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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Staying Connected

A few thoughts on staying connected . . .

Note on the image: I chose this image because it shows people (not just a graphic of connecting wires or puzzle pieces) and because it shows the virtual connection of a video conference. I think both kinds of connecting are important - incarnate and virtual - and both have their place. Often times the virtual method makes connections possible that would not otherwise be possible, and we also need to be sure that our connections are not only virtual.

Bishop Ian recently passed along this article on the value of bi-vocational clergy:
While it makes a number of excellent points about the gifts bi-vocational clergy bring to the church, what I'd like to reflect on here is the broader theme of staying connected. Thom Rainer argues that one of the main gifts bi-vocational clergy bring are a connectedness to the outside world. It is so easy in life generally, and somehow in the church particularly, to become inwardly focused and insulated from the world. We can become so concerned about maintaining the status quo and responding to our own needs and desires that we can miss what is going on in the world around us. By necessity bi-vocational clergy are back and forth between church and world. They are bridges. Sounds a bit like a deacon. Perhaps we could refer to deacons as "the original bi-vocational clergy." :)

While I do think this is a gift of bi-vocational clergy, I also think it touches on a point that is relevant to all of us who work in the church (lay and ordained). It would behoove all of us to note the value of staying connected to the world. If the church exists as to serve God's mission in the world, then we always need to be communicating the needs of the world to the church and forming and supporting the members of the church to help meet those needs. So all of us need to stay connected to the world. Not to mention, it is also just good for one's sense of self and for self-care to be connected more broadly than the institution of the church. So, here are 5 tips for staying connected to the world. 

1. Read the Newspaper 
Okay, well maybe not the literal newspaper. Perhaps it is an app on your smartphone or a  or the start page in your browser. Maybe you get email alerts of breaking news from your local newspaper, or at least the biggest paper in your state. Maybe you scan the headlines on the BBC, The New York Times or CNN. Maybe you listen to NPR when driving in your car. However you access it, there is great value in keeping track of the news in your town and around the world. Our sermons are better, our relationships stronger because we are connected to our communities and the needs of the world. 

2. Shop Local 
Get to know the business in your local area. Whether you are in an urban setting with lots around you or a small rural setting with miles between you and "civilization," try to build relationships with those around you. You never know what opportunities for service or evangelism might arise because of a conversation you had with the proprietor of a local restaurant or the post office employee. 

3. Colleagues
A great way to remember that the church and the world are bigger than whatever little corner of it we might be serving, is to develop colleague relationships across the wider church. Whether this is through seminary classmates, people you meet at CREDO or another professional education event or even a local colleague group, there is much to be said for hearing what others are up to in their ministry. There is much support and great idea sharing that can happen in this groups, so be sure they are a part of your ministry!

4. Old Friends and some new 
While it is great to have those with whom you can "talk shop," it is also essential to stay connected to people who are not in the church. Be sure that you keep a few friends who knew you before you ever went to seminary or started working for the church. They are essential for keeping us humble. Particularly for us clergy, if we are not careful the power of our office can easily go to our heads. We also need people who help us remember that there is more to who we are than our job titles. We need people with whom we do not have any professional obligations. People with whom we can laugh, cry and be ourselves. If you don't have old friends nearby or that you can connect with regularly, it can definitely be worthwhile to work on making some new ones. 

5. Sabbath - Practices of Prayer and Refreshment
And of course there is another connection that needs to be maintained for us to flourish in our ministry - the connected to God. While it can be tempting to get lost in or become beholden to our "To Do" List, practices of prayer and refreshment are essential for keeping us well - in all senses. This should perhaps be number one, for without this connection, without a regular rhythm of prayer and relaxation built into our lives we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the needs of the world or become mired in the minutia of daily life in the church. May our spiritual disciplines and practices be the foundation from which we build the rest of our connections to each other and to the world.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


A Reflection on Funerals 

 My grandfather died recently. He was 94 and lived a long, full, wonderful life. His funeral was truly a celebration of a remarkable man and the life he led. As I had the opportunity to be more of a family member than a pastor for his funeral, it also got me thinking about funerals more broadly. Funerals are some of the most important work we do as the Church. As I have reflected on in past sermons (see here), we (the Church) know how to do suffering and grief. We know how to help people find comfort and make meaning in the midst of loss. This is why churches were full on the Sunday after 9/11, people knew that the Church was the place to go to help them make sense of or at least cope with tragedy . . . the question is are we ready to respond well when people come seeking that wisdom? I hope so.

Since funerals are a large part of what we can do to help people find hope in the midst of loss, here are a few reflections and ideas on how to do a funeral well:

I cannot stress enough the gift it is for family members to have a funeral already planned out so that they can just fulfill your wishes. It saves so much questioning and potential family stress to have a service already planned out! So, please plan your own funeral and encourage family, friends and parishioners to do the same!

2. Funeral or Memorial
One of the first questions to sort is whether or not it will be a funeral or a memorial service. Will the body or ashes be present? Will the burial be done before, immediately after or at some later date? This is really for the family to decide. And I think that it many cases it can be helpful to do the burial first, so that the service in the church can be even more of a celebration of the life of the deceased. That is, however, much more easily done when the person who died lived a long full life. When the death was of a child, young person or in violent circumstances, it may be necessary or appropriate to do things differently. Of course there are also many people or family members who may just wish for a simple graveside service. Graveside services can be lovely and if that is what is preferred, some of what is below may not apply.

3. Liturgy
Since we are Episcopalians, the good news is that this pretty well covered in the Book of Common Prayer. Great comfort is found in the words of the burial service, in the ritual of that liturgy. There is something about praying the same prayers that others have prayed over the centuries that is quite healing. Our circle of support is widened because we are connected to so many others who have known what it is to grieve.

Planning a funeral liturgy is really about filling in the outline offered in the BCP. The prayers are there, suggested readings and psalms are there. The questions are: Communion or no? Burial before or after or at another time? What hymns to use? Who will preach? Who will offer remembrances? I highly recommend creating or adapting a funeral planning form, such as this one created by my good friend and colleague, Rev. Jeremiah Williamson:

4. Music
I cannot emphasize enough the healing and cathartic properties of many of our hymns and other pieces of sacred music. I would, therefore, strongly advocate for having at least some hymns at every funeral. They can help people begin to grieve in a way prayers or readings may not.

That being said, a few recommendations on the music front. Keep the secular music out of the body of the liturgy. It just may be that the deceased's favorite song is Stairway to Heaven, but it will like detract from the flow and ambiance of the liturgy if used as the sequence hymn. Try to keep secular music in the prelude or postlude, or better yet for the reception.

4. Remembrances and Homily
As the services are celebrations of someone's whole life it is often quite appropriate for family or friends to offer some remembrances. Generally, it is best to limit this to 2 or 3, as you will likely be offering a homily as well. If people want to have an open mic of remembrance time, that might be best done at the reception. If there are others who would like to be involved in the service, they can be invited to assist in the liturgy or do a reading. It is also a good idea to require those speaking to write down their remarks. It will help them get through an emotional time, and you might also gently suggest a word limit, so that they don't go on and on. In writing your homily, the goal is of course to connect the Scriptures to the person's life and to preach the Good News of resurrection. Even if you didn't know the person, try to make the homily at least a little personal. Talk with the family members and read the obituary. You do not need to pretend the person was your best friend. Just finding a few personal connections with Scripture or things to note will be a wonderful gift to the family.

5. Funeral Directors
This perhaps should have come first, as they are in indispensable part of the process. Funeral directors often get a bad rap for their prices. It is unfair to paint a whole profession with a broad brush. I have had the privilege of working with a number of them, and for the majority of them their work is a true calling that they take very seriously. They are pastoral and offer a lot of support to families. They also have great sense of humor and are wonderful colleagues. In many cases they will add your honorarium to the familys' bill and issue you a check. So, in addition to the gift of having colleagues who understand many of the challenges of our work, it can be to your financial benefit to build a good relationship with your local funeral directors. :)

Preparing for and presiding at a funeral is one of the great gifts of ministry. It is a true privilege to preach the Good News of the eternal nature of God's love and the gift of the resurrection. May you feel the blessing of God's presence as you do that holy work!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sermon Preparation and Preaching

A Few Thoughts on Sermon Preparation, Writing and Delivery. . .

The photo of me above was taken surreptitiously by my brother during a service at Exeter Cathedral in the UK. Preaching in that pulpit was quite an experience! It was a great privilege to be a part of that community while I spent time at Exeter University working on my PhD. The pulpit was so tall that you could see all the way over the choir stalls into the nave where there are tourists wandering around taking pictures (even while there is a service going on) - it was a bit distracting at times! It was rather daunting to preach in such a place! I think sometimes sermon preparation on the whole can feel rather daunting, and so I would like to offer a few thoughts and best practices. Hopefully this will be helpful to you!

I am a manuscript preacher. I know that many people glorify the practice of preaching with an outline or even without notes. For some people that works fabulously! Yay for them! I am a better writer than orator, so I write my sermons out. The advice below will probably work less well if you like to preach without notes, but hopefully some of it will still be useful.


Not just for steaks anymore! :) *Note: I love to cook, so this is likely one of many food related sentences on this blog.
For me the first step in a good sermon is the brainstorming. I like to read the lectionary texts assigned and let them just sit in my brain for a day or two. I think about them while driving in the car or cooking dinner. Inevitably the Holy Spirit is at work and the beginnings of an idea or theme begin to form.

Once I have a sense of where I might want to go with one or two of the texts, I like to have a conversation about my ideas. I try hard to stick to my preaching professor's rule never to talk about more than three texts in a sermon, and then only three if there is a really strong connection between them. Sometimes the conversations are with fellow clergy or sometimes with my mom (who is a writer and teacher), but most often they are with my husband (sainted man that he is). One of the reasons I love brainstorming sermons with him is that he is a mechanical engineer. His brain works completely differently than mine, and he sees the world differently. His mom is an organist. He grew up in the Church and has heard a lot of sermons - even before he met me! :) He gets Church, and he knows what it is to be the person in the pew. Conversation with him usually helps me to catch mistakes. It keeps me from trying to accomplish too much in a sermon or from being too formal or academic. Conversation with him helps me keep my sermons connected to real life. I strongly believe that the whole point of preaching is so that we can make the Scriptures relevant to the daily lives of people in the pews. I highly recommend having conversation partner or partners with whom you can digest the Scriptures and get your creative juices flowing.

WRITING . . . .

Write and write!
When I preached the first few times it took me days or even weeks to work on a sermon. Getting into a position where you have to preach every week or at least close to it quickly cured me of that! I can now easily write out a sermon in about an hour (once I have done my brainstorming and conversing). So, as the saying goes, practice makes perfect. The more sermons you write, the easier it will be. If you find yourself staring at a blank screen, just start writing. The ideas will come. The first draft does not have to be the final one!

Short and sweet 
Remember, people have to listen to this. Avoid long complicated sentences. Avoid a lot of references to something said earlier . . . it is not a book, they cannot turn back a page or two to check. If you find yourself writing "Thirdly" or "And finally" you might want to go back and reassess whether or not your audience is really going to be able to remember ALL your points. To that end, it is generally best to have ONE take home message in your sermon. If you can't sum your sermon up in a single sentence, it is probably too long. Also remember that you can hold most people's attention for about 7 minutes. If you go on for twice that, people are not likely to remember what you said. I find that it is generally good to aim for about 1000 to 1200 words. Generally speaking, people are not known for complaining that a sermon is too short. :)

Format and Formulas
Generally speaking, I find there are two formulas that work well for crafting sermons, and they are just variations on each other.

1.  Scripture > story, real life examples > so what?

2. Personal story, anecdote > Scripture > so what?

Most often I go with number 2 because I find that if you start with a hook - tell a personal story, an example of daily life, something well known and engaging - people are interested and likely to stay tuned into what you are saying.

Sometimes there is something particularly notable or striking in the Scripture itself and that can be a great place to start and then you move to a connection with daily life. Again, I think the whole point of preaching is to help people feel that the Scriptures they have just heard are real and relevant to their daily lives.

As you write, keep in mind the people who will hear your sermon. Is there something particular going on in the community or in the world that you need to speak on? If people's lives and hearts have been shaken by recent events on a global scale or a local level, it will be incredibly helpful to them to touch on those events in your sermon. If a horrific murder has just happened in your town or it is the Sunday after 9/11 and there is no mention of it in your sermon, people will feel you are out of touch, and they may stop listening. Be attentive to the needs of your community. Occasionally, it is okay to put the lectionary aside (or even to preach on what is not in the lectionary) because the message the community really needs to hear that week is something else.


Clear and Concise 
Even if you write out sermons, you still want to practice them. You don't want to stumble over your text in the delivery. That said, write as you would speak. The text does not need to (and probably should not!) read like a research paper with multiple footnotes. Use colloquialisms and short sentences. Casual, conversational style is fine in almost all settings, although that does not mean you should deliver it in such a relaxed manner that people have a hard time hearing or understanding you.

Loud, but not too loud 
Project and don't swallow the ends of your sentences (my error early in my preaching). Also be aware of the sound system (if there is one where you are preaching). I spent a while preaching in small churches without any sound systems, so I got used to projecting. Then when I went to a big church with a sound system, someone told me that my 8am sermon sounded like I was angry or yelling because I was so loud. Oops! Always good to check out the sound system and see how sensitive it is!

Pauses are okay 
Again this is one straight out of my own experiences and mistakes. I generally talk fast and early on in my preaching, particularly when I was very nervous I would fly through my sermons. My dear parents (who heard many of my early sermons) would keep reminding me to slow down! It took a while to get the hang of a good rhythm that was neither a Formula One race nor molasses on a cold day. Practice will help you find yours! And sometimes it can even be helpful to add in extra punctuation (even if it is not grammatically correct) to your text so that it can help you slow down and pause when appropriate.

Eye Contact 
After a recent sermon I gave, a retired priest came up to compliment me on my sermon and also to let me know that he wished I had looked into the eyes of members of the congregation more. Doing so would have helped my sermon to have a greater impact. This is wise advice. It can be tricky to do, however, particularly if you are preaching on something that could be controversial or challenging for people to hear. Try to at least pick a few people with whom to make direct eye contact with during the sermon. Try also to know your manuscript well enough that you can keep your eyes up more often than they are down on the page.

And when it is all over, ask for feedback. I am indebted to my family for all the sermons they have read and listened to and all the feedback that they have given to me on content, style and delivery.  If you don't already have a setup for receiving regular feedback on your preaching, create one. Put a small committee together. Record a sermon or two and send it to a colleague. Attend a preaching workshop. We all can always improve our preaching, so be on the lookout for feedback!

Pat yourself on the back!
Preaching is hard work. Like any creative process, when it is done well, we pour our whole selves into the creation and delivery of our sermons. It is a big deal to expose ourselves to the world in that way and can feel very vulnerable. Give yourself credit for putting yourself out there, for taking the time to prepare a sermon. And if it doesn't all go perfectly, don't worry! There is always next week! And our lectionary repeats every three years. You will have another opportunity to do it differently!

Working Preacher
The Text This Week - Textweek - Sermon, Sermons, Revised Common Lectionary, Scripture Study and Worship Links
The Thoughtful Christian
Death of Preaching
When does a text show up in the Lectionary?
Alban - Listening to the Listeners of Sermons
SermonSuite - Online Sermons, Children's Sermons, Sermon Illustrations, Lectionary Sermons, Lectionary Resources
Creative Strategies for Sermons
16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible
Fermenting the Word:While editing sermons at my favorite watering hole, I'll post about the different beers I am trying.
12 Things TEDx Speakers do that Preachers Don’t. | Scribblepreach
The Bible Reduced To Minimalist Posters | Co.Design | business + design
Scripture in Context