preaching cannot do it all! 

When the student group discussed trying to balance the pastoral tasks of loving and caring for their people with finding quiet hours in the study, a couple of vital points emerged.  First, out of that loving and caring comes the contextualizing of the preaching.  It is said that the best listeners make the best preachers - not only listeners to God's word but to his people.  Identifying in the cut-and-thrust of a congregation's life grounds preaching in the real world.  We mentioned the value of preachers who periodically spend time with their congregation at their places of work.  Nothing quite perks up illustration and application than spending a few hours with hearers in their daily lives.

Second, preaching preparation does need times of quiet, especially at the beginning when you immerse in God's word.  But the wonder of being a pastor is that preparation is a continuous drip feed as you go through the week.  The sermon Scripture should be in mind as you drive around, visit the sick, lead group meetings.  Structuring sermon ideas should be fermenting in everything we see and do, ever alert to the 'voices' of culture, congregation and worship as well as personal experience.   So, when it is a difficult week with two funeral services and a tough critic to deal with as well as several seriously ill people, the sermon at the end is spoken out of that community experience into that community experience.  It's real because the  pastor's life is real.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Important but not that important

I am currently teaching an intensive preaching course within an MA program at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee which started last Friday. It is always stimulating to be thrown into a fresh context, and working with these busy pastors and church leaders has opened my eyes to some new as well as old issues. 

One of the old issues deserves a mention.  Early on one of the pastors (with many years experience and a very demanding church situation) poured out his frustration.  'I really believe in preaching and want to give my best but I find it almost impossible to be able to fit everything in around my pastoral work and leadership.  I would like to be able to section off large parts of my week in order to prepare my two Sunday sermons.  I hear from 'big name preachers' how this is the most important thing I do and that I should spend 25 hours a week on my preaching.  But I am so bound up with my people and their needs and the work in the's so frustrating that I never have as much time as I would like.  I never get it right.'

It became clear that he was a disciplined pastor who was not running away from the hard work of preparation but was genuinely caught up in the tensions of shepherding his flock and trying to keep a balance.  How much I sympathize.   I believe that the genuine pastor of the flock who undershepherds for the sake of the Good Shepherd is focusing on a key aspect of ministry.  Loving your people is a top priority.  Indeed, out of such pastoral relationships comes the 'real-life stuff 'which gives sermons their context and bite.

As the class responded I found myself saying odd words for someone who is passionate about preaching.  I commented:  'Preaching is important but it's not that important!'  Yes, we must give our best but that is always within the context of pastoring our people.  Of course there are big names who have distinctive preaching ministries that touch the thousands.  But most of us are called to be ambassadors of Christ within the communities where we serve and love.  Sermon preparation should never be sidelined or treated casually.  Each week we should give our very best.  But it is relative to the other pastoral issues which, feed into,nurture and deepen the preaching act.   It's important but not that important.  I am not sure that I expressed this as clearly as I might but do you think there is a point here?


Monday, June 4, 2012

There's nothing in the church like a black preacher!

My hopes to have some continuity in posting about 'preaching without notes' has been sabotaged by an extraordinarily busy last couple of weeks.  Hopefully I will get back to it sometime!

But I must celebrate this past weekend which brought together two heavyweight preaching events that thrilled me to the core.  On Saturday, June 3rd. Northern Seminary held its Commencement Ceremony with one of the liveliest group of graduates and supporters ever.  The speaker was Dr. Lacey K. Curry, now in his eighties, and often referred to as the "Dean of Preaching".   He started slow and low and crescendoed to a stunning conclusion as he presented the gospel challenge of the man born blind in John 9:1-12 that was so appropriately related to graduates entering ministry.  He had us on our feet! 

The next day he was there again, but this time in the congregation at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Englewood, Chicago.  A celebration evening launched Northern's new Doctor of Ministry Degree in Preaching and Congregational Leadership.  I gave a few opening words, to be followed by Dr. Joel Gregory, and then - the main event - Dr. Ralph West.   I had never heard Ralph West before.  He had preached six times already that morning in his Texas church and flew up to Chicago to preach again.  He started slow and low and crescendoed to a stunning conclusion that had the whole church on its feet.  This time it was the story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man in Mark 5: 1-20. We heard it as never before.

I sat next to Joel Gregory and as the service came to a thunderous close he whispered to me: "There's nothing in the church like a black preacher!"   I tell you, it was inspiring.  Both these preachers had so thoroughly immersed in these biblical stories that they re-enacted them with gospel power.  And yes, their choice of words, rhythmic delivery, brilliant illustrations, pointed applications, interaction with the congregations all represented the hallmarks of great African-American preaching.  But, I tell you, to be there was to share in a divine event in which God met us, challenged us and re-affirmed us.  

Today, Drs. Gregory and West begin teaching the first cohort in this new DMin program and I teach the second course in September.  I cannot think of a better way to have begun and I pray that it will make a kingdom difference to a new generation of preachers.