Sunday, July 01, 2007

From Pulpit to Lectern

When Dean Alan Culpepper invited me to teach preaching at McAfee this past year, I had that curious mixture of anticipation and apprehension that attends any new challenge.

On the one hand, the proclamation of God’s Good News has been the compelling enterprise of my life for almost thirty years of pastoral ministry. There is nothing that captures a parish pastor’s imagination and energies more forcefully than preaching.

But, on the other hand, the extent of my teaching experience had consisted of substituting in the county high school of the western Kentucky rural community where I served my first pastorate. I feared that perhaps my pedagogical skills might have atrophied over the past couple of decades since those occasional forays into the classroom!

There is a world of difference between the practice of preaching and the instruction of it.

As anyone who has had to preach—or had to hear-- sermons can attest, preaching is an inexact activity, much more art than science. Subjectivity prevails. Intuition, interpretation, imagery, style, rhythm, and timing are key. There is no homiletical “right way,” and the idiosyncracies of human personality more than a little bit apply. How does one instruct such things?

I discovered early on in my pastoral career a piece of wisdom that I have tried to follow ever since: good churches make good pastors—not the other way around. That old saw had served me well for a long time. Lacking any better core procedural principle as I embarked on the journey from parish to academy, I took that one into the classroom with me: my students and colleagues would guide and teach me. The ones I’m charged to serve would show me how to maximize our time of learning together.

That hunch has, blessedly, proven abundantly true this past year.

The central feature of McAfee’s special life together is community. Professors and students enjoy a quality of personal relationship rare in academic culture. There is a character of collegiality to what happens in the learning environment at McAfee. Values such as partnership, dialogue, engagement, and practice are held highly and cultivated carefully.

The knowing/being/doing missional triad is more than a mantra at McAfee. It is the philosophical and operational template of this place of training. What is done with hand and felt in heart is just as important as what is thought in head.
This tripartite approach to learning is particularly critical in the area of preaching. The practice and the study go hand-in-hand. As every working preacher knows, each delivery of a sermon is the preparation for the next one! Therefore, we not only read and reflect and write about preaching. In our school, we do it! It is the doing that shapes our learning.

Once I located myself in this understanding, I found my sea legs. The rhythm of study and practice is invaluable for the ministry of proclamation: preaching in the churches on the Sabbath week-by-week on one hand; coming together for inquiry and discovery in the classroom during the week on the other.

The year has been a Providential season of growth and regrouping. These wonderful McAfee minister-professors and ministers-in-training have greatly enabled and encouraged me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to join them on this exploration.

Because of them, I’ve learned that the journey from pulpit to lectern isn’t such a long one after all.