Several years ago, before I moved to Denver and began working at Patheos, I had the great privilege of serving as the Program Manager for the Programs In Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in Northern California. Among the many life-giving (and life-changing) programs we hosted was a continuing ed event called Before the Cradle and Beyond the Cross: A Lectionary Retreat for Preachers. Every summer for a week, pastors from all across the country would come together to study – and pray – the lectionary for the year ahead, in community with fellow ministers.
In addition to a morning keynote speaker — an expert on the texts being studied — each day included spiritual practices and prayer designed to integrate the head learning with the heart learning, led by Program Director and Spirituality Professor Sam Hamilton-Poore. Afternoons included ample time for rest, walking, and reflection. A contemplative prayer service began and ended each day. Participants regularly spoke of being spiritually and intellectually renewed and refreshed by week’s end.
With this year’s retreat just a couple months away (July 23-27, 2012), I invited Hamilton-Poore to share more about this program, and why combining sermon prep with spiritual formation is so important.
Why does your retreat focus on preachers?
Preachers have an incredible responsibility; they read and interpret the scriptures on behalf of their communities. Most of the preachers I know work very hard at this, trying to grasp and articulate the message of the scriptures—and in ways that speak directly to the needs and dynamics of their communities. On the one hand, preaching is a great privilege, and the people who attend our retreat really enjoy this aspect of their ministry. On the other hand, preaching is also a regular source of anxiety. Sunday after Sunday, week after week—trying to answer the question posed to the prophet Jeremiah: “Is there a word from the Lord?”
So what does your retreat offer preachers?
Several things. We offer them a time and place for renewal. Our campus is beautiful, quiet, and restorative. Our schedule, though pretty full, offers a slower rhythm of rest, worship, study, prayer, with plenty of open time for lingering conversations or reading or walking or even napping. But at the center of all this is an opportunity to personally reconnect with the scripture and the power of the gospel alongside other men and women who are committed to the ministry of preaching—who, like you, share in its privilege and its challenges.
You say that preachers will “study and pray” the lectionary texts. What does this mean?
Somewhere along the way—and for various reasons—“study” and “prayer” became separated in Christian practice and imagination, including in different approaches to scripture. But throughout most of the history of preaching—from Augustine to Calvin to the present day—the scriptures can’t be adequately studied without also praying over them and with them, asking for the guidance and insight of the Holy Spirit. And the scriptures can’t be adequately prayed with if the person hasn’t also given his or her disciplined attention to the texts themselves—their literary forms, historical contexts, and so on. Rather than being two separate actions, studying and praying are interconnected, overlapping dynamics of the same practice: trying to understand and interpret the scriptures for today.
So how does this all happen at your retreat?
The short answer is “with the Spirit’s help”. The longer answer is that we try to plan our days and times together in ways that encourage the overlap and interconnection of study and prayer. Each day begins and ends with a contemplative style of worship, centered on a single text from the coming year’s Gospel—this year it will be Luke. Each morning until noon, participants are engaged by a biblical scholar in exploring the historical, literary, and theological contexts of the Gospel, while also paying attention to how the Spirit may be speaking to them in and through the text. Our biblical scholar this year is Dr. Annette Wire, emeritus professor of New Testament at SFTS, a very accomplished teacher and scholar. After a long, mid-day break, preachers gather in small groups to practice and process various scripture-centered prayer practices such as lectio divina or something we call “embodying scripture,” again using texts from the next year’s Gospel lection. These small groups are each led by trained and experienced spiritual directors who are also preachers.
By the end of the week, then, the participants will have studied and prayed together quite a bit.
Exactly! And our hope is that by the end of the week all of our preachers will feel personally and professionally rejuvenated, not only for their ministry of preaching, but in their own spiritual journey with the Living Word. They’ll also leave remembering that they’re part of a community of preachers, all committed to the same ministry.