Thanks to the Rev. Peter Stebinger for sharing this post!
It all started the year I preached 40 sermons in 40 weeks. I was the solo pastor of a medium-sized congregation that had the expectation that the ordained person would preach every week. For the first several years this was not a problem because there were vacations. Visits by the bishop. And missionaries. And diocesan staff. And for a number of years, a seminarian from the local seminary who wanted to preach as part of their practicum.
Then came that year with no seminarian. No visit. By the end of the 40 weeks I was tired of listening to me and the congregation was tired of hearing me. So I wondered, what can I do to fix this problem? Should I go take a class? Should I subscribe to an online sermon writing service and pretend that they were my own? Should I subscribe to an online sermon service and tell people that someone else had written the sermon this week and that I would be reading it because I had nothing to say? And then I had an ah ha moment, or rather, the Holy Spirit gave me some of the most wonderful guidance of my life.
I had looked around my congregation and realized that there were a number of people with whom I had been in Bible study, or prayer groups, or Vestry, or in an adult education class, and all of them were as articulate about the faith as I was. And I wondered, why shouldn’t these people be giving sermons? And then I realized it was because they were not trained and giving a sermon was in fact a very difficult thing. My only model for preaching was that which was based on my seminary classes. This involves extensive biblical knowledge, training in public speaking, training in the construction of a sermon. And yet I thought, these are wonderful laity and I believe that they are worth hearing.
From time to time over the years some people had given a witness talk, or a stewardship talk, or a talk or homily on the lesson for the day for some special occasion. I found myself wondering if this could not be a more regular occasion. Yet I could not imagine offering a full seminary style fourteen session class on preaching to lay people who would not be paid to give sermons.
So I thought and prayed a little more. And I realized a number of things. First, there were a lot of people in the congregation who are already trained public speakers. Second, any of these same people were serious Christians who had been reading the Bible, spiritual and theological texts their entire lives. Third, that no one had ever asked them if they wanted to be part of a regular preaching ministry.
I realized that I wanted to train people and have them preach on a regular basis for many years. I also realized that it might be a problem if people gave sermons without rehearsal. This is because many of them we’re not trained and might need rewrites or certainly were not as experienced as I was.
So we developed the following process. I would recruit a group of people and ask them if they were interested being trained to give sermons. Then we would have a class in which we would talk about the resources for preaching, how to prepare a sermon, how to do biblical exegesis, how to preach on the lessons and not on your personal pet peeves, and the difference between giving a sermon and public speaking.
I recruited for this class four seriously formed spiritual elders in the congregation. All of them said they were willing to give sermons. One was a college professor, another a lawyer, these two were fairly predictable. The third was a retired Marine Corps major who had spent some time taking classes in a local seminary but had not completed a degree. The last was perhaps the best spiritually formed person in the parish, the plant nurse at one of the local factories. We all wanted her to speak but we didn’t know if she had experience in public speaking. She had been in many adult bible studies and formed many prayer groups but we have never heard her speak publicly. I went to pay a call on her and ask her if she would be interested. I said, “Do you have any experience in public speaking?” She replied: “I have to teach OSHA guidelines to 3000 bored assembly line workers. I have to convince those folks that safety is a good thing and they should follow the rules. I don’t think the congregation is going to be very difficult.”
And so I gathered everyone together in class. We had four sessions, each of them lasting for two hours. The first class was on the nature of the sermon and how it was different from regular public speaking. The second was on all the biblical tools we can use to create a sermon and why it is important to preach on the gospel unless you have a really good reason to preach on one of the other lessons appointed for that Sunday. The third class was on sermon construction, the various ways to put a sermon together including the various patterns from classic styles. The last class was everyone offering a sermon after they had prepared it on the same text. The classes went really well. And one insight was confirmed. This was that all of them felt a need to rehearse their sermons for the group in the week before they preached.
And so we established a preaching ministry pattern which continued for many years. The last Sunday of the month was lay sermon Sunday. On the Wednesday or Thursday before the sermon was to be given the entire group of lay preachers and I would gather together to listen to the sermon which was being offered. We would then offer feedback about it. Most of the time the sermon which was preached on Sunday was not the sermon which was offered on Wednesday or Thursday. Once or twice a year we would say, “That’s perfect–don’t change a thing.” Most of the time the sermon needed work. I found out later that the average time for sermon preparation for each of these lay people was somewhere between twenty and thirty hours. They took it so seriously. And given the time commitment a few times a year was all they could do.
Each person had an individual style. The college professor was a linguistics person and we did a lot of word study. Our lawyer seemed to often be making an argument to the jury. The Marine Corps major briefed us on what God expected us to do to complete the mission God had set out for us that week. And our plant nurse was, as expected, a deeply formed senior elder giving insight and a depth of understanding of how the spirit moves through an individual’s life that I find profound even to this day.
And over time we realized that the preaching ministry of this congregation had changed from being that which was held by the clergy to being a team ministry which was held by a group of five people. Over the years people came and went. New people would be trained two or three at a time as people would need to stop preaching for change of life reasons. The group would go down to fewer than four or more than six at any given time. This was so people would preach often enough to stay in practice but not so often that it became a burden.
I offer this model of preaching ministry, one offered by a group of people, as a true possibility for changing how we view preaching.
I believe that preaching should be a team ministry. In larger Metropolitan congregations this might be done by a group of two or three clergy. In most of the congregations in the Episcopal Church this will need to be done by a combination of ordained and lay people. I have found that there is a big difference between a single witness talk and a person who is a disciplined part of a preaching community. That community strengthens and deepens the love of Christ in a particular congregation. As the employed ordained person, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the sermons and learned as much or more as any member of the congregation.
God calls us to function in community and to be in community in relationship with one another. The lay preachers I know say that it is the most terrifying speaking they have ever done — telling your friends and community members what you really think about God and the scriptures. And yet the increase in the spiritual depth of the entire congregation is profound. The conversations at coffee hour are deeper on lay preaching Sundays. It is amazing. I see no reason why our preaching ministry cannot be a team ministry as much as pastoral care, administration or being part of buildings and grounds. The gifts are there. Shall we try it? It will take training, commitment, discernment and time. Yet the benefits are great. After all, we are all a part of the body and all needed to fulfill God’s call to us.
Peter Stebinger moved to Minnesota from Connecticut in September 2018 to be closer to grandchildren after he and his wife Caron both fully retired in the spring of 2018. He has served in congregations and as a healthcare chaplain since 1980.