But you ask, "How does this apply to me? I don't serve a big congregation." Or if you serve with a staff, you might be saying, "Well, we don't have a homiletics professor available." Or you might be wondering, "Why seek help at all? People seem to like my work in the pulpit."
There is good preaching without collegiality in its preparation. Yet the title of this piece argues that good preaching can be even better if we seek help before the fact. (It's not uncommon for people in other callings — even millionaire ballplayers-to have coaches.) As for not having professional help on hand for every preacher, I'll speak later about other possibilities for collegiality.
My first discovery of the benefits of not working alone came in 1945 in my first parish. On Saturday nights, my wife Beulah began asking, "Why don't you preach your sermon to me now?" We didn't go next door to the church so I could stand in the pulpit and she could sit in the pew. We were in bed, and I read her my script. She'd make comments of approval and suggestions for improvement.
I always took this as a sign of her interest in my work. We were married 49 years. I never thought of asking her, "Did you have any other motive?" During the 9 years since she died, I've wondered, "Had Beulah — as sweet and innocent and sly as she was — figured out how to handle what must be a problem for some pastor's spouses: how to help the preacher in the family without damaging the marriage?"
I didn't realize it, but Beulah had introduced me to the notion of collegiality in preparing to preach.
"But I'm Afraid"
When I go to church away from home, I don't let the preacher know that I teach homiletics. It has happened sometimes that they did know who I was and that they confessed they'd been nervous in the pulpit when seeing me in the pew.
Not only do I teach beginners, but since 1979 I've also held workshops for pastors, priests, and deacons — people with experience. Some have admitted they'd signed up scared. One pastor told me, "After sending in my $25 deposit, I kicked myself every day. I said, 'Why am I doing this to myself?'"
I empathize fully, because I was a parish pastor for 33 years. I used to have nightmares seeing myself standing naked in the pulpit — because so much of myself goes into my preaching that as I preach, I am revealing myself. It's easy to understand that to us preachers, it seems as though a critique of our sermons is a personal attack. So I'll concede that it may take some time for the preacher and the helper(s) to build trust.
Staff Working Together
Once in a while, a pastor and the associate arrived together to one of my preaching workshops. I've developed a step-by-step method where we discuss a principle of preaching in the morning and practice that in the afternoon in three-minute homiletical exercises on the VCR.
For the afternoon session, we divide into small groups of 4-6. I began to put senior pastor and associate pastor in the same VCR small group where they'd critique each other. I hoped they'd continue working together before and after each sermon, but I never had the opportunity to see how this was working week by week in a congregation.
As Craig Lewis and I were getting acquainted, both of us found ourselves interested in drawing the other Central Lutheran pastors, as well as the intern(s), into this process as well.
Recognizing the need to develop trust, we developed this kind of meeting gradually. In October 2000, the preaching staff began meeting monthly. To give us a common base, we discussed one chapter at a time of my book, Making Good Preaching Better: a Step-by-Step Guide to Scripture-based, People-centered Preaching (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997).
Next, the pastors and intern(s) found ways to adjust their schedules so that we could meet weekly from 8 until 9 a.m. I'd copy the coming Sunday's Gospel text onto newsprint-one verse to a sheet-that I'd tape to a wall. We'd then ask ourselves, "What is the Holy Spirit saying to me through this verse?" I'd write our responses on the appropriate sheet.
After some months, we each found ways to adjust our schedules to lengthen the session to 9:30 a.m., the additional time used to begin working on the Gospel text for the Sunday after. (This also helped to increase the amount of time for our subconscious minds to brood on what we're up to.)
On the assumption that since we'd all had a hand in creating the sermon and we'd have more confidence in reviewing the end result, we eventually started our Tuesday morning sessions by reviewing the past Sunday's preaching. At first, we found compliments easier to give than suggestions. But week by week, we started to gain more trust and courage for making appropriate suggestions.
How did these sessions differ from text study groups? I've heard some of our Central Lutheran pastors say things like:
"Weekly text studies with your neighbor pastors are usually about exegesis, which is good. They also provide pastors with a support group. That's good too. But there's usually nothing about the crafting of the sermon."
"Ecumenical text studies are useful, but you don't want to share your best ideas with your competitors."
Benefits of Partnering
Another push towards feeling that collegiality in preparing to preach works well came when in 1985 I first started to teach at St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota. I was negotiating with the Academic Vice President, Sister Eva. The position was half-time in the college in courses both in speech and persuasion and half-time in the School of Theology teaching homiletics.
I said to Sister Eva: "I still have a couple of obligations on my calendar that conflict with my classes during the middle of this first semester. Would you allow me to miss those days here?" She said, "Yes, but keep your students occupied profitably."
|"It's not only easier to make suggestions before the sermon is given in church, it does more good. Suggestions given after it's preached are too late." |
Somehow I came upon the idea that on the two days I'd be gone, they'd use the time to practice their next homily or speech with a partner, both signing a critique sheet to be turned in to me.
Every speaker was so much improved that I kept on requiring them to rehearse with a partner. I expected them to squawk, because I no longer gave them class time off. They didn't complain; they saw the improvement.
In 1991 I retired from commuting 80 miles from our home in St. Paul to St. John's to take care of Beulah who was fighting ovarian cancer. In 1995, St. John's asked me to come back to teach one homiletics course.
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had invited me to teach homiletics in its Diaconate Formation program. Roman Catholic deacons may be married; and, hence, the Archdiocese urges spouses to attend classes with their husbands. I encourage these men to rehearse with their wives.
(On two occasions, when the wife's schedule didn't permit, two different students enlisted a teenager in the family to be the rehearsal partner; one week one of these teenagers even came to class.)
My expectation was that they'd continue this practice after ordination and that deacon and wife — having co-created the homily-would be freed up to review it together after its having been preached in church. When I see former students, I ask them if they're still working together on their preaching, and they say they are and are glad about it.
My dream at Central has been to work towards that same degree of cooperation in our preaching staff. I'm not asking them to stand in the pulpit to rehearse in front of us, just to read a sermon-in-progress. To my delight, nevertheless, we've already had several rough drafts ready the Tuesday beforehand. The pastors have expressed appreciation for the insights given by their colleagues; we've been gratified the following Sunday to hear how what we contributed did make a difference in what had been already a fine sermon.
I've noticed we've been more free with suggestions before the sermon is preached than afterwards. When I commented on this, they said, "It's not only easier to make suggestions before the sermon is given in church, it does more good. Suggestions given after it's preached are too late."
Yes, it's not easy for a staff to find time to work collegially on preaching. And of course, the time spent working together is in addition to the hours our preachers put in working on sermons by themselves. But they acknowledge that spending time working together makes their time working alone more productive.
Finding a Coach
By the time this appears in print, I'll be 81 years old and will have observed my 57th anniversary of ordination. During my parish ministry, did I do everything I now advocate? No. But even when I didn't have an associate and/or an intern, I could turn to my spouse, Beulah. And what about the time needed for collegiality? Didn't I feel the pressure of time? Yes. But even when I felt like asking the Telephone Chain to call everybody saying, "Church this week will be on Monday," I could turn to Beulah.
You may say, "It sounds like she was a remarkable person." I'll say, "I won't fight you on that. But she had no formal theological training. In my pastoral ministry, not infrequently did I discover people with surprising insight, even among those whose outward appearance would have led me to appraise them differently. So remarkable people are available — probably anywhere."
And then you say, "But this will take time; I usually keep working on my sermon up until the service begins." I say, "Good for you. But can you try to find a way so that some of your preparation time will be spent consulting with a colleague, ordained or lay?"
In addition to coaching his senior pastor in the art of preaching, Alvin C. Rueter, an ELCA pastor, ordained for 57 years, has worked as a parish pastor, a professor of homiletics, and as a radio host for Sing for Joy, a half-hour radio program of vocal music with themes which relate to the lectionary readings. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.