Preaching, prepared ministry, and other things that aren’t quite work

Steve Holmes wrote a post on ‘the problems of preaching‘, the overall message of which is that it’s not particularly good if the same person preaches to the same congregation week in, week out. I see the point. My ‘problem with preaching’, of course, is the opposite. On the few occasions on which I have been asked to preach a sermon, I have been speaking to a group and a context I don’t know. Add to that the rather large hurdle a lifelong Quaker has to overcome in order to believe that she can prepare in advance something that will turn out to be the right thing to say in worship, and you have a challenge. The gift that helps overcome it, I have found, is the lectionary, the ‘given’ biblical text – which secures that sense of ‘givenness’, of this not being my words, that is a prerequisite for ministry as I normally understand it. A Quaker preacher really needs the lectionary. Who would have thought it?

Does a sermon, or a piece of prepared ministry at Yearly Meeting, count as ‘knowledge transfer’ by an academic theologian? Is it a piece of ‘impact’ work? The question made me laugh, and I reckon the joke’s on ‘knowledge transfer’ and ‘impact’, not on sermons. When I give that kind of spoken ministry, I mostly say the same thing: God loves you and all the others, believe it or not. That is clearly not new and not clever, even though it is, every time properly understood, world-shattering news. I do not know it any better or more deeply than the hearers do. And the kind of research I do does not make a lot of progress (but then nor, as far as I can make out, does human nature) or generate many new claims.  It is possible that doing theological research might make me marginally better at saying what I say, or might make people who read my books marginally better at saying it for me.

Or not.

Actually I prefer to keep theology and ministry a good distance apart. Perhaps that’s the anti-theological bias of my particular community coming through. (That’s why sermons and prepared ministry are not work – or at least are in the same strange category of not-work as are the tasks associated with co-clerking Meeting or preparing material for the children’s class. I suppose I mean I don’t, if I can help it, do them with my PhD on).


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Steve H on 8 March, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    It happens that the previous Deputy Principal of our university was a member of the Baptist congregation; he once asked us in a review of the School of Divinity, ‘Does your preaching count as knowledge transfer?’ Inevitably, it was two hours after the meeting that I came up with the perfect response: ‘You’ve heard me preach; you tell me…’


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