In this blog, I want to point to one thing that clergy could do that would make our congregations more attractive and magnetic to more non-Christians and Christians alike. Why not improve our preaching?
Let me be clear, I am not saying that preaching in the Episcopal Church is bad. I think that it is general thoughtful, contextually related to the Sunday lectionary, and generally informative. It is, in other words, good. And that is the problem. It is not great, and I think I know the reasons why.
When I do workshops on preaching or have taught preaching at our Stanton Center, I usually start off by asking about good preachers the students have known. We make a list on a whiteboard. The list usually includes some former Rectors, a current Rector, an occasional Bishop, and a few point to some well-known clergy within our denomination such as the Presiding Bishop. What I then point out to the participants is that none of them are known beyond the Episcopal Church especially when it has to do with preaching. What this exercise shows is what is generally known outside the Episcopal Church, namely, our clergy are not known as outstanding preachers. (One notable exception to this is Barbara Brown Taylor, but notice we have not heard much from her lately.) I think I know why we are are not as good as we could be.
For 15 years, I worked in positions that put me directly in clergy placement and recruiting which means that I read lots of resumes and Clergy Deployment Office Profiles. I found that 90% of Episcopal Clergy list preaching as their first or second primary pastoral skill. In other words, we think we are good at the preaching. So, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being outstanding, we rank ourselves in the 7 ,8 or 9 categories. Why do we think this? We judge ourselves this way this way because our scale is based on Episcopal clergy, those who teach preaching in our seminaries, and hearing ourselves.
Some folks think that I am a good preacher. They are surprised to discover that I rate myself as a “5” generally who can occasionally preach a “7” on what I call “The Preaching Scale.” Then, I point out this truth. If I am a good preacher, it is because I think I need to work at it. You see, if we rate ourselves as already good, we do not dedicate ourselves to becoming great. I consider myself both a preacher and a student of preaching even in retirement. I attend workshops on preaching. I constantly read books on preaching. I also study communications and read books on writing well. I analyze the preaching of others, and along with this I listen to outstanding preachers from other traditions.
In listening to outstanding preachers, I mark how she or he uses language; words, phrases, and imagery to communicate effectively. I listen to how they make their case, appeal to their listener, and motivate others to action.
The good news is that preaching involves multiple skills, and because of this, any preacher can improve. We can improve the content of our sermons. We can improve the delivery of our sermons. We can learn how to create a more engaging introduction and a more pointed and memorable conclusion. When we do, we almost always get good feedback from our congregation. When a preacher has something worthwhile to say, and says it effectively, it draws people in.
All our congregations are faced with challenges, and many are in decline. There are many reasons for this, and truth is that many of these are beyond the power of the clergy person to fix them. However, we can begin today to become a better, more effective, communicator of the Gospel. If you want to become a more effective clergy person who is a blessing to your congregation, give yourself over to becoming a student of preaching. Desires to become better at the task than you are now, and you will do yourself, your church, and your community a favor.