My first appointment out of seminary was the hardest appointment that I’ve ever had. It wasn’t because the people were hard to pastor: they were some of the sweetest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of serving. It wasn’t because the church was located in a bad place: it was out in the country, a beautiful church and beautiful parsonage. It wasn’t because the pastor I followed was troublesome: in fact, he became and remains one of my closest friends.
It was because I had not yet found my preaching voice. I, like most United Methodist preachers, took homiletics – preaching – in seminary. It was perfectly fine. I did fine in it. My lack of voice wasn’t the fault of my seminary education. It’s just that I did not know who I was in the pulpit.
The churches I served during my seminary years were wonderful, they loved me and I loved them. But my great responsibility there was pastoral care. In this appointment, I had to preach. The people there expected a good sermon. And my friend whom I followed is the best pulpit preacher in the Mississippi Annual Conference.
At that point, young in my ministry – and I’m not being falsely humble – I was not a gifted preacher. It wasn’t because I didn’t try: I did. It wasn’t because I wasn’t praying: I spent hours praying over each message. It wasn’t because I didn’t care: I worried about every word I would say.
I wasn’t lazy. I wasn’t unspiritual. I wasn’t uncaring. I just couldn’t preach.
So what did I do? I kept at it. I listened to sermons of those I admired. I read books. I prayed. I worked. I tried things. I experimented. I got loud. I got quiet. I got high church. I got low church. I followed the lectionary. I preached through books of the Bible. I created themes. I did everything I could think of until one day I found it.
I found my voice.
My voice is this:
I love humor. I love CS Lewis. I love personal experience. I am transparent, but I do not treat the sermon like the therapist’s couch. I wander around, I don’t stay behind the pulpit. I preach without notes, but my sermon is not memorized: I say it is internalized. I really love Jesus, and I want you to as well. I believe in hell, but I’m not a hellfire preacher – Romans 2:4 says that we are driven to repentance by the kindness of Christ. I believe in transformation. I believe in grace. I believe that when the word is proclaimed, each time lives can be changed.
I found my voice. I have never departed from it. My wardrobe has changed; I’ve preached in suits, robes, and blue jeans. Many things have changed about my ministry. But what hasn’t is my voice.
How did I find it? How do I keep it?
First, I do my very best to be authentic. I don’t have a preacher voice and a real voice: I have my voice. I try to preach like I talk. I am just me. I like Marvel. I like Star Wars. I talk about them in my sermons. I try to just be a normal person who loves Jesus and loves people. I am unafraid to talk about what is really going on my life, while not airing my dirty laundry. I am simply Andy Stoddard and I try to preach while remaining who I am.
Second, I know that I am imperfect, and I am not afraid to try to get better. I talk too fast. I always have, probably always will. I work on it. I try hard not to. But when I get excited and start “hollering” (what my music minister calls it) sometimes I speed up. I know it and I work on it. The hardest thing for a preacher to hear sometimes about a message is criticism. It’s hard for me to hear, but I need it. I want people to know Jesus, and I know that the sermon is a great tool in that, so I want to know where I can get better. I want to know where I can improve. I don’t always like it, but I need it.
Third, I follow a plan. Sometimes it is the lectionary, but not always, and not normally. We’ve just finished eight weeks in Philippians at St. Matthew’s. We are entering into a series on fear and commitment now. Next month we’ll be in the lectionary and will stay with it through Advent. What I do not do is just pick a passage of scripture at the last minute. I pray about where my flock is at this moment. Where am I at this moment? I talk with my associate pastors: what do they think? What feedback do they have? And then I plan at least a month out what we will preach on.
Fourth, I know my people. Preaching is an act of pastoral care. For me to properly share the word with my people, I must know them and love them. They must know that I love them. I am their shepherd. Preaching flows from my love of God and my love of my people. What do they need to hear to grow? Sometimes it’s encouragement. Sometimes it’s a kick in the pants. But it always comes down to what I feel they need to hear. My pastoral heart guides my preaching. My people know I love them and because of that, they are more likely to listen to what God wants to say through me.
Last, I say what Jesus wants me to say. The scariest as well as the most exciting moment of ministry is when you get up to preach on Sunday and the Lord says nope, you’re not preaching that. In fact, you are preaching this right here. That has only happened to me about four or five times in twenty years of ministry, when God has upended my preaching. Even though it cuts against the grain of what I do, I always follow in those moments, because my preaching is not about me or what I want to say. One of my professors in seminary used to say that the preacher needs to be able to say, “thus sayeth the Lord,” knowing they are saying what God wants, not what they want. That is my mission each week in the pulpit. What does God want me to say? Will I say it? That’s my job.
In the end, I’m an adequate preacher. There are folks worse than me and there are many, many, many who are better than me. I have worked hard at this calling, though. The best words about preaching were said by Dr. Harold Bryson, Professor of Homiletics at Mississippi College: “Prepare like it depends upon you. Preach knowing it depends upon God.” I’ve tried to do that within my ministry and I believe it is key for all of us preachers. Let’s do our job. But we know that the harvest, the revival, is God’s.
Also, take heart! If God can speak through Balaam’s donkey, God can speak through any of us!