As a priest takes stock of his or her work in a parish, this question is a common one. No one wants to be boring in the pulpit. Everyone knows that engaging preaching is at the top of the checklist for church shoppers. And so we priests put it at the top of our lists, too, especially when we are evaluating our ministry: Do people seem to be listening in the pew? Is anyone saying anything at the church door? When you get right down to it, is my preaching in OK shape?
A better question might be, am I in OK shape? Not, how healthy is the preaching here, but rather how healthy is the preacher?
For the past few years, Virginia Seminary has offered Deep Calls to Deep, a program intended to strengthen preachers as they proclaim the gospel. The program does not focus on craft or technique but rather on passion, working to deepen preachers’ connection with the Holy Spirit. Deep Calls to Deep Fellows engage intentionally in this process for a year, attending two intensive, week-long Residencies and working regularly with peer groups in between.
While Deep Calls to Deep provides special opportunities for admitted Fellows—the time on the VTS campus, collaboration with program faculty, support for regular peer group meetings—the underlying wisdom of the program is widely applicable. Indeed, the program’s four primary goals can serve as the basis for a self-inventory for any preacher.
- Spirituality: Feeding Your Soul
Deep Calls to Deep aims to replenish preachers through times for prayer, worship, reflection, and contemplation. That work truly begins with an honest assessment of how depleted a preacher is in those areas. Rather than evaluating sermons, a preacher might ask some uncomfortable questions. What’s it like when I pray? How often do I get to experience worship not as a leader but as a participant? The ordination vows include a promise to nourish people from the riches of God’s grace. To what extent have I been able to experience those riches myself? If not, what are the main barriers?
- Imagination: Expanding Your Mind
Power in preaching is generated, in part, from a powerful imagination. Compelling sermons draw on a rich storehouse of images, ideas, and language. Again, the evaluation of sermons begins not with the text itself, but with the raw materials in the preacher’s mind and heart. Have I been reading—and not just deeply, but broadly? Have I been watching movies, encountering poetry, looking at paintings, listening to music, discovering all the ways in which the message of salvation is made incarnate in this world? Have I set myself up to be surprised and delighted by casting a wide net?
- Embodiment: Exploring Your Presence
We tend to think of preaching as an intellectual activity, something that happens from the mouth upward. But take a look down at the entire body that the preacher inhabits. When I think about my preaching, do I attend not only to the words I say but also the embodiment of those words in voice, in posture, in gaze? And when I do think bout embodied preaching, am I talking about hand gestures, or perhaps something more? If embodiment is a part of the sermon, it might also be a part of sermon preparation. Do I read the scriptures aloud, as a congregation hears them? Do I prepare all of my sermons sitting at a computer, or are there other ways?
- Community: Building Relationships
Preaching is by definition not a solitary activity. So it is an irony that the preparation for and evaluation of preaching are so often done in isolation. Deep Calls to Deep aims to foster communal understanding of preaching, not merely through the formation of peer groups but more fundamentally through an understanding that all preaching is collaborative. The health of the preacher, then, is dependent on how connected that preacher is. Do I have peers? Are there people who will not just listen to sermons for me, but who will listen for sermons with me?
Deep Calls to Deep accepts a new cohort of Fellows from around the country each year, and we encourage preachers to visit our website (https://www.vts.edu/page/deep-calls-to-deep/deep-calls-to-deep) to learn more.