March 8th, 2012

lindisfarne gospels

Preaching as Bible study

I'm enjoying preaching my way through the Ten Commandments. After 36 years of preaching, it's tough to keep growing in your messages. It's okay to repeat yourself, of course, since there are always new people who haven't heard what you've already said; nevertheless, you're liable to get stale if you don't keep exploring new territory.

This is especially true of a long pastorate. We all know that long pastorates are good for churches, but they can expose a serious weakness in your preaching. Back in the old circuit riding days, a preacher who had a dozen messages on justification through sanctification and had a week's worth of revival messages down pat could get through an entire career. He'd just hone the messages over and over as he went from charge to charge. But when people really get to know you, they get used to the way you preach; in fact, people remember my sermons better than I do (a compliment to me, I think), so I have to be careful not to repeat myself too often.

As busy as preachers are, it's tough to find time for serious, challenging Bible study. Though we don't like to admit it, most of us do the lion's share of our Bible study as part of sermon preparation or when we're preparing to lead studies. So setting yourself a challenge now and then is important.

Many of my colleagues use the officially prepared lectionary to plan their sermons. That was just beginning to be employed among Protestants back when I was in seminary. I was trained in an older* method. When I sit down to plan several weeks of worship, I have to ask myself what needs to be said, what the liturgical season is about, how do I balance Old and New Testaments, what Scripture will be preached from and what Scripture will be used liturgically, what hymns will be sung, etc. In effect, I create a mini-lectionary for my own use several times a year. It's a lot of work, but it stimulates the mind and spirit. Too many preachers take the prepared readings and punt on the study it takes to understand why they're put together the way they are and just do the same ol', same ol' with a new text and title.

* Older among Methodists and other evangelical, Free Church types. Lectionaries go back to at least the days of the late Roman Empire. I know that, so you liturgigeeks out there don't need to be bustin' my chops about it.

The pastor's schedule

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I am swamped, but then, I usually am. As I say frequently, "only the dead have nothing to do." My wife begs me, gripes at me to slow down and take time off. Others ask why I push myself so hard. The answer is not a simple one, but is typical of the pressures of life in the pastorate.

The Good

I push myself because I am a highly goal-oriented person who wants to accomplish things. I want to save the lost. I want to build up the church. I want to see good things happen. I have causes and people I care about. I am a follower of John Wesley, who was constantly on the move, making things happen. In the words of Lost and Found, "These here days, they count for something" -- at least they should.

The Bad

Those of us who have been savaged by others' criticism -- a not uncommon situation in congregational life -- are like wide receivers who have been the recipients of vicious, unsportsmanlike tackles. We start to "hear footsteps." We learn to stay busy in order to forestall criticism. This is unhealthy, I know. It's also unnecessary in many cases; certainly, few people -- perhaps no one -- at my current appointment (or my last one) would jump me for being lazy or inattentive to people. That said, once you've been unfairly hit, you're always aware of the rogue trouble-maker out there, and keeping him or her out of your head is a challenge.

The Ugly

I say Yes too much. I promise too much. I pile stuff on to the point where there is no time to bounce. I create situations where I have a major deadline every week and there is no time left open to deal with emergencies without it coming out of my hide. This is simply lack of discipline on my part; or, in some cases, the result of boredom and loneliness.

It's the Ugly that I need to work on. I can keep the Bad out of my head, but I can't keep me out of my head. It's very hard for me to clear my schedule and give myself some serious time off, but I've got to do it. My health has just about broken this winter.

I've already stepped back from the amount of involvement I've had with our Boy Scout Troop. I'll also be stepping down from the NAUMS Board this summer. I need some more adults to step up and help make youth events go at the church. I'm happy to say, I don't have to lead the youth mission trip this summer -- something I like to do, but it's healthier, the more other adults we have who will take leadership.

I need to do more teaching, especially with younger adults, and less weekend programming. Weekends are a scarce resource. There are only 52 of them a year, and you can't schedule every one of them up to the battlements. And I can't be responsible for all of those we do schedule.

So, something to work on . . .