I recently had the privilege of hearing Fred Craddock preach. For many clergy, Craddock represents the personification of a stream of preaching that emphasizes narrative and intuition over expository and logic.
For some it is extremely appealing, not so much for others. For me, he stands as an iconic figure who, for nearly 50 years, has helped many people maintain their love of Scripture and preaching.
Listening to him, I reflected on two things he has been saying for many years about preaching that have resonated with me and, I believe, reflect a healthy understanding of what is at the heart of preaching and ministry.
The first: “Preach like you know they almost didn’t come.”
Healthy preachers never take for granted the people in the sanctuary. We may be tempted to assume that people will come to worship no matter what we do, but that is a false assumption.
The wise preacher will not take lightly the truth that every person seated in the sanctuary has made some degree of effort and sacrifice to be present.
The stewardship of that gift of time and attention is a primary component of effectiveness as a minister. Every preaching event deserves our very best effort, study, prayer and preparation.
Granted, we call upon the Spirit to take our efforts and make them into more than they are, but we can resolve to always do our part to give the Spirit plenty to work with.
I learned this lesson early on as a first-time pastor. One Sunday early in my tenure, I watched an elderly gentleman slowly come into the sanctuary on a walker. His daughter and I began talking, and I expressed my appreciation for his attendance.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she told me that her father rose at 6 a.m. every Sunday to begin the arduous process of preparing his body to make the excruciating journey to worship.
Suffering from multiple physical ailments, he required four hours of gradual preparation to get ready. At 10 a.m., she would go by and get him and bring him to church.
After parking in a handicapped parking space, it took him 20 minutes to make the short trip to a pew in the sanctuary. “Thank you for noticing,” she said. I resolved to always notice.
If we look carefully, we will see many who could have chosen to be elsewhere. Some came back early from a meeting or vacation, others are so sad or lonely or distraught that the emotional toll of coming to church is huge.
There are a million things that could keep our people at home. Wise preachers never take their hearers for granted, nor do they show up unprepared.
If nothing else happens in your week, your work on Sunday morning must be above reproach. There is never a good enough excuse not to handle the proclamation of God’s word with great thought, preparation and integrity.
Being unprepared or unorganized is not acceptable. People will abide many shortcomings in a minister, but taking the pulpit for granted isn’t one of them.
The second Craddock quote that has always resonated with me is: “I’m grateful for work more important than how I happen to feel about it on any given day.” He says he has prayed this as a prayer every morning for 50 years.
Clergy have the magnificent privilege of being called to stand at the intersection of life and faith to show the world and God’s people a better way.
Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver titled their recent book about this privilege “This Odd and Wondrous Calling.” It certainly is.
Unfortunately, many clergy lose sight of the wondrous in the thicket of the odd. We find ourselves feeling victimized or taken for granted. We fall prey to the temptation to think we are undercompensated or overworked or both.
We lose sight of the mystery and importance of our call when we find ourselves neck-deep in administrative details or the minutia of ministry.
The wise minister steps back, finds a haven of rest, and reconnects with his or her call. What emerges, when we give ourselves time to remember, is an awareness that the kingdom does not depend upon us to arrive. We are part of something much larger, more complex and more powerful than we know.
The ministry we do, the words we say, the savior we stand for, and the church we represent are all part of the most important truth in the universe. God became flesh and dwelt among us.
However we feel or whatever mood we are in, this is still true. Our job is to show up and be faithful to the call. Thank God he can use whatever we offer in service to the Kingdom to accomplish the miracle of ministry.
Fred Craddock has helped many of us keep the faith when it would have been easy to offer less than our best, or to doubt the worth of it all.
Thank God for those who encourage us and inspire us, and may God help us do the same for others.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.