What I learned at Pastors’ School

August 1, 2010

Townshend, Elisa, Brent, and Ian at the St. Simons Island Lighthouse

I haven’t been active on my blog this week because I’m currently on vacation at St. Simons Island, Georgia. Earlier this week, I attended Georgia Pastors’ School at the island’s United Methodist retreat center, Epworth-by-the-Sea.

This is my third year attending Pastors’ School. As with previous years, I feel like I’ve learned something I can take back to my church, which will—I hope—make me a better pastor.

The guest preacher for the week was Rev. Dr. Walter Kimbrough, recently retired, who was pastor for many years of Cascade United Methodist Church, a large and historic African-American congregation in Atlanta. Pastor Kimbrough preached at the four worship services throughout the four-day conference.

I had never heard him preach before, although I knew of his reputation within our North Georgia Conference. True to that reputation, he was a strong preacher. He is the kind of preacher about whom you would say that you know you’ve been to church when you’ve heard him. He was passionate, thoughtful, witty, and energetic.

I believe that God taught or reminded me of some things through this experience of hearing him. Maybe this blog entry can serve as a modest virtual pillar—the cyberspace equivalent of the stone Jacob set down in Genesis 28 at Bethel—to help me remember what I’ve learned.

  1. Worship is celebration. It’s other things, too, but it is at least something to be very happy about. Why do we gather each week? Because of what God, who loves us more than we can possibly imagine, has done for us through Jesus Christ. We gather in large part to say “thank you,” and we can hardly say it loudly, enthusiastically, or often enough. As leader of worship, I need to lead people in expressing the gratitude that’s already in their hearts. In order to do that, I need to get out of my own way sometimes—and stop being so self-conscious. Worship is a matter of both the head and the heart. I get too stuck in my head sometimes.
  2. Engage the congregation more. I got the idea of using texting in the service after last year’s Pastors’ School. For the most part, I think that it’s been a creative way to interact with the congregation. But I need to go further. Pastor Kimbrough interacted with us in the congregation in a natural way—using some call-and-response and asking us to repeat a key point until he was sure we got it. Yes, these are natural features of the black church tradition of which Kimbrough is a part, but I can do more of this in my context. I’ve often sensed that people in our Vinebranch congregation want to respond and interact with us pastors and worship leaders more—if only we would lead them! That starts with me. I’m the pastor!
  3. Just talk to the people. Preaching is in some sense a supernatural event because—as we Methodists strongly emphasize—the Holy Spirit speaks through—and above, below, in between, even (sometimes) against—the plain words that we preachers say. I can’t do the work of the Spirit—fortunately, I don’t need to. I can prepare as best I can, but ultimately I need to trust that God will speak God’s word into the hearts of the people. What I can do is to be more direct. Sometimes I tend to be too sophisticated, too cerebral, too mindful of the “rules” of homiletics at the expense of just delivering the gospel truth.

Each of the four sermons that Pastor Kimbrough delivered, for example, were literally three-point expository sermons—currently considered passé in homiletical circles. And he introduced his points with words such as, “This is point number one… Are you ready for point number two?” etc. And he just said his point! There was a refreshing directness to it. I’m not saying that I can, should, or would want to imitate his style, but his example convicts me that I often get more caught up in how I’m going to say something instead of simply saying what needs to be said. Be direct! Say what the Lord has put on your heart to say and don’t worry so much about style!

More to come, I’m sure. These are some initial thoughts. I know this: I want to be the best preacher (and pastor) I can be. Praise the Lord that Jesus is still teaching me!

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