October 10, 2009

what kind of shepherd will I be?

Earlier this week I found the Internet Monk blog and in particular this article about sermons.  Most of what was said was very helpful advice, but one thing really struck me.

In the discussion especially there was a lot of talk about how long it takes to prepare a sermon. My first introduction to this question was from my homiletics professor - an esteemed preacher in the Black church tradition who told us it should take 40 hours to prepare a sermon... 20 hours in one week spent preparing and writing, and 20 hours the next week rehearsing and memorizing the text to be performed.  (yes, performed).  To which our obvious response was: where on earth is your time for your pastoral duties?

Photo by: Terri HeiseleHe comes from a very different context than I find myself in.  In his tradition the preacher is called - and then the preacher equips the laity to do the work of the church.  The elders care for the congregation, the preacher speaks God's word.

On the other hand, in the discussion on Internet Monk there were quite a few people who were deeply concerned about the time we spend preparing sermons. One of the more common themes is that we need to spend even less time working with translating a text and reading what other "shepherds" have thought about it and get out there and spend more time with the sheep. 

Perhaps I fall somewhere in between.  I might spend some time mulling over a text - reading it, researching it, reading commentaries, but I also try to spend time thinking about the text with my community.  We have a weekly lectionary study both in my congregation and with other pastors in our town. And then whatever happens during that week is framed by the texts that surround us for that week.  I often will find sermon illustrations in potlucks or news from the days between Sunday and Sunday. I can't really and truly count how long it takes me to prepare to write - because it happens in all sorts of ways.  I might spend a few hours on textweek.com researching. But I'll spend hours reading blogs, watching the news, listening to npr, talking with people in the church, reading the local paper, playing games with my youth, praying for situations I know about... all of that is preparation for what I say on Sunday.

Then comes the writing.  On a good week, the writing happens quickly.  One warm sunny afternoon I sat down and wrote the manuscript -one shot, straight through - on a picnic table in the time it took my friends to shoot 18 holes of disc golf (an hour +).  And then I played the next course with them. Sometimes it happens in fits and spurts - with ideas coming here and there, phrases coming to me in dreams that I desperately hope I remember in the morning, paragraphs being written that then have to be woven together and edited and cut.

I almost never rehearse my text. I take a full manuscript into the pulpit but I tend to write my manuscripts as I would say them. I had lots of terrible experiences with outlines and extemporaneous speaking in high school - trust me, I need a manuscript.  That being said, I never read my manuscript - I talk to and with my congregation.  I may speak the words on the page, but they come from somewhere beyond the page.  And I don't let the page limit what I'm going to say or what the Holy Spirit wants to do. If I could get those past experiences out of my mind, perhaps I could be freer to do the work of prepartion and write an outline and trust that the Holy Spirit will help the work I've done and the Word of God to come across.  But I'm not there yet.  I still need my "blankie."  On the other hand, I feel blessed that I have been given a gift that doesn't require me to spend countless hours rehearsing and memorizing - time that would take away from my family, my own sabbath time, and my congregation.

As I think about both ends of that spectrum - both the preacher who sees it as their responsibility to take care researching and preparing to proclaim a text... and the shepherd who may use few words on a Sunday but sees their primary job as spending time caring for the flock, I wonder about how to find a balance that does not rest solely with the person of the pastor.

What I'm worried about is that maybe the protestant tradition has overemphasized both the shepherd and the preacher models.  Sunday worship is seen as the time where we come and listen to a sermon (for better or for worse).  But even outside of that time, the congregation looks to me to speak the word to them - whether in bible study, or in administrative board meetings or during worship. While I'm not the preacher in the same way that my homiletics professor is in his congregations, I have become a shepherd that leads the sheep, rather than the shepherd who in a more eastern understanding walks with the sheep.

I am not called to be a figurehead or a dictator.  While I am a natural leader, my ministry is to be a servant. I am called to empower my congregation.  I am called to give them voice - to help them hear the Word of God that lives amongst us all. I am called to listen to the stories of people who walk through my church doors and to the stories of people who would never set foot in the church on their own.  People like the young man who came with friends to help me move a couch on Wednesday afternoon and then came back to youth group the next night and then felt comfortable enough to ask me for help when he needed it later in the week.

Maybe a first step is bringing worship back to the table instead of the pulpit.  Making communion a part of our worship every week - making it the focal point of worship every week. I know my congregation is resistant to that idea - but I wonder what doing it for even just a season might do to change minds. 

A second place to begin is changing the way I work with teams/committees in my congregation.  I want to spend a lot more time working one on one with the leaders and a lot less time talking in meetings.  I need to help people claim their voices and their gifts, and (something that is really hard for me) not fill the silence in a conversation or the void in leadership. I need to wait and pray for God to bless someone to emerge. Because my people are not sheep... they are children of God who are called and sent just as I am.


  1. The distinguished professor of whom you speak (who I also had for Homiletics) comes from a tradition where the Word of God is believed to transcend context. As Wesleyans, we understand the communal context to be essential to the proclamation of the Word, hence spending time with your community IS sermon preparation.

    I like what Internet Monk has to say. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks Matt - that was another helpful clarification =)