by Jean Alexander
It’s a question most retiring clergy have to face: What to do with all those years of sermons? In fact, one colleague, whose church tragically burned down with his forty years of sermons in it, confessed how relieved he was that they were gone and he didn’t have to make that decision. He did, however, miss his jazz collection, which also perished.
My most recent sermons aren’t a problem because they are in a computer and can be easily saved without taking up valuable space. Whether they should be is another story. When I retired after 40 years of ministry, I still had paper copies of sermons from three-quarters of it. They took up the majority of two file boxes, which I have been lugging around as I have moved. There would be more, but for my first 15 years of ministry as an associate minister, I preached at most once month.
About a year before I retired, I decided it was time to start weeding out so that when I retired and we prepared to move, I would have a head start on the purging that needed to happen. I took those two boxes of sermons and started reading my way through many years of preaching. I’m glad I did for a number of reasons. One was that I was able to remember people and events I haven’t thought of in a long time. I found stories about my family I had forgotten. I realized once again how blessed I was to be in ministry and be a part of so many wonderful people’s lives.
Another reason I was glad to do this was that I could see my growth as a preacher. It was reassuring to see that I improved over time. Some of my sermons were worth reading again—I was even startled by how good some of them were. But in the end, I threw most of the sermons away after reading. It wasn’t because they were bad sermons, but they were, like most sermons, almost too timely. They were speaking to a particular congregation at a particular time in their history and at a particular time in our nation’s history. As I read through them, I was reminded of the transitory nature of most news. Who remembers much about the Iran-Contra affair today although it was big news in the Washington, D.C., area where my congregation was located? Most of the sermons were tossed and I was left with less than half a file box of sermons.
What did I keep? I kept the ones I deemed the best, which had a timeless quality to them that might speak again in another time. I kept my Easter sermons and I kept any with anecdotes about my children or our family that my daughter might enjoy reading someday. There aren’t a lot of them because I never believed in making my family a large part of my preaching.
Part of me wonders, though, why I kept any. After all, I’m not by any means a well known minister famous for my eloquence. I doubt that anyone is going to want to do a dissertation on my sermons or write a definitive biography (even though I represent what was the leading edge of women in ministry in the early 1970s). Perhaps I needed to keep some of them just to remind myself that I did something productive with all those years. The ministry is such an amorphous calling. What can you say you did with all those weeks and months? The role that one plays in people’s lives is rarely as clear as the words in black and white on the page.
What was reassuring to me as I read through them was to see that I did indeed improve over time. As I have thought about what helped me improve, I came up with four things I could point to as helpful to my development.
Listened to Myself
In one of the early congregations I served, the services were recorded each week, and for several years I listened to myself after I had preached. It was a reality check about how I actually sounded. I could hear my own idiosyncratic ways of phrasing and where I needed to project more energy or pause, and how distracting certain speech patterns can be.
Engaged in a Disciplined Program of Development
In my twenty-fifth year of ministry, with the blessing and help of my congregation, I enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program offered by the Chicago consortium of theological schools. This three-year program was multifaceted, with videotaping of sermons, a congregational feedback component, and summer classes. It helped me take the next steps and learn some new styles of preaching. It helped me to be less wedded to my text. I could see in reading my sermons before and after this program how much I improved in my construction and delivery.
Writing on the Computer
Editing is always difficult, but once I started using a computer to compose my sermons, it made editing so much easier. It helped me become more objective and freer to move or delete parts that weren’t really necessary or germane to the point of the sermon.
I put this one last because a lot of congregational feedback is not helpful. “Nice sermon, Reverend” is not helpful feedback. And often, when pressed, people are not able to tell you why they thought a particular sermon was “good.” Yet there are those rare parishioners who can articulate why they thought a sermon was good or failed. If you have a few folks like this, you are fortunate. Use them in a disciplined way to get feedback. However, encouragement by one’s congregation is important even if it doesn’t help you improve specifics. Positive feedback makes one keep wanting to try harder. When there is no feedback loop, the minister feels like he or she is preaching in a vacuum and hardly encouraged to improve.
These four aspects were crucial in my development as a preacher. There may be others that are important for you. For example, I had a colleague who was not blessed with a good speaking voice and, at the urging of her congregation, took voice lessons that helped her learn how to use her voice more effectively.
What I would say to any young minister starting out is to seek constructive feedback. Listen to your sermons. You will learn things, especially if you do it separately from watching them. In addition, watch yourself deliver sermons. It will be painful, but it will be helpful. As part of the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program, we had to watch ourselves preach the same sermon three times with two other colleagues watching each time for different things. By the last viewing, every flaw was magnified! It was a useful learning experience though and incentive to change.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with types of sermons and ways of delivery. But in the end, find what works for you. Just because preaching without notes is now the fashion doesn’t mean you can do it effectively. Or if using some kind technology to enhance the preaching is really not your style, don’t do it. If narrative preaching is all the rage but you lack the story telling gene, do what you can do as well as you can do it. What congregations are looking for is not so much a type of sermon or delivery, but rather the following:
They want to believe that the person preaching is the same person they have come to know in other ways and that you are preaching from your heart and care about what you are saying.
Our individual worlds are so full of diverse and often random-seeming events. Those who come to worship are looking for a faith perspective that can help integrate their disparate aspects. Sermons that give evidence that you understand the worlds of the congregation and have thought about how those worlds can be interpreted by the Judeo-Christian faith, will speak to their condition.
Congregations do want to see that you care about what you are saying. There needs to be energy and enthusiasm for what you are doing.
Congregants want to know that you are keeping abreast not only of the news, but want to hear you offer them perspectives from the world of thought. They want evidence that you are reading and thinking and presenting to them the best of what you have gleaned from the larger world. This doesn’t mean a string of quotes but the kernels of truth you have found in your study.
Whether ministers like it or not, I know from my years serving as a judicatory executive that effective preaching is still the number one item checked in what congregations are looking for in a new minister. Most congregations can’t tell you what they mean by that, but they know it when they hear it and I think the four qualities that I mentioned are key. How these qualities get conveyed by a particular individual will vary depending on his or her gifts.
I am now a pew-sitter rather than a pulpit-preacher and my return to this pre-ordination position still doesn’t feel all that comfortable. However, sitting there reminds me of how important the preaching task is still. I know the longing I have to hear someone preach a word to my aging soul that integrates the past and the present and gives hope. I know how disappointed I am when I am unable to distill the point of a sermon or how it applies to my life. When a sermon fails to connect in any way to my life’s circumstance, I find myself tuning out. In this I do not think I am any different than the patient people who listened to me over the course of my ministry—most of which were kinder in retrospect than I gave them credit for. For these reasons, the preaching task should still be the center of the week for a minister. It is what people are showing up for in addition to the fellowship of a particular congregation. Doing it the best we can honors our listeners and does credit to the long history of preaching that is our legacy.
2013 Issue 1, Number 1