In the distant past, when I was a seminary student, a discussion about the proper length of an effective sermon came up in homiletics class. After letting us wrestle with the question for a bit the prof settled the issue with uncanny insight and wisdom. “A good sermon should be like a woman’s skirt, long enough to cover the essentials and short enough to maintain interest!”
Once again our friend and colleague Justin Tull lends his expertise by “covering the essentials” of preaching for interim pastors.
- Honor the Importance of Preaching
Preaching is the interim minister’s most important task. Its role is to be the interpreter of both the biblical faith and the current culture. In times of crisis, interim preaching is called to offer insights into the situation at hand and to give a theology of hope for the future. Preaching will often be the most powerful tool in addressing such issues as grief, despair, disillusionment, anger, forgiveness, and conflict.
The first sermon preached in the interim should address any key issues or problems in the church.
- Preach Only Tailor-made Sermons
The interim pastor can’t coast. The interim period is not a time to pull out old sermons or blindly follow the lectionary. In addressing the issues, the preacher may draw from the entire Bible to find the appropriate text or texts. The lectionary should be the starting point but not the mandatory rule. Careful planning should ensure that important aspects of the faith be preached during this time of transition.
- Preach First to the Situation at Hand
The first sermon preached in the interim should address any key issues or problems in the church. These may be dynamics of grief, responding to clerical misconduct, conflict within the church, issues of racism or injustice. Just as Paul wrote letters that addressed specific issues or problems in the church, so should the interim preacher address issues that are immediately apparent. Failure to acknowledge the “elephant in the room” will only cause more anxiety on the part of the congregation. Even so, one should never assume that there is only one issue to be addressed no matter how dominant that issue is. For example, after the death of a beloved and charismatic pastor, the issue at hand may not only be grief but also a confusion of church identity in the face of that loss.
- Discern When to Leave the Issue(s) at Hand
As important as detecting and dealing with critical issues in the church, equally important is knowing whento move on. Preaching in the interim should address systemic issues of the church as well as personal needs of individual members. A church in grief may need four sermons that deal in different ways with grief and the aspect of hope, but it does not need four months of such a diet. To heal, people need to focus on other aspects of the gospel and of the Christian life. A church in grief needs to be given permission to laugh again.
As important as detecting and dealing with critical issues in the church, equally important is knowing when to move on.
- Always Preach Hope
From the first meeting to the first sermon, the minister should exhibit the spirit of hope. Even when a situation is extremely tragic, even when church members are in total despair, the interim minister must always believe in hope and be able to preach that the power of God is sufficient in the face of all circumstances.
- Include the Developmental Tasks in Preaching
Preaching during an interim appointment is often in the midst of change and crisis—a great time to wrestle with devolomental issues (history, identity, direction, leadership, and connection.) Subject matter may include such topics as the mission of the church, the vision of a congregation, the connection with the larger church, the role of stewardship, how a congregation should treat the pastor, and worship identity.
- Use Other Forms of Communication to Enhance Preaching
When complex issues are being addressed, using various forms of church communication—church newsletter, discussion forums, letters to the congregation—can set the stage for the preached word. Indeed, some discussion and dissemination of information can best be done through the printed page. When used in tandem—the printed word and the spoken word—both will be enriched. For example, when ideas are first shared in a pastoral reflection and then followed by a thought-provoking sermon, the effectiveness of the sermon is greatly increased and the pastoral reflection becomes firmly grounded in the biblical faith.
- Plan Carefully the Worship Context
During the interim appointment the preacher should begin by using familiar worship practices when possible. Continuity in worship is often helpful, but especially so if the church is in crisis. As in all worship planning, care should be taken that the service move smoothly and have a unifying theme thus strengthening the effectiveness of the sermon and deepening the total worship experience.
- Use Listening and Pastoral Care to Strengthen the Preached Word
The more pastoral care the interim minister can do, the more informed the preaching can be. In addition, the personal contact will make the congregation feel more connected to the pastor as they listen from the pew. If the pastor listens to them, they are more likely to return the favor. Listening, in fact, is one of the most important preparations one can do for preaching. Without it one might be able to interpret the word but be inadequately prepared to apply it to the specific needs of the congregation. Preaching without much personal contact runs the risk of “missing the mark” on Sunday.
- Be Yourself
Using one’s unique gifts, graces, and style in the act of preaching is important in interim ministry as it underscores the variety of personalities and abilities of each minister. Though the minister should honor when possible local worship traditions, one should not be forced to “give up the sling shot in favor of Saul’s armor.” For example, one might refuse to use film clips as a regular tool in preaching the contemporary service if that did not mesh with one’s style of preaching. However, jettisoning the robe and stole for a dressy polo shirt and slacks might be an appropriate concession—a compromise that would not affect one’s preaching.
- Preach with Humility
The more dramatically one preaches, the greater the temptation to draw attention to oneself instead of the message, and to think that the positive responses are mainly a result of one’s own skills. But the ultimate effectiveness of preaching rests in the workings of the Holy Spirit and in the minds and hearts of willing listeners. The preacher must do his or her part in preparation and then trust the results to God.
(From Interim Ministry: Positive Change in Times of Transition Copyright 2012 © Justin W Tull)
- Book Review: Revitalizing Congregations
- 4 Questions for Dry Preachers
- Does “I think” communicate better than “I feel”?
- In praise of the Interim Pastor
- Preacing During the Interim
- Interim Sermons
Image credit: flippo / 123RF Stock Photo