Preaching Question: “How do I stretch myself and avoid ruts in preaching?”

A fellow pastor asked how I stretch myself and keep from falling into ruts in preaching. It’s a great question. A predictable preacher is a boring preacher. I know I fall into predictable routines at times. It’s helpful to identify some of the ways to get out of those and continue developing.

Four practices have been most helpful for my continued development:

1. Lots of reading and lots of listening to different speakers and preachers.

When I’m keeping up with my reading plan, I rarely run dry, especially when I focus on critical / analytical reading (paying close attention to the main points and the structure of the story/argument).

I’ve also begun trying to watch TV shows and movies with that same critical awareness, especially noting structure. For what it’s worth, that hasn’t felt like it turned TV watching into “work.” I think it has enhanced the experience. Robert McKee’s Story is a great place to go for beginning to see some of those elements of story more clearly (if you don’t mind a big book).

I’ve noticed the same with listening to other speakers and preachers. I preach better, and with more variety, when I’m listening to others. I listen to Tim Keller and think about precision in structure and delivery. With just a few words, he can help me put language to something I’ve always known was there but couldn’t describe.

I listen to Jessica LaGrone and think about narrative and delivery. The way that she weaves a story together keeps me engaged every time. And she’s maybe the gentlest “power-preacher” I’ve ever heard because of the warmth and presence in her delivery.

I used to listen to Rob Bell and love how he would take me on a journey through his own exegesis. He was able to bring me to the “aha!” of the exegesis, even sliding in some Greek and Hebrew, and yet never made me feel like I was listening to a scholarly exegesis paper.

If I listen to one person long enough, I catch myself sounding more and more like that person—which is okay with me for seasons. But varying the preachers I’m listening to has helped me appreciate and try to imitate some of what each of them does best. Right now, I’m wondering if I could find a way to listen to more of Bishop Fairley’s preaching.1 I’ve heard him preach a few lectionary sermons now (lectionary! a Bishop!), and each one was riveting—deep, steeped in biblical thought and language, gospel-centric, powerful delivery.

The same goes for other speakers—paying attention to how they structure their content and how they deliver it. I love watching Jerry Seinfeld for the way that he builds something and the way he transitions. If you haven’t, you should watch the documentary Comedian. It gives a good behind-the-scenes look at his preparation.

2. Pastoral visitation

I preach better and with more variety when I’m spending more time with people. Specifically when I’m spending more time in spiritual conversations with people. I start to read the text differently and imagine different ways it can speak to people when it comes right after talking to someone about a miscarriage, or about how they’re struggling to find time for important self-care things, or how they’re thriving in something they didn’t expect (baby, career change, etc.)

Without that variety of what I’m hearing from other people, I tend to stay in my own, more limited life experience and catch myself repeating the same themes a lot.

3. Varying series

Some variety between scriptural and topical series has been helpful for me. A series that starts from a particular text sends me on a deep dive in that text first. One that begins with a topic sends me on a wide survey of that topic in Scripture and historical theology. Both kinds of series merit both kinds of study, but the starting points differ.

Within these, the larger series creates natural variety, too. We’re preaching through Exodus and a bit beyond right now––the OT lectionary passages. Because the series covers the big narrative, it seems to demand more than just a deep exegetical dive into each Sunday’s passage, but lots of awareness about the context. (All exegesis demands context work — but the nature of this series has made context a much bigger piece than at other times. We’ve been living with Moses and the Israelites for about 9 weeks now.) Then we go from this fall’s huge narrative arc to really tight and focused in January when we have a 5-week series on the Lord’s Prayer.

And of course, following the liturgical year adds natural variety, too. Take, for example, the Exodus 17 passage about Israelites grumbling for water to drink. That looked much different as part of our Exodus series compared to how it will look in Lent next year, when it’s an OT lectionary passage.

If you forced me to choose one way all the time, I’d choose to preach lectionary year-round. And there’s still plenty of variety there alone. But the occasional topical series or lectio continua series has been great to force me to think and prepare differently.

4. Varying preparation

I have a pretty defined preparation structure (seven 75-minute blocks) but I’ve left a lot of intentional variety in it. So I don’t handle the exegesis the same from week to week. After several readings of the text, I’ll choose one or two ways to start digging deeper into it, depending on what seems like it will be most helpful that time. Sometimes that’s Lectio Divina, sometimes it’s inductive Bible study, sometimes it’s doing a really wide contextual survey, and other times it’s focusing on a deep dive into translation. Each of those methods makes me think about the text differently. I know people who swear by one of them. For me, if I leaned on one every time, my sermons would end up having less variety. (And if I tried to do them all, I’d spend way more time on sermon preparation than I have to give.)

I also don’t handle the move from text to sermon the same every week. Sometimes I do an outline, sometimes a mind map, and sometimes I manuscript it. I had a good season where I used PowerPoint to story board my sermons like 3- or 5-act plays. I’ll occasionally do more than one of these, but again … time and other priorities. When I mind map, I notice that I tend toward a more narrative approach. When I manuscript, I tend to be more precise and nuanced and more linear.

Also, I keep a list of questions to ask that I reference each week, but I never reference all of them. There are too many. So picking different questions leads me in different directions. Some of those:
Doctrinal: What doctrine from the Echo catechism or a creed most relates to this?
Liturgical: What from our baptismal covenant, confession & pardon, Great Thanksgiving, or Lord’s Prayer most relates? Or from other liturgies (UMC Social Creed, marriage and funeral rites, songs, etc.)?
Moral: Which of the capital vices or virtues, beatitudes, or fruits of the spirit relates here?
News: What happening in the world right now relates to this?

At least once a month, I go back to Tom Long’s list of potential forms for sermons in The Witness of Preaching. I try to imagine how my sermon would fit in a few of those different forms. Even if I end up not choosing one, some of that imagining expands how I’m thinking about the sermon. And this keeps me from falling into a rhythm of always preaching a “hook — exegesis — application” sermon, or whatever other form I could fall into.

For me, it has been important to ask questions about delivery, too. “What if I don’t use any slides for this sermon? How would that change it?” Or “How can I get people actively involved –– engage some sense other than seeing and hearing?” I keep thinking about PechaKuchas — 20 slides, 20 seconds apiece. I’ve used these a few times in other settings. Would it ever be possible and make sense to do a PechaKucha-styled sermon? I don’t ever want to do something like that just for the novelty. But when I have to engage with a different set of rules, I think it helps me get more creative than if I just keep doing what’s most comfortable.

 

I can’t say that I’ve built all this in specifically for the sake of growth and staying out of ruts. I think some of it has been out of my own sense of restlessness. Follow the same routine too long and I get bored. Hopefully it keeps me from getting boring for others, too, and keeps me from being content at my present point of development.

—–

  1. Leonard Fairley, Bishop in the Louisville Episcopal Area of the UMC

A New (Old) Church Strategy

In his memoir, The Pastor,1 Eugene Peterson describes America’s dominant church leadership culture this way:

Pollsters were busy issuing monthly reports on the precipitous drop in church attendance. There was widespread panic, especially among pastors, at times verging on hysteria.

If God were dead, the church couldn’t be far behind. Life-support systems were being proposed right and left to keep the church going. ‘Relevance’ became the mantra of choice. New forms of church organization were proposed. Innovative strategies of public relations, misnamed evangelism, were launched with impressive fanfare. Worship was replaced by entertainment. Statistics trumped kerygma.”

That sounds quite a bit like today’s church leadership world––workshops and conferences and strategies for how to grow, appeals to the need for “relevance,” marketing and PR, though many have long dispensed with naming anything “evangelism.”

But when Peterson writes this, he’s not talking about today’s church leadership culture. He’s talking about the 1960s –– some fifty years ago as he was starting in ministry.

He writes in another place (I’m quoting him at length. His wisdom is worth it):

I was watching both the church and my vocation as a pastor in it being relentlessly diminished and corrupted by being redefined in terms of running an ecclesiastical business. The ink on my ordination papers wasn’t even dry before I was being told by experts, so-called, in the field of church that my main task was to run a church after the manner of my brother and sister Christians who run service stations, grocery stores, corporations, banks, hospitals, and financial services. Many of them wrote books and gave lectures on how to do it.

[…]

This is the Americanization of congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.”

I love how Peterson identifies the problems with turning the church into an ecclesiastical business. And I love how he upholds the vocation of pastor while so many are turning into mere missional strategists. But mostly, I’m interested that in these quotes, he’s talking about the 1960s.

How have things gone for the Church in America since the 1960s? Most of the pollsters would say not good. Our decline has continued, and at a far quicker pace. A “religiosity index” that rates total religious interest (see at right) is at an all-time low after steep declines for the past fifty years. We’re talking about the rise of the “nones.” My denomination, the United Methodist Church, last increased its U.S. membership in 1965, when Peterson was starting in ministry.

An observation: During the last fifty years, a time of decline in America, the leading voices in the Church have been the ecclesiastical business gurus.

Many of those gurus can point to bright spots of success. They can show the churches that adopted their methods and grew. But while they have been our leading voices, the results across the nation have been dismal. Is the problem just that not enough churches are listening to them? I’m not convinced.

Even where these advisors have led local churches to growth, I don’t believe they’re off the hook for the results across the nation. Instead, I believe even those growing ecclesiastical businesses may have contributed to the decline. Because even while they’ve grown in number, where they have deemphasized real pastoral ministry, they’re likely to have developed shallow churchgoers, consumer churchgoers, churchgoers who see the church only as a utilitarian machine. Those are churchgoers likely to drift from the church without much loss or flee at the first disagreement. They’re less likely to raise up the next generation in the faith.

I wonder — Why do we continue to give center stage to the group of gurus who have presided over 50 years of decline? Many of their strategy specifics have changed, but still they look to the business world or social sciences world for the church’s answers. (If you can tweak most of what you’re calling “church strategy” and fit it to a business, you’re strategizing for an ecclesiastical business.)

Could we instead call this a failed experiment? I know some local churches have had great numerical success following these strategies. But for the American Church as a whole, this experiment has failed. The era when every church has a mission statement has been an era of decline in the church. The era of “church growth” and “small group multiplication” and “innovation” has been an era of decline in the church. The era when pastors have spent more time in conference rooms than living rooms has been an era of decline in the church.

Peterson writes about today’s pastoral vocation:

Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually nonexistent.”

This quote invites a next observation. What pastors are doing in this era (an era of decline in the big-C Church) has no continuity with pastors in eras past (eras that have included great growth in the Church).

What if it’s time to stop listening to the leadership gurus about entrepreneurial leadership and missional strategy? What if it’s time to listen again to pastors from times past––to those pastors who didn’t mind to be called “pastor,” who probably didn’t have a mission statement or a 5-year plan, but who led the Church in some of its greatest times of growth?

In another book, Under the Predictable Plant, Peterson describes the work of a pastor:

I want to be a pastor. I want to lead people in worship each Lord’s Day in such a way that they will be brought into something large and beautiful – into God and his salvation (not reduced and demeaned). And I want to be with them through the days of the week at those times when they need verification or clarification of God’s continuing work and will in their lives (not promoting sure-fire moral schemes, not bullying them into churchly conformity) so that they can live originally and praisingly.”

Peterson doesn’t write about preaching to get everyone “on board.” He writes about preaching to bring them into God and his salvation. He writes about being with his people through the days of the week, not to recruit and strategize, but “so that they can live originally and praisingly.”

Peterson writes about the pastoral vocation as it has been practiced for 2,000 years. He writes against the new model of pastor as ecclesiastical business CEO, as it has been practiced for 50 years.

Church strategy

After my post last week – “Pastors or Missional Strategists?” – I had several follow-up conversations with people who wanted to reemphasize the importance of strategy. They stressed that we must be more than “just chaplains.” They stressed that pastors need to be strategic in equipping others for ministry.

I think when many people hear “pastor,” they hear only the role of pastoral care––nurturing people in need. The classical pastor –– the Eugene Peterson type of pastor –– does much more than that. (S)he looks at people with a concern for how they can grow in faith. This absolutely includes equipping principled Christian leaders for the church and world. It involves equipping teams of people for ministry and setting them free to do it. I don’t do anything alone in my congregation. Worship preparation, visitation, outreach and witness, all of these are team ministries. I rarely receive a direct phone call about a crisis in someone’s life. I receive most of them second-hand, from the (lay) pastors of our small groups.

And in the end, I suppose I’m not even railing against “strategy.” Our church isn’t strategy-less. We know what we’re doing and why. We even have a mission statement! Goodness, I chair our Conference Stats Team!

Instead, I’m suggesting that we’re using a bad strategy, a failed strategy. It’s a strategy that seeks to turn pastors into managers and CEOs, one that makes strategy itself the answer. Today’s graduating seminarian is more capable of taking people through a mission-vision-values retreat than sitting across from someone to talk about the state of his soul. Today’s ministry conference or workshop is more likely to provide training on writing a ministry action plan than training on how to “visit from house to house.” The latter was emphasized during the Methodist Church’s greatest period of growth. The former has been emphasized during our greatest period of decline.

I want us to reclaim the strategy of pastoral ministry:

  • Lead the people in worship each Lord’s Day in such a way that they will be brought into something large and beautiful – into God and his salvation. This is different than planning an exciting Sunday worship experience with a teaching that will get people on board with our vision.
  • Be with people through the days of the week to help them clarify God’s continuing work and will in their lives. This is more than being with people to strategize and equip, though it will certainly include those things. The difference: We start by looking for where God is at work in people’s lives, not by looking for where people fit into our strategic plans.

Those may not sound as exciting as some of the big hairy audacious goals and strategies we put to paper. But for most of the church’s history, they’re what has actually worked. Maybe it’s time we focus on them again.

I write often about pastoral ministry, the “classical pastor” (see some related posts below), and the UMC. If you’re interested in any of those, I’d be honored if you would click here to subscribe for future posts.

————-

  1. Yep, I’m referencing it again. You should go read the whole thing.

Pastors or Missional Strategists?

The other day, I talked with a friend who works for a large corporation. He talked about the latest meeting with some company executives. The executives had descended from their corporate offices to speak to the people on the “front lines.” There were new slogans, new acronyms, and new diagrams, accompanied by familiar platitudes and stock phrases. The executives emphasized the importance of everyone “getting on board” with the new strategy.

If you’ve been part of a large organization, you may have had a similar experience. The execs read a new book or go to a new conference, they have a new visioneering retreat, and then they announce the company’s new direction to the “front lines” people with breathless excitement.

[Ironically, most of those execs at one time based their next bit of breathless excitement on the book Good to Great, which notes, “The good-to-great companies had no name for their transformations. There was no launch event, no tag line, no programmatic feel whatsoever.” It was the under-performing companies that kept unfurling banners with the next great tag line.]

My friend was frustrated by the meeting. Frustrated that they often receive edicts from the corporate office with no understanding of the realities on those “front lines.” Frustrated that the people giving new edicts and calling him and his colleagues to “get on board” have never taken the time to get to know them. The executives are “too busy going to conferences and having strategic meetings.”

The Missional Strategist

I had that conversation around the same time I was reading Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor (highly recommended). Peterson recalls a seminarian saying something similar about the church: “I realize that for those twenty years that I was an engineer sitting in the pew each Sunday, I never had a patient pastor––they were all trying to get me ‘with the program,’ shape me up, get me, as they put it, ‘involved.’ I don’t want to become a pastor like that. I don’t think that is what pastors are for.”

Today’s mission-driven church world runs many of the risks of the corporation I described above. Pastors cease to be pastors and become missional strategists––too busy going to conferences and strategic meetings, never enough time to sit with people and know them. Too worried about getting people “with the program” to take note of what God is doing in their lives. Our sermons can be shaped more by conference room discussions than by living room discussions. And when we do this, I expect the response of most of our people to be like that friend on the “front lines” above––as someone treated with no more dignity than a cog in a machine, a means to an end.

The Pastor

Peterson quotes another pastor: “I think I see something unique about being a pastor that I had never noticed: the pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously just as they are, appreciate them just as they are, give them the dignity that derives from being the ‘image of God,’ a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything.”

When our pastors become mere missional strategists, they lose that unique role in the community. They become just another set of people looking for how they can use others to accomplish a mission.

The Pastor and the Missional Strategist

Compared with “missional strategist,” the role of “pastor” seems a much bigger role to me. A pastor can see people in the community as they are, in all their God-given dignity and all their human need. That will include a zeal for ministering to the hurting, hopeless, and wayward. It will include treating the people in our congregations and communities with dignity, getting to know them simply because they are worth knowing. It will include nurturing people in their discipleship and recognizing their gifts to lead in the Church and in the world. It will include missional strategy, but it will be far more.

I don’t believe that pastors shouldn’t be missional strategists. I believe the word is just much too small. I’ve seen how it has led some pastors to abandon their roles as pastors. They hide in meetings and conferences, they compose bold mission statements with detailed action plans, and when they’re done, there’s no time left for their people and communities. (Let’s be honest, meetings and conferences and Ministry Action Plans are much easier, much less messy, than soul-tending.) And then when those missional strategists come to their “front lines” people with the new slogans, new acronyms, and new diagrams, they come away frustrated at how many people “just don’t get it” or “won’t get on board.” Then, lacking a culture of healthy dialogue and empathy, they resort to blame or coercion.

The Chief Missional Strategist

I write this aware that the UMC has embraced the role of our district superintendents as “Chief Missional Strategists.” For all the reasons above, I believe that’s a mistake. I understand its intent––moving this position’s role away from regulation. Many of our DSs had become simple rule-enforcers. (Side note: A growing bureaucracy for the sake of regulation is a symptom of a deeper problem. See another intriguing quote from Good to Great in the footnote here.)12 But the name change also communicates a change of primary roles for our pastors and DSs––away from pastor; to missional strategist.

A long-time district superintendent whose writing I deeply respect, Sky McCracken, writes on the other side of this. He advocates for the role of DS as chief missional strategist. But I don’t believe that’s really what he is. He’s still a pastor first. Even when he writes about DS as chief missional strategist, he writes, “For a D.S. to truly be a chief missional strategist, s/he must be involved at the congregational level.” For McCracken, a DS will fail at all the missional strategizing if (s)he fails to be a pastor first. See his five essentials for district superintendents at the end of this post. Three emphasize his role as pastor to the pastors and congregations in his district.

 

Strategic church world is clamoring right now for more missional strategists, more entrepreneurs. At the same time, we’re undervaluing the role of the pastor and shepherd. Of course missional strategy is part of the work of the pastor. And of course we don’t need more bad pastors. But I still believe what we need most is more pastors––more leaders who take people seriously just as they are, in all their God-given dignity; more time in living rooms, even if it means less time in conference rooms.

———————
  1. “The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline—a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth.”
  2. And another gem related to discipline: “Don’t confuse a culture of discipline with a tyrannical disciplinarian.”