One of the pandemic’s “gifts” to me was that, for the first time in years, I started watching videos of my preaching on a regular basis. It wasn’t intentional. Mostly I’ve been watching the videos to check the audio quality from services streamed by Zoom or YouTube. But a byproduct of these post facto soundchecks was that I saw and heard myself preaching, and there were aspects of my delivery that I realized I wanted to change. (I was seeing too much of my forehead, from when I glanced down at my manuscripts.) Thanks to this realization I am now months into an extended period of reflection about and experimentation with my sermon delivery and also the content, form, and purpose of my preaching and the nature of preaching more generally. After seven years of full-time preaching responsibilities, I needed this “gift.”
I took only one preaching course in seminary, with the fantastic, now retired, Richard Lischer. What I remember from that class was how much emphasis fell on sermon preparation. We were not required to submit a manuscript of our sermons, but we did turn in notes and exegetical worksheets each time we preached. We were told, “Don’t trust the process (of preparation), trust the Holy Spirit,” but we also heard Sam Wells, then dean of Duke Chapel, lauded for spending untold hours each week in the library’s reference room studying for his sermons. Preparation was to be the backbone of our preaching.
In parish ministry, I have taken the importance of preparation to heart. My work of preparation does not look the same for every sermon. In different seasons, I have translated Scripture passages, read and compared multiple commentaries, read deeply on theological or historical topics, and relied heavily on the work of past preachers. There’s often a lot of overlap between my sermon preparation and the preparation I am doing for classroom teaching or leading a Bible study. I believe that, of all people, I am least qualified to analyze my own preaching, but there is no doubt in my mind that whatever good there is in my sermons has been impacted positively by rigorous preparation.
Yet I have also come to realize, and not just because of the pandemic’s “gift” to me, that it is just as important for the congregation to be prepared as for the preacher. My own preparation is not enough to compensate for a congregation’s unpreparedness to receive the Word of the Lord. Some preparation can happen in the worship service itself. Moments like hymns and songs, prayers, and even the children’s sermon can all be ways of getting the congregation ready to hear the Word, preached. The work of congregational preparation, however, extends to Bible studies, meetings, missions and ministries, and pastoral counseling sessions. It all hangs together, sometimes loosely, sometimes tightly, over months and years, as the pastor and congregation grow in their relationship. The personal dimension is hardly an afterthought, since the congregation must be ready to hear the Word, preached, from this preacher, not just from a preacher.
And that leads me to what I have been learning from the “gift”: how important trust is to good preaching. A congregation must trust its preacher, no easy ask in this age of mass distrust. Ecclesial endorsement, in the form of ordination or appointment, remains necessary, at least in my United Methodist context, but it does not begin to address the need for trust. The congregations I serve may accept that I am their preacher because I have been duly ordained and appointed, but that does not mean they trust me as their preacher. That trust is built over time. It is based on the congregation’s relationship with the preacher, and that relationship, in order to be trustworthy, can only develop if the congregation has already also entrusted itself to the Triune God.
By the same token, the preacher also needs a healthy dose of trust. The preacher must have at least a little trust in the congregation. Preaching involves risk-taking and vulnerability. It reveals a part of a person, publicly, that otherwise might remain hidden. More importantly, the preacher must “trust the Holy Spirit,” as I heard in preaching class, and also the Father and the Son. Preparation matters, but a fine speech only becomes a sermon when the words and their delivery are entrusted completely to God.
Trust does not fill in the gaps of preparation, however (in)adequate. Rather, trust establishes the conditions and limits for the work of preparation. Preparation helps a preacher develop trustworthiness with a congregation and reflects the preacher’s trust that God will use that preparation in the sermon, for God’s purposes, but preparation is not a substitute for trust itself. When there is real trust, there can be good preparation, and maybe even good preaching.