Tonight I attended a discernment committee for a candidate for ministry. We talked about “a call to Ministry” and how he experienced that vocational affirmation. He and I had one thing in common, our sense of call began with a visit to the pulpit. Whether it is because most United Church clergy are introverts or some other reason the fact remains that most of my colleagues did not come to this “calling” while standing in the pulpit. Among colleagues I have met preaching is one of those part of our job description that remains challenging at best and stressful at worst. In fact when June rolls around many of my colleagues are counting the weeks until their vacation, a break from writing and delivering a weekly sermon.
My own journey to Ministry went directly through the pulpit, the other aspects of the work came much harder to me, I had to work hard to improve my pastoral skills (though I always was good at connecting to and with people), my liturgical skills, and my scripture studies (though doctrinal studies came rather naturally and joyfully). I did work hard at preaching, and still do, but the craft of homiletics is never stressful for me. Preaching is my labour of love.
As I look back 30 years ago what I did not know then and know now is that my preaching made my pastoral care better and my improving pastoral skills made my preaching better. Narrative preaching is how I would describe my manner of standing in the pulpit and making sense of the Gospel, of sharing the Good News of Christian faith. Story telling is how I make sense of my life, of the Christian faith, of our collective experience as a congregation. Lucky for me the Bible is a collection of stories, of a collection of peoples who made sense of their lives through the identity they discerned in the stories they lived or were told about. I have embraced scripture studies as never before as I dig into the heart of these stories and learn how they animated people to go from “no people to God’s people (1 Peter 2:10).”
And pastorally I have also benefitted from the insight story telling as one in grief or pain or in the depths of despair can use stories to tell their story and hear stories that bring them hope and possibility. And then I come back to the art of preaching with these amazing stories from scripture and these amazing stories from people I meet and together they inform and inspire my preaching.
I have never thought of preaching as a teaching exercise. This puts me at odds with much of mainline Protestantism who often refer to the Ordained Minister as the teaching elder. I find persons in the church know more about life, about faith, about the church, than me. But what I have is the gift of integration, of sorting through experiences and finding common themes and then being able to repeat these themes back to the congregation in a way that lifts up a path forward. It is not so much my path as it is an articulation of “our path”. The success of my sermons have little to do with the art of the way I speak these words but rather more to do with the way I authentically share other people’s stories and connect them to the Biblical story of faith. If I have listened well, connected the common themes and found the lift off points where the Spirit has come to the situation and brought new life, then I have been attentive to the Triune God who is creating, redeeming and sustaining us in and through these stories.
And it all started in the pulpit.