The Main Task of Clergy?

by Clair Woodbury and Joyce Madsen

For centuries, at least in the Protestant church, clergy have assumed their main task to be preaching. In the Roman Catholic church, and possibly the Anglican, the celebration of the Mass or Eucharist would take first place, with preaching second. In the Reformed tradition, which includes Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, any number of Baptists and evangelicals—particularly evangelicals—preaching is it, number one, lavoro uno. We seminarians—for me this is a few years ago now—were taught to set aside one hour of preparation for every minute of the sermon. Twenty-five minute sermons were the norm.

Five years ago some cracks began to appear in this job description I assumed had been communicated directly to my professors from God. An associate I respect very much questioned the whole idea of sermons. A diaconal minister, she shared her feeling that worship was about communicating with God, not talking about God. Actually, she put it in stronger terms than that: “What good are sermons? Five minutes for a meditation is long enough?” I had my revenge. When she gave her first sermon, it was 35 minutes long. “I didn’t speak that long, did I?” was her astonished response. Nevertheless, her challenge stayed with me.

I preached one Sunday at a large Roman Catholic congregation, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, during an ecumenical exchange. There were 1,000 people at each of three masses. “You have 13 minutes, at the most 14,” the priest told me. The experience was an eye opener. It took some thought and a little extra work, but I was able to say everything that needed to be said in 13 minutes. Well, to be honest it was 14.

My third experience comes from being a pew-sitter in my role as a consultant.  Fifteen minutes into any sermon and my mind is somewhere else. I look around. Other people seem as uninvolved.

Is it television that has accustomed us to sound bytes? Is it that the pace of life has speeded up? Or is it that the human mind was never designed to absorb more than fifteen minutes of information that comes only orally from a talking head. I find even fifteen minutes is a long time unless the talking head is particularly good looking or is saying something of immediate relevance to my life.

Resources for Spiritual Growth

Today I hear the call more and more from lay people for resources to support their spiritual growth. Is the sermon the best way to provide this? I don’t think so. It is one way, but it is certainly not the only way or even the primary way. 

did an informal survey of a few friends, asked them where they received the most spiritual support.

One pointed to the copy of the latest Jan Richardson book, In Wisdom’s Path. Richardson is a poet, artist, spirit woman whose words and pictures take one into a sense of the presence of God. Books have become incredibly important for spiritual growth. There is more in one good spiritual book than can be packed into a year of sermons.

read a number of church development books because of my work. Every once in a while, there is a passage that puts me in contact with God. It’s as if the words open a doorway into my inner being, and I catch a glimpse of God at work that encourages me to look for God at work in my own life. It is John Spong saying the God of Theism is dead, but the God of love is alive. It is Marcus Borg moving to the Episcopal church because of a liturgical style fits his spirituality. For me, learning leads to growth, and when we grow we touch the God who longs to grow inside us.

Several summed their spiritual support in one word, “Nature.” I realized that is where I always have a sense of God’s closeness. (Yes, God is there in some church services, but it depends on . . . but I digress.) There in the woods every leaf proclaims God’s wonder, every flower celebrates the extravagance of God’s creativity, every mood of the sky reminds me of God’s grandeur. The birds that flock to the bird-feeder speak to me of the importance of community and the friends God has given me.

One of the books I wrote had the title Meeting Jesus in Everyday Life, and Recognizing Him when you Do. It was my “thank you” to all the people whose lives radiated the same spirit of God that so animated Jesus. Where two or three are gathered together, the Christian community through the years has experienced the presence of God. There are many Sundays in which I find God more present in conversations over coffee than during the worship. 

In a fit of creativity I once suggested to a congregation whose 600 seat sanctuary now held 125 most Sundays, that they should take out half the pews and install a prayer garden. They laughed, but the idea has stayed with me. If so many people find God in nature, and they do, why not bring more of nature into our church buildings and celebrate that reality? Why not?

Music is a resource that speaks spiritual volumes to me. It has to be good though, and I don’t mean classically good. I mean “good” good, as in done well and done from the heart, a message from your caring spirit to mine.

My life has been enriched by many small groups that met intentionally for prayer, study, fellowship, meals, or finishing a jig-saw puzzle. Regardless of the event or the reason for coming together, what I remember most is how the discussion, the laughter, and the prayerful sharing with one another has allowed me to have a glimpse of God at work. Is not the role of clergy to day to provide these same opportunities for everyone who comes into the congregation?

Maybe it is time that we looked at a clearly focused job description for clergy—providing resources for spiritual growth. That might mean putting the watering of the prayer garden the first order of every day. It would mean providing for music that speaks to people where they are on the musical spectrum. It might mean including a review of a spiritual book at a gathering or on your web site every week. It would certainly mean using occasions when people come together to emphasize one thing and that one thing would always be about spiritual growth. A single focus on spiritual growth would free clergy from the “1000-things-to-do” malaise that is creating so much stress and burnout.

I have been re-reading Jesus teaching. Do you know what. It is all about spiritual growth:

Look at the birds  . . . Look how the wild flowers grow . . . Do not start worrying: “Where will my food come from? Or my dring? Or my clothes? . . . Be concerned above everythig else with God’s New Community and with what God requires of you, and God will provide you with all these other things. (Matthew 6:26 ff )

Jesus was encouraging us to see God’s presence in our everyday life and relationships. Sharing stories of our relationship to the God who lives within us,  that’s what it is all about for me. 

An invitation: We invite any comments you may have on the main task of clergy? Send a note to the Centre, or an e-mail to [email protected]

Congregational Life Volume 8, Issue 1 January 2002


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