An Unprogrammed Friend Discovers the Spirit in Preaching

For most of my life as an unprogrammed Friend, I could never have imagined my present job title. I am a pastor now, and this new role has given me a new understanding of where spoken ministry comes from.

I love the process of preaching. It is a spiritual practice in itself, and it pushes me deeper, forces me to engage. To have to come up with something, and to have a whole week to prepare it—this leaves me in a new place each time, one I wouldn’t have gotten to on my own. Now there is a rhythm to it, but it also includes a struggle.

Early Quakers spurned prepared talks because they did not feel the Spirit present. I confess the Spirit does occasionally feel distant. (As if that never happened in an unprogrammed meeting!) But my experience is that preparation increases the consistency of encountering the Spirit in a message. I see that when I feel it, my congregation can too.

Each Tuesday I look at the lectionary, a scheme that divides the Bible into passages for every Sunday over three years. I look at some commentaries. I let it sink in. Then I think of the people in the church and let their condition be part of the raw material of my thoughts. I ask myself, "What needs to be said?" Very often, I’ll discover that the lectionary passages speak to what I’m feeling in the congregation—but they often take me beyond the place I started.

This is a discipline. Spontaneity sometimes makes me and other unprogrammed Quakers become lazy about discipline. Taking myself back to the lectionary takes me to parts of the Bible I wouldn’t get to. Like a time of silence in the morning, or chanting or yoga, I do it out of commitment as much as inspiration. The commitment makes a space in which I can receive something beyond my own efforts.

I’ve learned that it is more important for me to wrestle with what I have to say than to spend time crafting the words. Sometimes it doesn’t feel right yet on Saturday night, and then there is agony as I toss it over in my brain, looking for what I’m missing. What I have to say is one part of it, but I’m also just beginning to work more on conveying an emotional message as well. Every week I have to find my way back into confidence in the spiritual source.

Early Friends ministers used to talk about coming to meeting prepared. I understand that now in a new way. I have to deeply engage if I am to have something more than embarrassing, empty words on Sunday. It’s a bit of a roller coaster: a mix of hard thinking, the desperation of an impending deadline, and a huge joy when it flows.

"It is like the welling up of a spiritual wave within or a breaking forth of some invisible glory in the soul," wrote John Punshon in Encounter with Silence about his experience of speaking in meeting. He describes waiting until the urge to speak is irresistible. I keep struggling until a similar question is answered: "Is this the right message, yet?"

Now I make up only an outline, but it took almost a year of practice before I felt I could be articulate without writing out the sentences beforehand. My words are not as graceful, but I think I’m connecting better, and it allows me to be more about the spirit of what I’m saying and worry less about the words.

To be about the spirit and less worried with the words—in the end, this is what matters most for spoken ministry in any setting. The rituals of our unprogrammed form sometimes become more sacred than what they are supposed to serve. As humans, we share with all religious traditions this ability to sidetrack ourselves. Our worship—however we do it—is our tool to come back to true north, to open ourselves and live in that Spirit that gives the occasion for true peace and truth. I pray that we can live more fully in this place and come back to it over and over again.

Chris Parker

Chris Parker is a member of Beacon Hill (Mass.) Meeting and pastor of Vernon Union Church, an interdenominational church in Vernon, Vt., as well as a freelance writer. He attends Putney (Vt.) Meeting before church. Chris credits Earlham School of Religion, especially Tom Mullen's preaching class, for preparing him for his pastoral assignment.