Advice to seminarians: “About that sermon, keep it short…”

Advice to seminarians: “About that sermon, keep it short…” April 11, 2013

This is some sage advice from a Lutheran minister in First Things:

First: Sheep have teeth and some of them bite. Try not to internalize it or take it personally. Some of them will bite any shepherd and you are merely the latest target of convenience. Treat them respectfully but cautiously, remembering what you share with them in baptism. But to avoid damage to your own soul, try to imagine how you would minister to them if they actually liked you, and then be that kind of pastor.

Second: Keep in mind the congregation probably knows more about pastoral ministry than you. Yet the singular temptation of any first-year pastor is to assume you have a blank slate. A couple weeks in the parish looking around at things, assessing the state of the Sunday school or catechetical education or the decrepit office equipment, with your head simply bubbling with all the latest liturgical gizmos plus a really whiz-bang theory about the authorship of John, and you will wonder how this creaky old congregation ever managed to survive without you.

Don’t fall for it, not even when you hear it from a parishioner. That’s another thing. If the sheep doesn’t bite it may fawn over you, leaving wool-encrusted lanolin smears on your clergy shirt. Do keep a level head…

Third: What your new parishioners know instinctively and you don’t is that you have been trained for a church that doesn’t exist. You have lived for a while now within the upper stratospheric reaches of theological academia, reading books, writing papers, and chasing grades. After several years immersed in the rarefied coffee-klatch theological conjectures dominating your seminary study group, you will think everyone talks like that. They don’t. When you arrive in your first congregation you must understand no one is interested in reading your senior year systematics summary, and a wise first-year pastor will keep his GPA to himself…

Fourth: About that sermon, keep it short. If you can’t say “Jesus loves you” in three words, two thousand more won’t help. Pick one thing the lectionary text says to you, or to your congregation as you judge it, and say that. If the Scripture text seems to say more than one thing, fine, but the lectionary cycles every three years and you’ll get another chance later. Be patient. Find but one needful thing and stay with it. Avoid three-point sermons like you would a three-item memorized grocery list. Nobody ever remembers the third item.

As for being a great preacher, give that up right now. It ought to be a relief to know you are not expected to preach a great sermon, not when an honest one will do better. Honest sermons are far easier to speak than great ones. An honest homily names life for what it is, describes the condition we are in and why we are in it, and announces the promised remedy of Jesus Christ at hand…

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