Call me a pastor. Fine. I am a “minister.” In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we who have been called and ordained to this particular (and peculiar?) office have had a number of official designations over the years. I’d have to check my original ordination certificate to see exactly what it was I was ordained to back in 1969, but my first title was “Minister of Electronic Media.”

Technically, at one point we ministers were known as “Teaching Elders,” as opposed to “Ruling Elders,” who were the local church officers elected to our Session or governing board. (Odd choice of words maybe: we weren’t always “opposed” to one another…only rarely.)  We were “teaching” elders in the sense that what we did by word and function was to teach the gospel or the way of Jesus. Then later we were to be known as a “Minister of Word and Sacrament,” but now I think we are back to “Teaching Elder.” Whatever.

The thing is, now and then someone refers to me as a “preacher.” Ugh. The word may have a perfectly honorable  history but today? Who wants to be preached at? It seems as if being preached to makes the listener/receiver into some kind of victim. Preaching has a shrill, finger-wagging, judgmental sound to it. And when I was in non-parish clergy type ministry, I could easily escape being called a preacher, because I wasn’t one. I didn’t preach as such. I was on radio, and was more, well, conversational. Down-to-earth, friendly. Maybe my words were sometimes “preachy” (I confess and ask forgiveness), but I didn’t have to raise my voice (I had a microphone) or shake a finger (it was radio and no one would have seen the gesture).

Now and then, in those pre-pastorate days, I was invited to (ahem) preach somewhere. I knew how to, thanks to seminary where it was assumed everyone enrolled would become “preachers.” And I did preach around, a week at a time here or there. Kind of.

I guess even the word “sermon” has a negative connotation today. Because that’s what we preach. It’s worth noting here that a generation or so ago, Presbyterians changed the terminology of preaching sermons into what is now printed in church bulletins as “Proclamation of the Word.” I can live with that. The “Word” is the scriptural text which we have been led by the Spirit to proclaim. Without necessarily preaching.

Personally, I’ve come to like the terminology here, proclamation of the Word, replacing alternative words such as sermon, homily, or meditation. (“Homily” seems to me to sound a little tame, or inconsequential, or timid, even harmless. “Meditation” is something one does, not something one listens to, especially if, after listening to a “meditation,” there is no time to actually do the meditating.)

All this is to say, finally, that when I moved into pastoral ministry, serving churches in a variety of roles, I did have occasion to use the seminary preaching courses to good advantage, even though I learned far more about the art (more on that later) through experience than in the classroom. That would be the case for every pastor/preacher/minister of the Word, I assume.

No one expected me to be a polished proclaimer of the Word in my first church, that summer internship in Florida. I was the Youth Director, only halfway through seminary, and a novice for sure. I’m certain my efforts were little more than tolerated. A few years later, when I wrote and delivered sermons as a primary responsibility in my role as a “stated supply” pastor over the course of a year in a small suburban church, I plead guilty to leaving out a profoundly important step in the process. Yes, I wrote and I delivered what I had written. But I had not studied, prayed over, and thoughtfully prepared those sermons. I was working full time elsewhere, and I tried to fit that church job into an already busy weekly schedule, and the sermon prep was inadequate. Way inadequate.

And a couple of years after that, I became Youth Minister at that large urban church, where, with two other ministers on staff, I had a minor preaching role. My turn came up maybe three times a year. My favorite sermon there was influenced by a continuing education event I had attended at the seminary. The topic: the Protestant take on Jesus’ mother Mary. My sermon was on how Mary “pondered these things in her heart.”  I felt good about what I had studied and written, and even my oral delivery. But after the service, moving to my office to change into my civvies, I overheard one of my seminary professors (who attended the church) telling another congregant, “It was all right, but there wasn’t much depth to it.” Theology professor John Leith was startled to see me walk by, and the embarrassed gentlemen quickly changed topics. I was not disheartened. I still thought it was a good sermon. So there.

One other quick memory of preaching there at the Grace Covenant Church in Richmond, Va. concerns a prominent long-time church member to whom I was introduced after I had preached on another occasion. It was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. He said he was pleased to meet me, but offered no comment on my sermon. (I’m smiling.)

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the two places I learned to be more comfortable in the “preacher’s” role, more faithful in preparation, more creative in style, and more confident in my proclamation of the Word. I’ll bet you can’t wait,huh?

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