Preaching as Testimony

I’m reading a book on preaching, for the first time in a long time: Preaching as Testimony, by Anna Carter Florence. My friend and colleague Meg Hess recommended it. Florence says that she doesn’t mean by testimony simply using personal illustrations, but this: “we tell what we have seen and heard, and we confess what we believe about it.” She uses the examples of several women who were preachers though not ordained, including Anne Hutchinson, and reflects deeply on the meaning of testimony for all preachers.

Some quotes that have struck me: in speaking about these women who preached she says, “the authority of their witness convicted them and others. And their engagement with it — how fully they gave themselves over to their testimony — proved to be more powerful than any other skill or asset. In fact, the more engaged they were, the less they feared what would happen to them.” ( p. 67)

And this: “Too much restraint leads to preachers so fearful that they never speak up, even when they want to and believe they should. Testimony, meanwhile, calls to the deep-seated human longing to be real, for once; to say what we believe and to be honest about what we see and where we are, without fearing what may happen.” (p. 73)

I think there’s a big difference between this kind of testimony and much of what passes for “prophetic” preaching which is “you”-oriented and often judgmental. Testimony is the best sort of self-definition, where the preacher says, “here I stand,” or “I have a dream.”

Florence concludes her book with a fascinating series of suggestions for working with the text in ways that enable the preacher to encounter it more freshly and directly. I’ve been experimenting with some of them, including writing it out on a very large sheet of paper, and a very tiny sheet of paper to carry around, and reading it someplace that makes you feel uncomfortable (I tried it in the middle of a busy store). She suggests coming to the scholars after using some of these other ways of living with it. Then she goes on to suggest some exercises for describing the text, including imaging it, rewriting it, and journaling it.

Finally, she suggests as you write the sermon to think about your listeners, and ask the question, “What do you want to give to these people whom you love?” Seems like a great question for Advent and Christmas sermons.

If you are preaching this month, can you take the time to try one new approach, either in your preparation, or in your presence in the pulpit?

Can You Think Clearly about Money?

How much do you understand about economics? For most of us, the answer is probably, not much. Reader Rebecca Maccini recommended to me the recent series on NPR’s Planet Money, which features some very clear explanations about how money works: Click here for the first episode in the series, “Money Is a Relationship.” You can listen right on your computer, or download to listen on your iPod. The second episode, “Where Did All the Money Go?” also includes questions from a pastor about what to do this year with the stewardship campaign.

I haven’t listened to all the episodes yet, but I will. I find it calming to get some clear explanations of this complicated topic.

How Smart Do You Need to Be?

How importance is intelligence to ministry? Political columnist David Broder wrote a fascinating column recently about presidents and intelligence, called Good Time for a Brainy President. He’s arguing that given the complicated nature of the economic challenges we face, Obama’s intelligence is a good thing.

Yet Broder makes some other interesting points in the article. He says that intelligence is not the most important quality for a president, and the brightest presidents have not necessarily had the biggest impact. More important overall, he says, are: “Self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, a temperament that invites collaboration — all these and more rank higher on the list of desirable presidential traits.”

To be a capable leader in ministry, you do need to have some smarts. But the ability to connect with followers emotionally, to work with people, to manage self in relation to others — these are equally important. Broder doesn’t include emotional maturity per se on his list, but I do. And a number of his qualities are an outgrowth of that basic maturity.

What have you noticed in yourself or others about the relation between brain power and ministry?

What Are You Thankful for as a Leader?

We all have the usual list of things we are thankful for: faith, family, food. It’s vital to remain grateful for these everyday items. But what are you thankful for as a leader? You may be thankful for your supporters — but you may learn more from those who challenge you. Have you given thanks for the “loyal opposition”?

Who shaped you in your leadership?

What have you learned this year?

What are the gifts you have received from those you lead, or from your colleagues?

Let’s give thanks for all of these things in our lives as leaders.

What are the resources, books, movies or blogs, that have supported you?

Are You Worried about Money?

Money is on everyone’s minds right now. It’s a high-anxiety topic wherever you are leading, whether it’s a church, business or nonprofit. As year-end approaches, as final accounting is done, and as budgets for 2009 are drawn up and reviewed, people are bound to be concerned. What should you be doing?

Leaders need to offer hope. Try putting the challenges you face in a larger framework for your people, and offer the sense that there is a way through, even if you can’t yet see it. Hope involves the belief that the anxieties of the moment are not the last word, that we can count on something more than economic values for our purpose and possibility.

Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Even hopeful leaders must be honest about the real challenges ahead. People can sense forced optimism, and on some level they know when their leaders are not being honest with them.

In recessionary times, hard choices will no doubt have to be made. Some favorite projects may not go forward. People may have to be laid off. We need to make those choices with calm, not panic, and with integrity toward both the institution and the people.

Leadership in this situation, as in so many, comes back to me: I need to manage my own anxiety and fear. If I don’t have hope, it will be hard to offer hope to others. I need to find the larger meaning and purpose for myself, remembering that it’s never only about money. I can focus on the choices I make in the moment (the only moment available to me). I can concentrate on what I can control, and that can make a difference to the outcome.

Here are five tips for dealing with money issues in a time of fear:

1. A thoughtful response is always better than a panicky one. Most decisions do not need to be made today.
2. On the other hand, a procrastinated response can be as anxious as an over-hasty one. If a decision needs to be made, make it.
3. Monitor your exposure to the media. Many news sources try to ratchet up the anxiety to get attention, and will not help you stay calm. Set limits (for example, 15 minutes of reading Internet news), and stick to them.
4. Look for the calmest people around you and spend more time with them.
5. Make a list of what you are thankful for. This practice will help you keep your perspective. Things may be difficult, but you will have enough food today.

How to Keep the Long View

Do you have any time to read? I’ve got a suggestion, although it’s not for everyone. In addition to the distractions I mentioned in my last post, my book group is also reading War and Peace. I’m reading it in a fabulous new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I’m loving it. And the issues Tolstoy raises are incredibly current: family life, religion and the spiritual life, good and bad leadership, and of course the matters of war and peace, as the title suggests. I’m sure I would never get through it without the discipline of the group deadline (I’ve got until December 16). But it’s truly a great piece of literature.

War and Peace may not be for you, but what are you reading that is helping you keep your perspective?

Do You Need a Distraction?

I’ve been watching two TV series on DVD that are both a nice distraction, but also have some relevance to church, one silly and one more serious.

First, the BBC series Clatterford is about life in a small English village, with a focus on the women’s organization or “Guild.” The characters include a frustrated and harassed vicar, some highly eccentric women, and several generations of the local doctor’s family. The first episode is funny, and it gets even better from there. Get it from Netflix, or try your local library.

Second is the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, a much more sophisticated remake of a 70s TV show. It’s about leadership in crisis, as well as the tensions between political and military leadership, with some family dynamics thrown in. I watched the miniseries which is the pilot instead of one of the presidential debates (true confessions). Watching some of these issues raised in a setting that is at a distance in time and space from our own helped me gain perspective. The first three seasons are available on DVD.

Election Musings

I sat down last night to watch the election coverage. I thought I’d be in and out, but I ended up watching for three and a half hours. This truly is a significant moment in American life. I thought both candidates’ speeches were acts of leadership, McCain’s with his gracious words of concession, and Obama’s with his inspiring words connecting past, present and future. I was watching PBS’ coverage, and anchor Jim Lehrer mused at the end about his own journey from growing up in Texas and seeing separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms in the bus station, to the election of an African-American to the presidency.

Robert Parham of Ethics Daily, wrote an interesting article today called Theological Realism Is Needed about President Obama, suggesting that Obama is neither a savior nor a demon.

On another note, I was struck also by the interest my 18-year-old son and his friends showed in voting for the first time. They were not only paying attention to the presidential race, but were discussing the Oregon ballot initiatives among themselves, and considering how best to vote. This gives me hope. The thoughtful engagement of citizens of all ages will help us all.