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interview with viv coleman

Viv – you have been a Presbyterian minister for decades in NZ and in later years involved in a Baptist church. You were also involved for a number of years in the assessment of candidates for vocational ministry training.

What have you been doing more recently?

These days I am self-employed as a ministry coach, an all-encompassing term that covers leading services and supervising pastors, resourcing discipleship training and writing about management in the church. I’m married to Ric, an Auckland GP, and we have four children and seven grandchildren. And I am still bi-denominational!

Reflecting on that – what are your observations about the place and health of preaching in NZ?

I still passionately believe the Ministry of the Word is our key calling as pastoral leaders. If a person doesn’t want to preach, I would be reluctant to approve them for ordination studies. There needs to be that ‘fire in the belly’, even from an introvert! That said, the contexts for that ministry have changed so much that very different skills are required from when I trained in the early seventies. Ministers who receive formal training through Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership (Presbyterian) or Carey Baptist College today seem to be well-equipped, although preaching is a ministry in which we are, or should be, learning all the time. (Who would have thought that we would be competing with TED Talks on YouTube? But we are). My main concern with the health of preaching in New Zealand is the fact that many small churches must rely on Local Ministry Teams of people who may or may not have any past or ongoing theological education. Some of the lay-led sermons I have heard have been under-prepared, poorly-presented or filled with cringe moments of unawareness of context.

What is important to you when you prepare and deliver a sermon?

  • First you need to be praying about what God wants this group of people to hear from him at this time. This insight is a leadership gift.  Is the congregation undergoing a change of some sort? a financial crisis? a pastoral difficulty? These may or may not be mentioned explicitly but they need to be in your mind and heart. Is the date relevant – what is the time of the church year or the ‘uncommon lectionary’? For me, as a visiting preacher these days, I need to know the expectations for length and depth; fifteen minutes will be a very different task from a 30 minute message.
  • You need a Biblical passage with a “big idea”, even if the sermon is a topical or seasonal one (eg Mother’s Day). You also need to note other relevant passages as you do your prep; in some churches these will be your second “Reading”.
  • I start prayerful creative thinking some weeks before, and take a note of ideas or illustrations that come to me on the treadmill or in the car. I might take a look at a commentator such as Tom Wright but mostly I leave that studious dimension till when I have 10 – 12 hours for hermeneutic homework available.
  • I won’t go into detail about that long hard mental and spiritual work, as it is what training is all about. I still do a literal ‘cut and paste’, starting on the floor with A3 sheets and coloured markers. And I do run the message through some filters before I feel finished. Say, is this aimed at information or transformation? Does it include something from my own journey? Does it take account of what is happening in the city or the world? Will it make sense to an unchurched person or one with English as a second language? Does it need an opportunity for personal response?

It can be notoriously difficult to gauge the effectiveness of a sermon; but what indicators do you look for to ascertain how your preaching has been received?

I agree that this is a challenge, and have noticed that I am quite vulnerable for the first 24 hours after a service. But body language, verbal comments and encouragement from colleagues are all indicators. It’s also a huge blessing when weeks later someone quotes what I said back to me! In the end its Gods message, and my contribution is only one piece of what he is speaking into people’s lives.

Do you have any favourite authors who have aided you in preaching?

The aforementioned Tom Wright, as well as Walter Brueggemann, Marva Dawn, Lynne Baab, and F. Dale Bruner. And good old Barclay. Because I never get to do a preaching series these days, it’s harder to get much mileage from recent books. Instead, I often serially blog about a book such as “Seven Practices for the Church on Mission” which I am working through presently.

What was one the most memorable sermons you preached?

Interestingly a church member told me just recently of one that has stuck in her mind for years. It was about money! I used a framework from a Lynne Baab sermon and applied an idea that I had seen at church in California. That message was about evolution and had three chairs up front signifying different valid viewpoints on Creation Science. I used three chairs to represent three Christian friends who see money in different ways.  The headings were: Money as a Blessing (generosity as worship), Money as a Danger (generosity as discipleship,) and Money as a Tool (generosity as partnership in the gospel). All are Biblical and we need to respect those different perspectives in the church. The Biblical starting point was the early church and 2 Corinthians 8/9. It was very appropriate for a time when we were asking the church for increased giving.

I have to ask 😊 – what was one of the most forgettable?

I have of course forgotten! But in the early days of data technology I prepared a renewal sermon based around photos of an earthquake and a volcano recovering their flora and fauna. The projector didn’t work and I learned the hard way never to write a sermon that extensively relies on digital images.

What is some of the best advice you would give to preachers?

Love God, love people,  love study.

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