The old saying about preachers is that they work only one hour a week. That’s the one hour preaching on Sunday morning.
That leaves the other 167 hours for “free time,” in which they get to visit the hospitalized and the shut-in, teach confirmation, administer the church finances, give the invocation at the Kiwanis Club luncheon, take the youth group to Valleyfair, work to end homelessness, war, crime and global warming, and fix the boiler in the church.
Pastors, however, will tell a different story. They’ll say the demands of ministry — admittedly God-given and necessary — actually keep them from devoting energy to the most public task they perform: preaching.
Great preachers wield mighty influence by their preaching. Their hallmarks are a fervent heart and oratorical eloquence. Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher first. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. wasn’t plastered (or skewered) on YouTube for something he said at a lecture, but for what he preached. Many of the great social movements and revivals spread like wildfire only after being ignited in a pulpit.
So have any sermons sparked anything in you lately?
Minneapolis hosting ‘party of preaching’
This week in Minneapolis, 2,100 preachers — maybe including yours — from the United States and Canada are being preached to. They’re gathered at two downtown churches as today’s leading preachers light a fire in their souls. The Festival of Homiletics — loosely translated: “party of preaching”; who knew those two words went together? — brought in the experts to inspire, cajole and challenge those who toil in that task week in and week out.
They’re not focusing on the one hour a week up in front of the congregation, but on the other 167 hours.
“From a sermon-writer’s perspective, it’s about the willingness to do the hard work this love and faith requires of them,” said Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, teacher, and preacher extraordinaire (judging by the acclamation of her colleagues).
In other words, there’s no sermon to be preached without adequate preparation. (Sounds like advice you’d give your teenager: You have to study first before you take the test.)
The adage says pastors should spend one hour preparing for every minute in the pulpit. Do the math: that’s 15 to 20 hours a week poring over biblical texts, praying, reading commentaries, writing, praying, editing, rewriting, praying, etc. Think of it as the R&D phase — research and development — of Ministry Inc.
“There’s no substitute for this kind of time,” Brown Taylor said. “That’s because it works.”
That’s not to say many pastors don’t wait for the muse to speak to them late on a Saturday night.
“If you set a time every day to work on and prepare the sermon, the muse will find you,” Brown Taylor reassured. “Instead of flirting with her, make a date.”
If you think your pastor is just skirting responsibility by ensconcing herself in a coffee shop to read and study, these experts would say think again. Rather, they urge preachers to take the time — and lots of it — to ground themselves in the basics: the Bible and Jesus. Who would have thought it?
If that sounds easy, listen to Anna Carter Florence speaking to the gathered flock this week: “As a preacher, you let the text speak to you first. You go into it so deeply that it kills you and then it raises you. That sounds a bit extreme … but you live in it to the point of total surrender. … Then, you show us what you see and what you believe. Show us where you see Jesus in this text.”
The next time your pastor can’t be found on a Wednesday afternoon, you might want to pray that they’re off somewhere getting so deeply into the biblical story you can’t help but be inspired when you hear them preach during that one hour they’re actually “working.”