I have a friend who calls me “Preach.” I don’t mind it in the same way I didn’t mind when Jesse’s grandpa Ransom used to call me “Pumpkin.” (On one occasion, after he called me that in front of congregational members, I did clear my throat and say, “That’s Reverend Pumpkin to you.”) “Rev” is another popular title given to me among my family and friends.
If and when people give any thought to what pastors/reverends/pumpkins do with their time, many people think about preaching or the giving of homilies, or “talks,” or “essays” or “meditations,” or my personal favorite, “medication.” (I’ve seen meditation misspelled as medication many times in many bulletins including when I was preaching as a chaplain in a hospital.)
This tendency to equate pastor with preacher is actually what almost scared me away from seminary. Up until that point I felt more comfortable dribbling a basketball than speaking in public.
I went ahead with seminary and the thought of preaching only got scarier. In my first class on preaching I was told that many pastors spend one hour prep time for every minute of a sermon delivered. This time formula was held up as the ideal much to the shock and disbelief of us students. It’s not that we didn’t WANT to spend that much time in study and preparation. (Ok, maybe a little.) Our shock had more to do with how we would fit that into our weekly schedule when there were equally important things to do like pastoral care, service in the neighborhood, worship planning, administrative tasks, etc. Not to mention exercising, getting sufficient sleep, doing laundry, eating, and spending time with family!
I have since come around. In fact, when I met with the Rainbow search committee I told them that 20 hours of prep time remains the ideal for me, and like all ideals, I sometimes fall short or it is altogether impossible to reach. And yet, the reason I still hold this as an ideal is that if I am going to be entrusted with a microphone, I want to be prepared. I want to have spent quality time thinking, reading and praying hoping that the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart will sparkle with some kind of beauty, hope, wisdom, etc. It’s not going to be perfect and at times the sparkle might be pretty blah. Still, it is something to shoot for.
Of course how I spend that 20 hours of prep time has changed over the years. In my first couple years of preaching I would shut the door and bury myself in books and commentaries. I would shut the world out (and sometimes that included my poor husband) in order to prepare my sermon. I don’t know what explains the shift, but this year my approach has been a little different. I have started to spread out my learning and study time throughout the week, learning how to save and document what I’m learning and reading. Sometimes what I read and save only find expression in sermons down the road. In fact, I keep a file folder called “Someday sermon.” In other words, that 20 hours of prep time is providing a well from which I hope I will continue to draw from year after year after year. I am trying to heed the advice of Leroy Seat who said that even on his busiest days, he found it helpful to start each day reading, if even it was just 20 minutes. I find when and if I do this, I can absorb what I read and draw from it as I go about the many tasks of a given day. Thank you Leroy!
I am like all pastors, still learning and growing as a preacher. There are often times I wonder, “Am I doing this right?” There are days I despair and wonder if the time spent preparing and delivering sermons is really worth it. Then I remember something my dad told me once: “Sermons are like meals. You don’t remember every meal you eat, but they still nourish us. And once in awhile, you eat a meal that is so exquisite, you never forget it.”
And so I will continue to preach and I will continue to encourage others who want to learn the art of preaching. In fact this week I will be coaching Hannah Unruh as she prepares her first sermon to be delivered this coming Sunday at Rainbow. It’s been almost a year since she told me that she wanted to preach as part of her baptism commitment. This means she has put way more than 20 hours into this sermon!
Let’s hope and trust that it will sparkle on Sunday and let’s join together in saying: “Preach it sister Hannah!”