The transformation of my own identity as a preacher began with noticing the inadequacy of my image of the preacher. I had consumed my seminary education voraciously and had gone on reading and teaching in various venues ever since: I had a lot to share! But in the mid-1990s I began to ask whether making the Christian tradition—its ideas about God, its sacred texts, its liturgical practices—accessible and user-friendly to my listeners was what I really needed to be doing. An incident that occurred in worship one morning made me see my preaching ministry in an entirely new and not wholly favorable light.  

We had the Montessori-based Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as our program for children in that parish, and the children’s classroom, called an atrium, had child-sized copies of the key furniture of our church: altar, font, lectern, etc. One day a smaller copy of the tabernacle (a sort of wall safe for the reservation of consecrated bread and wine) was added to their room and presented to the children. At the end of worship that day, I brought them to the front of the church to see the tabernacle from which theirs had been copied. “What do you see that is like something you saw in the atrium today?” I asked. The children all pointed at the tabernacle on the wall behind the altar. “And what is that called?” “The tabernacle!” they all said together. “Can someone show us what the tabernacle is used for?” A five-year old girl walked behind the altar, opened the tabernacle, and took the silver bread box from within. She held it up to the congregation and said, “This is the ciborium. It holds the bread of Jesus.” The congregation beamed as the little girl took the ciborium back to its home and closed the door again. Many later remarked on how “cute” her demonstration was, but the fact was that few members of the congregation could have accurately named the box on the wall behind the altar, much less the vessel kept inside. But the culture of the church often makes adults feel uncomfortable asking basic questions about things they don’t understand but feel they should. So the child’s demonstration became a safe way for adults to learn.  

What was a source of wonder and discovery for a five-year-old, however, became mere information for most of the congregation. Being better informed about the name of the ornate silver vessel inside the elaborately carved wooden box made them feel more confident about the practices of their religion, but it had not necessarily revealed something essential about God to them. When the items were first presented to them in their dedicated space, the children in the atrium had had a chance to wonder aloud about the tabernacle and the ciborium and what it all meant about God and God’s place in their lives. When would the congregation have such an opportunity?  

It was then that I began to wonder whether my preaching was like the little girl’s demonstration of the ciborium without the ensuing reflection and engagement. Was I, in effect, holding up the texts of the Bible week by week to the congregation and simply giving my listeners information about those texts, even if that information was more subtle and complex than the five-year-old’s identification of the ciborium? Was I speaking as the seminary-trained “expert” to the “uneducated” laity? Certainly this was no part of my conscious understanding of what I was doing, but I began to question the ways my own education and the ordination process itself had formed me in such a model despite my best intentions.  

North American culture has a love/hate relationship with experts. It has become de rigueur for hired presenters to disown the role of “expert” in favor of a title like “facilitator,” but if the content is thin, the “facilitators” will likely hear about it and not get a second invitation. On the other hand, our television news programs cannot get through a major story without inviting an expert to comment on unfolding events. In the context of the church, clergy are expected to be experts but not act like experts. In a maintenance model, such a role is manageable, since the clergy are paid a salary to use their education to lead all aspects of the community and to deliver an attractive product on Sundays that people will want to support with their monetary offerings. Being an expert carries a great deal of authority in a maintenance context, but the economic side of the transaction provides a check and balance on that authority. Because the expertise is being paid for, the congregation can admonish or fire the ordained leader who cannot preach, lead worship, or provide effective pastoral care. As long as those products are being delivered satisfactorily, however, the clergyperson who has not offended still carries a great deal of authority.  

For ordained leaders striving to move a congregation from maintenance to mission, that authority can be a burden. Although the language of ministry has changed radically since the Second World War with the reemergence of baptism as the fundamental icon of the Christian life, most of the baptized continue to look outside themselves for the interpretation of Scripture and the theological meaning of life. Denominational white papers and worship resources may emphasize the ministry of the whole people of God, but the continued pattern of raising up a caste of professional clergy, and educating and paying them, ultimately diminishes the vast amount of lay ministry that is not raised up or compensated. The fact is, being specially trained and being paid a living wage both confer agency—the power to act—on individuals. Inversely, having little education and serving as a volunteer do not offer the same conviction of agency, even when it is “officially” conferred from the pulpit or service leaflet. It has become a commonplace to ask what congregation members might do as the church (outside of worship) rather than for the church (assisting in worship and maintaining the facilities). But this cultural shift still exists more dramatically on the pages of prayer books and denominational manifestos than it does in society at large, where churches are still largely viewed as voluntaristic organizations, like garden clubs and the Shriners, or sites for self-improvement, like libraries and health clubs. The typical churchgoer in North America may be complimented to know that he or she has a ministry to be claimed and exercised in the world, but most cannot get past a lifetime of formation that said clergy bear the lion’s share of responsibility for anything properly called ministry. So the icon of the clergy leader is both a threat and an opportunity for missional preaching: a threat, because the clergy leader has been trained and hired to maintain and grow an institution whose focus is self-perpetuation; an opportunity, because if the church is going to live into a new ecclesiology, the pulpit will be one of the most powerful tools to effect that change. 


Comments welcome on the   Alban Roundtable blog    

Adapted from Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God  by John Addison Dally, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.




AL349_SM Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God  
by John Addison Dally 

As a post-Christendom church reorients itself toward the mission of God, what might preaching look like? Choosing the Kingdom offers concrete suggestions for a reconception of preaching for those whose imaginations have been captured by the possibilities of a missional identity.  

AL417_SM Preaching and Stewardship: Proclaiming God’s Invitation to Grow   
by Craig A. Satterlee 

Both new and veteran preachers alike find the annual stewardship sermon a challenge and are eager for encouraging, practical advice. In Preaching and Stewardship, Craig Satterlee offers a nuts-and-bolts handbook on preaching stewardship, raising issues preachers need to consider when preparing stewardship sermons and offering advice on how to address them. 

AL351_SM Preaching Ethically: Being True to the Gospel, Your Congregation, and Yourself  
by Ronald D. Sisk 

Preaching Ethically offers guidelines for preaching in light of a range of factors that might tempt a preacher to misuse the pulpit. The calling to preach the gospel compels us to preach in ways that keep the gospel foremost, treat the congregation fairly, and are true to our own convictions and our personal integrity.     

AL149_SM In Search of the Church: New Testament Images for Tomorrow’s Congregations  
by Keith A. Russell

Can today’s church tap into the fire and energy of the early church as it struggles to bring about God’s will now? Russell passionately reconnects the self-understanding of the early church to the mission and ministry of tomorrow’s congregations.


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January 17-19, 2012

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