Preachers (and teachers): What gets in the way of your sermon/curriculum preparation?
Rev. Jane Doe pastors a church with 3,000 members on the books. 400 of them come to church on Sunday. 200 of them stay for Sunday School. 95 participate in weekly Bible studies. 15 of them help with visitation. 5 of them find a way to be at the church every day of the week (sigh).
Rev. Jane Doe’s church is in that strange, wonderful, challenging stage where they must either commit to grow (“branding,” marketing and advertising, upgrade volunteer staff to paid staff, intense demographic research and unique outreach, and maybe another appointed minister…maybe, etc.) or stay the same size.
This week, Jane has to get kids to school and ten different kinds of practice. She has three funerals. She has a pre-marital counselling session. She has seven different local or regional church-related meetings to attend. Oh yeah – she also has a sermon to write.
Jane usually reads her coming passages out of the Revised Common Lectionary on Monday. She only reads the text on Monday – no commentaries, no devotional guides, no scholarly/spiritual/homiletic research. Just the text, and on its own terms.
Tuesday Jane bounces her own original (as they can be) ideas from a fresh (sort-of) look at the text off of scholars, preachers, and teachers in the church. She begins to break down the text and examine who wrote it; when they wrote it; why they wrote it; and who messed with it after they died.
Wednesday Jane writes nothing – she only thinks about her church’s life and situation, as well as her own. She examines what is going on in the world around her that is relevant and pressing (or what should be…or shouldn’t be) in her eyes and in the eyes of her laity. All of that stews in Jane’s brain Wednesday.
Thursday Jane ladles out that stew onto her exegesis, and let’s the flavors marry (thank you Alyce McKenzie for equating food preparation and preaching. I can’t get away from it now). If it tastes good she considers the way in which she will serve it to the congregation. She begins to write out her manuscript in full, adding in some flavors that might be challenging to the unchallenged pallet.
Friday, Jane does nothing because it’s her day off (not). Saturday, Jane preaches the sermon out loud by herself at least two times, if not three.
But not this week. This week, Monday’s text reading got pushed into Tuesday’s commentary/devotional/newspaper reading time. This pushed part of Tuesday into Wednesday, which didn’t give her enough time to think about context. Her exegesis wasn’t ready to receive the flavors of Wednesday’s thought, and so her Friday sabbath was ruined. The first time she preached her lack-luster product was Sunday morning.
After a bad couple of lines of thought, hastily strung together, she comments to the crowd: “It’s been a tough week.”
And it has been. The church is having growing pains and she’s feelin’ the hurt. If she is feeling the hurt, then her sermon will also feel the hurt (and therefore the congregation will hurt after hearing it), right?
Wrong. As a pulpit minister, Jane knows something about her job very clearly. She has to preach. She has to preach every Sunday. She has to preach every Sunday to a congregation that she has been with for over ten years. As pulpit ministers, the absolute worst thing we can do is say of our preparation for Sunday, “I’ll get around to that.” I have said it before. Those of you reading who preach regularly have said it before. All preachers have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (and a decent sermon). So what’s our way out of it? When they busyness of the Church swells up over the dams of our personal and professional boundaries, what do we do? What happens when every facet of sermon preparation is crammed into Friday and Saturday (and by that I mean Saturday)?
We do what fiction authors do. We take what we’ve got going on and we stack it up like a house of cards. If something we have scheduled during the week can be removed from the house of cards without it falling down around us, then we probably need to remove it. Verily I say unto thee, sermon preparation is not one of those cards. “But everything I have planned this week could bring down the house of cards!” That could be true. If so, this week isn’t your week to go from zero to hero. However, next week is a fresh start for setting the appropriate boundaries that give room for both you and the Holy Spirit to work together. Karl Barth says that the preached word is the Word of God, for these people, in this time. No pressure.
May we all make sure that our busyness does not keep us from being excellent deliverers of the Good News of Jesus Christ. And may we not fall into the trap that Bonhoeffer warns us of – that we would preach bad sermons that say what people want to hear without preaching the word of God.