A Lonely Task
I am not sure if my natural introversion, my acquired pastoral piety, or the circumstances of my pastoral calls have been the cause, but much of my effort to become a better preacher has been a lonely task. Yes, I read many preaching books, have constantly taken and taught continuing education courses on preaching, and spend an average of 15-20 hours per week in my study preparing sermons. But for the most part the struggle has been alone and I sleep on stone pillows.
For the past 30 years I have lived with the best supporter and most effective critic of my preaching. She is my spouse, Gloria. On our first date, I interviewed her thoroughly to determine if she had the skills and commitment to help lead a congregation. Despite or maybe because she had been a church musician throughout her childhood and young adulthood, she wasn't much interested in applying for the task. She possessed even more spiritual gifts than I was able to discern then or even now, but too often I have failed to use her gifts for improving my preaching.
Throughout our journey, she has maintained a front row seat studying the dramatic interaction between me and those for whom I love to preach. I have spent countless nights struggling for that divine spark which creates the sermon. Often, Gloria has urged me to end my marathon sessions. Occasionally, she has offered to help, but until recently her efforts almost seemed a sacrilege to me. The loneliness of sermon building is the occupational hazard of an ordained person.
Near the end of his stellar preaching career, Harry Emerson Fosdick was asked by some journalists, "Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently". Fosdick replied, "Yes, I would have spent less time Saturday night tinkering with my sermon and more time with my family." Unfortunately, the Reverend Mr. Fosdick never received the same blessing I began to experience a couple of years ago at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Shortly after my arrival at Central, I borrowed and read a book from our congregational library entitled, Making Good Preaching Better, written by Pastor Alvin Rueter. Although I had not heard of the author, I keenly appreciated the thought conveyed by his title.
Although many members of the ELCA and our predecessor church bodies had expressed appreciation for my preaching, I deeply desired improvement. I hoped that my proclamation would become the resurrection and the abundant life for Central.
The book provided many insights including one I had long suspected: there are methodologies and technologies that can make the Holy Spirit more available to us as we preachers prepare sermons. I decided to learn more about the author. Imagine my complete surprise when a Central member informed me that the author had a long running successful radio program, Sing for Joy, and that he sang in the Central choir!
Looking for a Coach
I decided that I wanted to meet him to share my enthusiasm about his book and to explore with him a secret objective I had for many years, namely to secure a preaching coach. One of my favorite preachers, James Forbes, of Riverside Church in New York, had a preaching coach, Phil Swander. I had long coveted Forbes and Swander's partnership. I had done many short-term coaching assignments with colleagues, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And I had noticed that many athletes, including especially golfers and tennis professionals, had coaches despite their advanced standing in their respective fields.
Alvin Rueter is one of the most patient, gracious, and polite people I have ever known. He seemed mildly surprised and somewhat intrigued about my sincere gushing about Making Good Preaching Better. When I confessed my hope that he would consider becoming my preaching coach, he began the careful incisive questioning, which is one of his excellent coaching tools. My mother taught me that the key questions are "Who? What? Where? When? Why and Huh?" Pastor Rueter asked all those questions (especially including the last one) and then generously answered not only with a "yes" but "of course I shall be happy to help you."
We began meeting weekly to discuss my preaching assignments. He asked about my purpose and approach to preaching. His long time love for traditional Black preaching chiseled his questions about how I hoped to adjust to the challenge and opportunity of preaching at 75 percent of Central's worship services.
He was careful to test my understanding of his book representing his life's efforts to become a better preacher. Implicitly he asked if I was willing to be mentored in his innovative methodology. When I assured him that one of my objectives was a more consistent and effective preparation method, we agreed to work both on my approach and the content of my sermons.
Those approximately 90-minute weekly coaching sessions are usually the spiritual high point of my week. This occurs amid the hustle and bustle of weeks filled with pastoral drama, human pathos, organizational adjustments, mission visioning exercises, and administrative grunt work. With these sessions comes the blessed assurance of time dedicated to that burdensome joy called preaching with someone who knows my pastoral hopes and fears as I attempt to break the bread of life with the people among whom I serve Christ and his gospel. I have developed a sermon worksheet which I use for all preparation based on the Rueter method.
What We Do
Together, we evaluate my most recent sermons. Coach Rueter's key questions include, Did I accomplish my purpose for the sermon? Was I heard by most of the congregation? What lessons were learned?
Next we rehearse my reading the gospel text aloud. Both Phil Swander and Rueter assert that reading the gospel aloud is a key element of preaching. Then we share what I call an isogetical exercise. If it is true that the imagination is evidence of the divine, the largest portion of our time together is divine. We imagine together as we share our experiences of the assigned texts for my next preaching occasion. Our shared biblical literacy allows us to place the immediate texts in a larger biblical context. Henry Mitchell's intuitive hermeneutic is employed as together we strain to see a bit more of the biblical scene than the text provides through the eyes of faith.
Woven into those treasured divine moments in my study are Coach Rueter's questions about my effective use of a panel of diversity. A panel of diversity is both a term and a method for contexualizing, if not indigenizing, the preaching of the gospel to a particular assembly. Pericope-based conversational Bible studies, council meetings, ministry team meetings, home visits, casual conversations, and other encounters provide rich opportunities to discuss biblical texts assigned for upcoming sermons.
When lay members trust my genuine interest in their perspective on the text, they generally respond with enthusiasm or even excitement. They seem to enjoy helping their preacher preach.
|Coach Rueter's key questions include, Did I accomplish my purpose for the sermon? Was I heard by most of the congregation? What lessons were learned?|
Although I stall as long as I can in our sessions, we come to the moment of truth when Pastor Rueter asks, so how will you preach this text? How can you help us...(fill in the blank)? At that point I am refocused on summary statements about the biblical text and the sermon. I am called to state the purpose of the sermon. I am not required to state a sermon title.
Our meetings take place midweek while I am still preparing. I use learnings from our sessions as I complete my exegesis and sermon outline. I reserve my final drafting until 24 hours before preaching. Final hours are used to rehearse delivery. Gloria is invited to listen and comment. Submission to the Holy Spirit in prayer is my ultimate preparatory measure.
What Has Resulted
The results of my first six months of coaching were so encouraging that I decided to approach my five pastoral colleagues at Central about how coaching was benefiting me. In short fashion, we covenanted to work together using the Rueter method along with his coaching.
Each Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., Central's pastors and interns gather over the texts for the next two Sundays. Each session begins with prayers led by the coach. With coffee and empathy, we review last week's sermon. Then we begin next week's sermon building with a shared isogesis and exegesis.
Diversity is a valued resource as we share our pastoral, educational, and biographical stories under the watchful eye and attentive ear of Coach Rueter. Each of us brings distinctive styles and stories to the studied text as we look for new sermon opportunities for the people of Central Lutheran Church and the public we serve.
Our hope and expectation is that since no one of us is as able as all of us, the congregation will benefit from our collaboration even more than from our individual earnest efforts.
Our work differs somewhat from other pastoral pericope studies in that we employ the Rueter method and discuss Central's specific context. Colleague Bob Albers always reminds us that the preaching of a text without consideration of the context is nothing more than a pretext. We often share a completed preliminary draft of a future sermon.
We also have learned to risk a more acute and authentic critique of each other. Sunday morning rings like the words of 1 Corinthians 12:26: "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." We have replaced any dysfunctional competition with constructive collaboration.
We are still learning week by week as together and separately we work toward better preaching.
Sometimes the mirror is dimmer than I would like as I prepare for the next sermon but good coaching has made it and me brighter. Here are my interim learnings:
- Engage and covenant with your spouse or a life partner to share the mystery and joy of your preaching.
- Find a coach, someone who cares about you and is competent to support and critique your preaching.
- Read Making Good Preaching Better and experiment with the methods suggested.
- Review and refine your preferred preparation method(s).
- Stay well ahead of your preaching schedule.
- Pray for the Spirit of God to make your good preaching better.