Thursday, December 1, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

What to do with the rest of the corn?

The minister does many things on behalf of his or her flock. Some of these things are appropriate, others one does rather unwillingly. For example, the minister prays on behalf of the congregation; this is good and expected. Sometimes, the minister is “appointed to be good” on behalf of everyone else. This is not good if the members believe that they are thereby excused from righteousness! Life is lonely up there on a pedestal and ministers resent it if they are put there all by themselves.

One of the most important things a minister does is to study on behalf of the community. By the same token, we ministers do not tell you everything we know. That is, we do not report every idea encountered in all our reading and study.

My great-great-great-great grandfather grew the first corn crop in Kentucky. You can still see a corn field carefully tended on the spot at Fort Boonesborough State Park. Other than feeding some to the horses, I will leave it to your imagination what they did with the rest of that corn.

But like my great-great-great-great-grandfather, the minister is a sort of distiller. We are supposed to read a great deal (about all sorts of subjects) and then boil it down for a sermon on Sunday morning.

I do not mean to present the idea of a minister as a solitary figure, toiling away in an ivory-towered cloister. It should be self-evident that the more experiences a minister can have, the better the message can be related to the people who come to church. But an effective preacher must have time to take these things in. Too many of us are trying to feed our flocks on the accumulated wisdom of yesteryear. It is essential to put some new material in the hopper lest we fall out of touch and become “too comfortable” (or predictable) in our sermonizing.

There is great pressure in the contemporary church to put the minister into a corporate role. That is, the minister is to behave like a company executive, sitting at a desk, doing what CEOs do. This means talking on the phone, organizing, administering, giving orders. There is little room for contemplating in such a model of ministry.

Before moving here I served in such a church. It had seven ministers, of whom I was the youngest. I noticed that whenever my colleagues had preaching duties, they would carry their books and papers home and do their studying in their free time.

It was not just that the office was too busy to concentrate, it was that there was a definite feeling that study was not real work, and that if you wanted respect as a full-fledged minister, you’d better look busy, and that meant being on the phone, or counseling with somebody, or chairing a meeting. Study occupied only the brain, and that was not the way to get ahead in an office.

Today we are planted in the very center of the channel of an immense flow of information and ideas. The internet, 24-hour news programming, 600 television networks, USA Today, cell-phones, i-pods, books-on-tape — people can receive information at a dizzying pace.

But I wonder how much we are really processing? Real truth often requires a bit of down time for meditation. And that is why I think so many today just “follow the herd.”

When search committees interview candidates for the pastorate, they often try to put the person at ease saying that what they want most is an approachable pastor — someone who will sit on the porch and visit. But when churches get rid of a pastor, they often say the reason was that the person was a poor preacher.

Most churches are uncomfortable expressing that they really do want a thoughtful, prepared sermon. But they all do. The first thing a church can do to make that happen is to give their ministers “permission” — and encouragement to spend the time necessary. In sum, religion needs to make studying an honorable enterprise again. I have known preachers who could do all kinds of things — lay a concrete slab, fix an engine, put out a fire (with a fire department, I mean).

But every town needs a theologian, and if the minister has no time or aptitude for that — no one else is likely to perform the task. It is the unique aspects of our work that are the hardest, but which we must face our responsibility to accomplish. So, if you will excuse me, I’ve got some distilling to do.

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