This week, my husband John and I are at Princeton Theological Seminary as fellows of the Joe R. Engle Institute of Preaching. In an effort to strengthen my vocational identity and to further understand this known and yet unknown calling to Christ’s ministry, I have come with other pastors, clergy and ministry leaders from across the nation and even parts of Canada to learn more about the mystery, the art and craft of preaching, to further understand my role as a messenger and to strengthen my faith in the message that I have been called to proclaim. I admit that it is somewhat odd to learn about something for which you cannot really be taught. Yes, there are techniques that could strengthen one’s presentation and dozens of books that would suggest that there are right and wrong ways to preach. There are formulas and ingredients that must be included. There is a structure, a format.
But, you cannot teach persuasion, devotion or conviction. As I sit in lecture halls and classrooms with fifty or so other messengers, I am astounded by the amount of cynicism and skepticism about sacred Scripture. I am aware and have come to expect it in the pews and unfortunately, it is the nature of seminary instruction for many professors but it is quite disconcerting and confusing to hear it from those who say that they have been called to the task of proclaiming Christ’s message. At least at this gathering, there are those who mount pulpits and open the sacred text from week to week just as I do and are not fully persuaded by its content or purpose.
And the reality is that some are bullied by the personnel committee, feeling that they have to pander to congregational leadership or fashion their messages to support the opinions of wealthy members of the congregation. This is their reality and it is understandable. But, these persons did not call us and these are not the persons that we, as ministers of the Gospel, will have to answer to in the end. And if one is so easily persuaded to change the message or to avoid one for the sake of “peace”, then why continue to identify one’s self as a herald, a preacher, a pastor?
Why continue to speak a message that one is not convinced of, to hold up a holy book that one says contain texts that one will never preach, to speak of its words as one would any other writing. And how, as a messenger, do we get to choose what we will say? Does this not contradict the definition? Instead of allowing the scriptures that one deems “challenging” or “difficult” to strengthen one’s Christian witness, to better understand our responses to them, these persons would rather avoid them altogether. He and she does not like the words and in some cases, the messenger as Paul has been described by one of my classmates as an “angry parent.” Consequently, they make the decision not to engage either.
How different then is the pastor from the member in the pew? What distinction can be made if we forget the nature and price of our calling? If we do not believe what we are reading, what we hearing at the Spirit’s unction and what we are writing down, then why say it at all?
“I hate the Psalms”, one pastor who has a two point charge, serving two congregations, shared with our group. “It’s too whiny,” he explained. He promised that he would not preach from it because of his distaste for it. It did not matter the spiritual needs of his congregations; in his mind, the Bible went from 66 to 65 books just because of how he read the Psalms. In another class, we divided up Paul’s writings into texts we “liked” and those that “drive us crazy.” Yesterday, I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask why and the reasons were less than satisfying. It was because of history: “2,000 years of patriarchal interpretation”, “my pastor preached it this way…” I couldn’t help but remind them that they were now pastors and had an opportunity to correct this history, to interpret the text according to its context, to keep reading the Bible and not stop at the one verse that was used to enforce the submission of women.
I admit that I have struggled with the call to pastor and perhaps the intention of this trip was not to strengthen my vocational identity but to open my eyes to the weaknesses of those who have already answered to it. Obviously, persuasion is not mine but worthiness and perhaps ability has been. It is ironic nonetheless that while attending an institute on preaching that I would find myself in the company of those who struggle with the message that we have been given.
I made assumptions of those who pastor that I should not have and so I am thankful for this revelation. Perhaps, this is a part of the mystery of preaching, that the heralds too while doubting share this belief? While I wrestle with whether or not to pastor, there are pastors who are asking of themselves, “To preach or not to preach”?