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thalia kehoe rowden: does anyone else want a turn?

The most controversial thing about my preaching, as far as my lovely congregation at West is concerned, isn’t that I mention chocolate or facebook in most sermons or that I’m too short for the pulpit, but how often I preach. Or don’t.

Some background: I’m the pastor at West Baptist Church in New Plymouth, a church full of warm, down-to-earth people, planted 20 years ago in the poorest part of town, to build community here and be a place of ‘shelter, faith and laughter.’ We average about 65 people on a Sunday, from a wide range of backgrounds. I’m the only paid staff member, and leadership and responsibility are well devolved, with almost every adult and teenager in the church actively contributing to our life together.

So in this church, I aim to preach about 75% of Sundays, though I usually do more like four out of five.

I’ll outline my reasons below, and then I’m keen to hear what you all think – sole and team ministers, ‘lay’ preachers, listening members of congregations. What would you do? What would you like your minister to do? What’s a wise pattern of preaching in a church like ours? What about in a church like yours?

Here’s why I think 75% is a good number for us:

  1. It’s important that the community hears other voices than mine. Other preachers bring different emphases, experiences, and styles that give our congregation a richer, more varied diet.
  2. There are currently five other people in our preaching team, none of whom preach for a living. That’s five people who would never get a chance to develop their gift for preaching if I preached every week.
  3. This may not reflect well on me, but it also lifts my game to be training and developing other preachers. My first narrative sermon after I’d led a workshop on narratives was my best in ages as I was spurred on by their enthusiasm (and knew they would be listening critically!).
  4. Having more than seven days between sermons helps my freshness and creativity, so my congregation gets better sermons than they would if I were preaching every week.
  5. I’m the sole pastor with pastoral responsibility for about 120 people in the church, and another few thousand in our suburb. I can do an awful lot more pastoral care, community building, planning, chatting, reading, writing, praying, insert-activity-here-ing in a non-preaching week.

Over the last year or so, we have been focusing at West on developing ‘7 day faith‘, where Sunday fuels Monday-Saturday living and vice versa – not revolutionary, but foundational.

How often the pastor preaches feels like a test of how serious we are about this. If we think the Sunday service is the point of church life, then it makes sense for our ‘professionals’ to be always on duty in the pulpit. If we think that Sunday is our opportunity to worship together, equip and encourage each other to build the kingdom of God in our patch of earth, 7 days a week, and that’s the point of church, then we’ll want our ‘professionals’ to have plenty of time to spend shaping our Monday-Saturday life, and we’ll be glad to have other people sharing the preaching.

There’s a balance to be found in here somewhere. What’s the magic number?

* * *

Thalia Kehoe Rowden is an awesome parallel parker and the pastor of New Plymouth West Baptist Church, a place of shelter, faith and laughter.

9 Comments

  1. Joseph says:

    This raises more questions in my mind. Maybe/surely there are forty or more people in your congregation who have an important message that can be shared? Maybe they just need some work at deepening/clarifying/sharpening their message so it can change lives with more impact before they step up and give it a go? i.e. How professional do people really need to be in order to make their testimony about their relationship with God touch hearts? Are there some young children who have a prophetic word that needs to be heard? Are we interested in raising up leaders with hearts after God with a message for the world or just about refining our own skills? Are we helping God in the formation of girls/boys into women/men or just giving them our image to look up to? Are we being wise and proper in taking God very seriously or restricting his fingers from cultivating a people who need to also grow up into all they can be?

  2. Grant Harris says:

    Hey Thalia, it’s an interesting situation. I guess as far as Baptist Churches in NZ go I’m at the other end of the spectrum from West – leader of a church of several thousand with a large staff team, and in a church with retired preachers and amazing other preachers (Carey lecturers, missionaries to NZ, Christian media personalities). To be honest with you, I was surprised that you get to 75%, I struggle to get to my aim of 70%, in fact last year I sat around 60%, which is a little low for me (we actually had 16 different speakers in our morning services & 19 in our evening services in 2010!). I’m a believer that the Church needs to hear from me as their appointed ‘leader’ the majority of the time, majority to me meaning about 70%. But I think if it was any higher than that then a) I wouldn’t stay fresh, b) they wouldn’t hear other perspectives, and c) they’d get bored of me! As I plan my year I’m conscious of bringing diversity and variety, and allowing others the chance to use their giftings.

    We’ve worked hard, particularly in our evening services (young adult and youth orientated), to develop a culture of growing speakers. When I was at Carey I ran an ‘E2’ event – preach an evangelistic message in 2 minutes, with a bell to cut them off at the end. I still remember George Wielands message 11 years later, it was that great! We’ve done this with our young people a few times, including ‘E2 flick’ where we just flick to any verse in the Bible and then give them 15 minutes to prepare a 2 minute message. I could go on, but developing people to be ‘always ready to answer’ is something that’s important to me and I believe we need to encourage. Taking some risks is all part of the deal, but I’m a risk-taker!

    Good thoughts Thalia – keep up the great work at West!

    Grant.

  3. Ooh, great thoughts, thanks Joseph and Grant!

    Joseph, you’re quite right, there are plenty more people who have something to offer the community, and we work hard to give them opportunities. Anyone is welcome to join the preaching team (and have ongoing training – this is people for whom preaching is ‘their thing’) or have a go as a one-off, and the same goes for the ‘curators’ who put our services together and lead them on a Sunday. The youngest so far was 12 when he had his first go and is now on the regular roster – he does a great job.

    We also have interviews on Sunday mornings with people who don’t want to stand at the lectern and speak, but who it’s great for us to get to know. This year we’re starting a storytelling series where we will hear from more people who don’t want to try preaching a sermon but can tell us their story.

    We have an all-age, all-stage approach, so the kids are invited to write and share their own prayers for Sunday mornings from around the age of four or five, beginning with praying for the offering. Church folklore says that I was called to the church following an influential prayer by an eight-year-old in the church meeting that was deciding.

    The development of our church website and blog and the emergence of facebook have also given people a voice who aren’t keen on speaking in front of others, but are comfortable making comments in an online discussion – quite a few, in our introvert-rich community.

    I’m always on the look-out for other ideas – perhaps people can share their practices and experiences of how to involve lots of voices in community life?

    But: do you think it’s true that a different person every week, bringing what they have to offer, would always and necessarily nourish the community well, or that every community would be full of people who want to speak? I was coming from the perspective, in the post, of justifying how ‘little’ I preach, but I’d also argue there’s value in regularly hearing from people who have set aside more time to study and prepare and train than most people can. What’s your experience? Have you spent time in a community where the teaching/preaching part of life was shared widely in the way you describe? What was it like?

    That brings us to Grant’s point about having not just a well-qualified person, but the ‘leader’ preaching regularly. Grant, could you please unpack further why you think a church needs to hear from its appointed leader regularly in the pulpit?

    Grant, I love your E2 idea! Thanks, will steal that! And yes, given your c) I should really have said 6) leave ’em wanting more (so I don’t outstay my welcome!).

  4. Joseph says:

    Hi Thalia,

    Yes I jumped the gun on that one. Thanks for going all out in your thoughtfulness to clarify what goes on (so well!) in your church Thalia, much appreciated! I particularly like to hear interviews prior to a sermon to hear people’s stories. It feeds community connection (love) πŸ™‚

    Firstly, to answer your main question, I apologise as I actually have no idea about the percentage of times a pastor should preach. Maybe it comes down to the efficiency effectiveness question your highlighting. For others who find preaching, community visits and networking, counseling sessions, etc., (i.e. 50hr+ week), it may be the question of how many days will they last with their current load before they burn their wick down to an ember.

    To answer part of your personal question, I come from a background of where I was initially bored-out of the church. Later on in life I committed myself to a church where only flamboyant speaking leaders are the godly. They set the “standard” and everyone was compelled to be like them. Furthermore, all churches needed to be like them as they actually understood (biblically) the Ephesians Apostolic organic church structure ministry pathway to enlightenment, unlike all other legalistic bound denominational churches (who don’t seem to live in Ephesus like they do). Pity their organic flexibility is actually rather limited as they would be great if they actually listed to other denominational pathways and integrated their thinking. It really would be a two way-blessing.

    I agree, with you that “there’s value in regularly hearing from people who have set aside more time to study and prepare and train than most people can.” My concern is that I had also been to a church for a while where the pastor had been through the same theological degree as me and yet the pastor did very little preparation (often early Sunday morning!). The guy has a beautiful pastoral heart, but the message taught often had cud to chew on. i.e. a number of congregational members could likely preach just as well.

    So in weighing up a church like your own with my other experiences… I currently believe a message preferably needs to be spoken to both the heart and mind of a person – where the preacher knows the congregation as a family, and prepares well to speak to them. In saying that, would a wall/internet schedule planner be worth thinking about, where people in the congregation could write their name in a box under a future preaching schedule. Where people have a say a two-month minimum preparation time for a future scripture passage or topical sermon? The deacons/lay preachers/ex-missionaries/community at large could share the work of helping the upcoming speakers bring their message up to a reasonable level of impact. Naturally, it may also be a healthy option to allow people in home fellowships to lead a discussion a couple of times prior to the pulpit.

    I think my own underlying motive is, “What can we do to help the church (people) grow in numerical influence?” i.e. If we had churches where people were becoming confident gospel sharers, how many more house-groups and church-plants would we have?

  5. Grant Harris says:

    Thalia, my response to the question ‘why do I think a church needs to hear from its appointed leader regularly in the pulpit’ depends upon your view of leadership, which will differ from person-to-person. About a year ago I thought through the process of having a ‘teaching pastor’, i.e. someone who would do the majority chunk of the preaching/teaching and that would be their sole responsibility (but adding around that other things that will add to the preaching/teaching Monday – Saturday like home resources etc.), but my Elders felt that at this time the community needed to hear that from me, as I communicate vision through my preaching / teaching. In most Baptist Churches in NZ the pastor is appointed to lead, vision cast etc. and a big part of doing this is through the pulpit. I”m not altogether convinced by that, but that’s the culture I’m in – in the future I’ll challenge that, but only being 2 years in the job it’s fair enough for a little while as we go through change and dream for the future.

    I”m right into all that story telling etc., but are increasingly using media to deliver that – if you look at our website under ‘sermons and media’ you’ll see 3 video’s we made for our Christmas Eve services – the benefit of using media is that it can be used again in a variety of contexts, as these days I think most of us would say that up to 50% of people are away on any given week, so if you have a ‘live’ story, a lot of people miss it.

    The other thing we’re trialling this year is coordinating all our preachers in one theme. In any given month we have 5 different ‘service contexts’ (3 morning services, 5pm service, 6.30pm service, Tuesday evening service, monthly Thursday morning service). These services are all run by different people and up until now we’ve all done our own thing – but this year I’ve coordinated all our themes so we’ll present the same theme, just stylistically different according to our own styles. Later this year we’re introducing this same theme to our kids ministry and ultimately to our youth ministry; in this way the whole community will be journeying together on the same theme, with an added focus to providing Monday-Saturday resources along the same lines within a new ‘spiritual growth’ model we’re working on (well it’s not new, but new to a local Church!).

    I guess my summary is that you have to work out what works best in your own context. I do that by involving heaps of other people, getting their ideas, using their wisdom etc. – even in that way I’m involving a lot of people who are gifted in many areas.

    It’s all good fun!

    Grant.

  6. Mark Maffey says:

    Hi Thalia, as an occasional preacher albeit with a B.Min and two years of Paul W’s preaching class behind me, I appreciate opportunities to preach when they come along. But at the same time I think that it is important that the Pastor/s of a church be preaching in the 70% range, this ensures continuity and the opportunity for series to be done which the Pastor believes to be in line with the vision and needs of the congregation they are ministering.

    I have seen churches where the sanctity of the pulpit has not been respected, and pastors need to be careful to ensure that members/visiting speakers are able and are speaking on topics which are both relevant and drawn from scripture.
    It is important to have a structure along the lines of what Joseph was suggesting, ” In saying that, would a wall/internet schedule planner be worth thinking about, where people in the congregation could write their name in a box under a future preaching schedule. Where people have a say a two-month minimum preparation time for a future scripture passage or topical sermon? The deacons/lay preachers/ex-missionaries/community at large could share the work of helping the upcoming speakers bring their message up to a reasonable level of impact. Naturally, it may also be a healthy option to allow people in home fellowships to lead a discussion a couple of times prior to the pulpit.”

    The twin pillars of testimony also apply to preaching that they edify/build up the congregation, and that they Glorify God in what they are doing. May we all aspire to be David’s prayer in Ps. 19v14.

  7. Ahoy there blog readers πŸ™‚

    I’d be very keen to hear from all of y’all what your approach is. Pastors, preachers, congregational listeners, what do you think is wisest when it comes to who preaches and how often?

    Thanks!

  8. Jonathan Weir says:

    Very interesting Thalia. Do you think Andrews previous post is another good reason not to make yourself the ‘sole voice’ in the conversation? In my case one of the secrets to longevity in the pulpit has been determining how much is enough ‘for me’ as well as how much is enough for my church family. I have often had to weather the storms of ‘why isn’t Jonathan preaching more?’ that blow my way. The honest truth is, I have limitations – physically, spiritually, mentally … not to mention perspectival (you make that point well). My approach has been: Talk with my elders, think long term about sustainability, resist expectations (mine and others), build a team of voices. But also to realize and celebrate the awesome responsibility of being given a gift that needs regular exercise for the health of the body.

  9. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    Hi Thali,
    This post interested me so I had a look back.

    I preached 69% in my 1st year and 64% in my second. I haven’t thought about it in % before.
    I tend to try not to do more than 4 weeks in a row. By the time I put in special things & breaks it just seems to work out. I am mentoring some youth leaders in preaching using PW’s materials & that’s been a lot of fun. Four of them tag teamed in August & this year they are preaching in two’s.

    I have a number of people in my congregation who are interested in learning to preach so I’m hoping to maybe have a Sunday afternoon group doing this this year, using Carey stuff etc. Like you I find mentoring others stimulates me to better practice πŸ™‚

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