Preaching as a Spiritual Practice

Bruce G. EpperlyPreaching is the most sustained public act of ministry for senior and solo pastors. Preaching is also one of the most sustained intellectual and spiritual activities of senior and solo pastors. On the one hand, most senior and solo pastors write the equivalent of a good-sized book (six pages, forty-five weeks a year: that is, nearly 300 pages) in the course of a year's preaching. On the other hand, most regular preachers spend five to ten hours a week in sermon preparation and writing, including reflecting on the text, reading commentaries, and pouring over on-line resources.

For many pastors, preaching is truly good news: an opportunity to share a hopeful vision, provide theological wisdom for congregants, and invite congregants to spiritual and ethical transformation. But, for others, preaching becomes a chore. Some are on the verge of homiletical brown-out, if not burn-out. One thing for certain, most pastors live from Sunday to Sunday, seeking to speak a word of grace and transformation to their congregations and often to themselves to strengthen their own faith.

Many years ago, when I taught humanities at a major medical school, I asked first- and second-year medical students the following question: "Twenty years from now, will you be glad you entered this profession? Twenty years from now, will your loved ones be glad you entered medicine?" Today, as a seminary professor who teaches seminarians and leads groups for pastors in their first congregational calls, I ask a similar question: "Twenty years from now, will you be glad you entered congregational ministry? Will you still find joy in preaching, pastoral care, and the other tasks of ministry? Will your loved ones also be glad that you entered ministry?"

In this first in a series on preaching and spirituality, I want to reflect on how the process of preaching can be personally and spiritually transforming for preachers. In the next several weeks, I will provide a variety of spiritual practices for preachers, aimed at adding zest, vitality, and insight to your preaching. I must confess that I happen to look forward to preaching. For most of my over thirty years of ministry, I have been multi-vocational in my focus: I have pastored university and local congregations; taught at seminary, university, and medical schools; and have been involved in seminary and university administration. I find the process of preaching to be spiritually edifying and theologically inspiring. Preaching has been essential to shaping both my theology and spirituality.

Preaching can be one of the great joys of ministry; although every thoughtful pastor, like the prophet Jeremiah, asks "who am I to speak for God?" we preachers have the joy of speaking good news that gives hope, challenge, comfort, and transformation. What a joy!

As we begin this series, I would like you to do a spiritual "examen" or reflection related to your preaching and spiritual life. Please prayerfully reflect on the following questions:

  • What is your current attitude toward preaching?
  • Where do you find joy in preaching?
  • Where is your greatest challenge in preaching?
  • How does your preaching relate to the rest of your ministry?
  • In what ways does your preaching strengthen your spiritual life?
  • In what ways does your preaching form your theology?
  • What one new practice will strengthen and deepen your preaching and spiritual life?

In the weeks ahead, take time to live with God's wisdom in scripture, your experience, your congregation, and the world. Take time to integrate holistically your preaching with the rest of your life—self-care, pastoral ministry, family life, civic responsibility. Rejoice in sharing the gift of God's good news!

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