Tom Arthur: But I wasn't trained this way!

A first-year minister is expected to preach in a way that is totally at odds with how he was trained to preach. He asks a teacher of preaching what to do from here.

In the ancient church a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word.' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. Lillian Daniel's reply is here.

Dear Lillian Daniel,

I recently had the opportunity to hear you speak about reclaiming the practice of testimony at our West Michigan & Detroit Annual Conferences’ Area Pastor’s School. I’ve also been reading your posts on “Call and Response” and various other publications. I learned at the Pastor’s School at which you've taught that you also teach preaching at the University of Chicago. It is to this practice of preaching that I’d like to direct this letter.

I went to a seminary that highly prized the lectionary. I did not particularly appreciate the lectionary going into seminary, but found after three years of working with it that it had some strong points I had not noticed before (at least in theory). I liked that the lectionary gave me twelve years of texts ranging over the entire biblical canon, and that it got me thinking about preaching on texts I might not choose myself. The challenge of being given a text at the beginning of a week that didn’t appear to have anything to say to my church’s particular context and discovering God’s message as I studied and marinated in the text over the course of the week was thrilling. I grew to appreciate this lectionary approach to the discipline of preaching which helped guard against me reading into a text what I wanted it to say.

I also came to see that the lectionary had its limitations. It often jumped over difficult texts -- the very thing it is supposed to guard against. Sticking to it mechanically might inhibit speaking a unique word to a unique ministry context. In practice, it also seems that pastors almost always stick to the gospels to the neglect of the rest of the readings, especially the Psalms.

Going into seminary, I had imagined that I would never use the lectionary, but leaving seminary my imagination had been formed in a different direction. I was excited to work with the lectionary. I planned to play to its strengths while side-stepping its weaknesses.

Being a United Methodist, I received my appointment by the bishop in early spring and began on July 1, 2009. I was surprised and excited to find that I had been appointed to a very different kind of church than the kind I had been trained for in seminary. I was appointed to a church that was eight years-old and had been modeled after the Purpose Driven Church model. It was a thriving community and had grown significantly under the leadership of its previous pastor, a grandmother (literally) who had planted the church at age 59 and was retiring at age 67.

For this model of church ministry, sermons are all topical series that last between four and six weeks. All of a sudden I was in a context that expected me to preach in a way that I had not been trained to preach. I might even go so far as to say that I was expected to preach in a way that my seminary had taught me not to preach. Generally speaking, preaching topically at best had been seen as a potentially problematic endeavor and at most an inherently flawed approach. I was taught (not always explicitly) that topical preaching would lead to reading into the text what you wanted it to say (eisegesis), preaching only on your favorite texts (a canon within the canon), missing the prophetic points of the gospel because of a focus on mere felt-needs. So now I am attempting to preach faithfully in a manner that my imagination has not been fully formed in.

Here’s my question: is it possible to preach faithfully and topically, and if so, what does it look like?

I look forward to you helping enlarge my imagination for faithful ministry in my current church and preaching.

Peace,

Tom Arthur

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.