Advice to Preachers: One Sermon at a Time Please!


Has this ever happened to you when you are captive in a pew?

I was at a house of worship not long ago, where the preacher is a long-time friend of mine. I was looking forward to hearing him preach, and I when he started I was pleased with his voice and his manner. He said some wise things and I could feel that he was wrapping up, but then . . . he started on a new tack. He did this three times, and each time I thought he was done. It was a very long sermon; in fact it was three long sermons.

The next day I was at a seminar with a bunch of pastors and I mentioned  the experience to my friend Scott, who provided me with one of my favorite axioms: “If you don’t know what you are doing, you don’t know when you have done it.”

Do ministers work for the church?

I have written before about my mixed feelings about the “professionalization” of the clergy. The relationship was once more like a marriage covenant than a job.  Lately I notice more and more that the relationship between clergy and congregation is construed as a contractual one borrowed from the corporate world.  And I also note with sadness that this model is at the heart of much clergy/congregation conflict when one or both parties feel aggrieved that the contract is not being properly carried out.  A covenant has room for forbearance and forgiveness; a contract does not.

When I was ordained, the preacher (Dudne Breeze) admonished me to be a minister of the Word of God.  He didn’t admonish me to be the CEO or the COO, or even to be a faithful employee of the congregation.  My job I knew was not to make the congregation flourish but to make the Gospel real.

There were times in my ministry when I had to stand against the majority will of the congregation on behalf of the Gospel.  This is no fun when you have come to love your congregation. Years ago I came across this great letter that P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) wrote to his new congregation in Cheetham Hill, England.

He made it plain that although they had called him he had a prior and higher call. Can you imagine a beleaguered pastor saying something like this today to an angry board of trustees?

“You have called and I have answered gladly. But it is not your call that has made me a minister. I was a minister before any congregation called me. My election is of God. Paul speaks of ‘a faithful minister of the new covenant’ … The minister of this covenant, therefore, the minister of Christ, has his call, first, in the nature of God and God’s Truth; second, in the nature of man and man’s need. We have on one side the divine Gospel; we have on the other the cry of the human. His call is constituted both by the divine election and the requirements of human nature. Would that some who are sure of their election by God, were as sure of their election by man, and their fitness to adapt God’s truth to human nature. It is not therefore the invitation of any particular congregation that makes a man a minister. It is a call which on the human side proceeds from the needs rather than from the wishes of mankind, from the constitution of human nature as set forth in Christ, rather than from the appointment by any section or group of men. I am here, not to meet all your requisitions, but to serve all your needs in Jesus Christ. You have not conferred on me my office, and I am Christ’s servant more than yours, and yours for His sake. The minister is not the servant of the Church in the sense of any special community or organization. The old Latin theologians used to subscribe themselves V.D.M., Minister of the Word of God,—Minister not of the Church, but of that Christian human nature which our particular views and demands so often belie. A minister may, on occasion, never be so much of a minister as when he resists his congregation and differs from it.” (“The Pulpit and the Age”)

The church could user fewer employees and more ministers..

The Tools of a Learned Ministry

Kim Fabricus’s letter commenting on the books on Richard Bauckham’s bookshelves inspired me to dig up this piece I wrote about my books for Colleague in 2000 called The Tools of a Learned Ministry:

I love books. I come by it honestly since I am the child of librarians. My mother had a library degree from Columbia and over the years worked successively at the New York Public Library, the General Theological Seminary, and the Wandell Middle School in Saddle River, New Jersey. My father, who was somewhat of a vocational dilettante, also had a library degree from Columbia and worked for a time at the General Theological Seminary. My mother’s 89 year old sister Grace, whom we call Aunt Tia, is also a librarian and just recently retired from running the library at her retirement community in Sun City, Arizona. My big sister has a library degree from Rutgers and is an archivist at the John F. Kennedy library in Boston. I like to say that I am the black sheep in the family, because I went into the ministry.

I grew up around books. Other families had wallpaper, we had shelves of books covering our walls.In the summers I spent countless hours at my mother’s school library in the stacks, finding treasures to read. I thought every family went to the public library on Saturday mornings to get their books for the week.

As a young adult I came back to the Christian faith largely through books. I met several of my guides and mentors only through books:Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, P.T. Forsyth, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Frederick Buechner, to name but a few. In the pages of their books it seemed that God was real and alive, and so he became for me.They sent me back to the Book where the story behind all their stories is told.

When I am in a discussion I usually have a book to recommend, and, consequently, I have been accused of holding to a belief in “salvation by bibliography.” I plead, at least in part, guilty.

When I entered ministry I was delighted to be in a profession among whose tools were books. I recall going into pastor’s studies and just staring at the books.Look at all the books! Shelves of commentaries, big reference works, multi-volume works of theology. I couldn’t believe anybody could be so blessed as to work in a room surrounded by all those books. Not just to read, but to touch and look at, for books have a kind of talismanic power just by their presence in a room.

In seminary we young theologs used to love to visit pastors and admire and covet their books. Was it too much to hope that someday we would have books like that? Well,it has taken twenty-five years, but now I am one of those pastors. I have a whole roomful of books. Fred Buechner calls his library “The Magic Kingdom,” and that is how I feel about mine.I have accumulated my many books over the years, writing my name and the year of purchase in the flyleaf, and so they are a record of my interests over time. They tell a story. For example, at some point I stopped buying ministerial “how to” books because I guess I felt I knew “how to.” I went through a Henry Nouwen stage and then suddenly in the 80’s,it stopped. I have a stack of books on the arms race from the late seventies. I have at least one commentary on every book of the Bible. I have old books from the eighteenth and nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I have a Shaker Bible given to me by an antique dealer in my first church.I have an antique copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs that belonged to a friend’s grandfather, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century. I have books of poetry and prayers, dictionaries, handbooks, worshipbooks and novels.

These books are my tools and my friends. Some I use all the time; others I haven’t opened in years. Some are like youthful infatuations, purchased with high hopes, but the pretty cover promised more than could be delivered and disappointment soon set in. There are some I will never read. Others I read again and again. I have over a dozen books by P.T. Forsyth, most of them out of print,that I have collected at used bookstores and through the mail. Sometimes I will pull one of these off the shelf and read just a few pages

I’ve noticed a strange thing over the last few years. During that time I have been privileged to know and work with a number of young clergy and seminarians, men and women. Most of them are gifted, hard–working, dedicated and capable. There is a lot to like about them. But one thing is noticeably missing.They don’t love my books.They don’t stare at them, or touch them, or covet them.They don’t even notice them when they come into my study. They are more likely to notice and comment on my computer.

This worries me. Can the church maintain a “learned clergy” without instilling a love of books? Is it possible that books are really passé as some say? That in the future the digital age will restrict if not eliminate their use? I hope not. Because books are more than mere information. Throughout my life they have always been my companions and friends. They can invoke wonder and create mystery. They can witness to faith. They are grist for my sermonic mill. But they are more than that. They fuel not just my work but my imagination. I wouldn’t be the minister I am without them. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.