More on Preaching

This article just came down the wire on the teaching of preaching in Episcopal seminaries.

There’s quite a lot I want to say about this—but don’t have the time at the moment. I’ll just let out a few bullet points for now:

  • First, there is a shortage of trained faculty. No kidding… These days there are basically two kinds of preaching profs I’ve seen around and the situation relates directly to how PhD departments of religion are structured. You either have 1) biblical scholars who did preaching as an outside area (like yours truly…) or 2) people who fall into the “religious practices” category which includes things like missions, Christian Ed, etc. The second group doesn’t fall within the classical German way of seeing things and is often considered “lesser.” The key difference between these groups is formation–how they have been trained as scholars. And that includes languages.
  • The biggest problem that I have encountered in my years of being a seminary student, TAing seminary students, and teaching them is that many have difficulty constructing clear English prose. Good writing skills are not necessarily a prerequisite to good speaking and preaching skills–but they sure don’t hurt. As I keep reminding my students, St. Augustine continually emphasized the importance of clarity. He reminds us that eloquence is wonderful and helpful–but not at the expense of clarity!
  • Large amounts of constructive feedback is an essential part of the teaching process.
  • Hethcock says that those who believe a good preacher from the neighborhood can be brought in as an adjunct professor are mistaken. He’s absolutely right. One of the problems that this band-aid fix perpetuates is that a good preacher is not always a good teacher of preaching. Some people are simply born with a talent for fitting words in memorable and meaningful ways. I’m skeptical whether a natural-born preacher can teach others to do what they do the way they do it–but that’s often what we see happening. Rather, all preachers can acquire habits and skills based on the formal and informal rules of rhetoric that enable them to become better preachers. That’s what needs to happen–not an attempted transfer of eloquence. (I’m not saying that naturally gifted preachers can’t teach preaching–I’m just saying that the attempt to teach their own personal style fails more often than not.)

2 thoughts on “More on Preaching

  1. Anastasia

    my eighth grade educated grandfather is a brilliant natural preacher but I don’t think for a second he’d be someone you’d want to have teaching a preaching class. on the flipside, I’m not super thrilled about scary lady’s delivery but she knows how to construct a sermon. And she knows how to teach other people to do it.

    how should a preaching degree fit into a *religion* PhD exactly? honest question.

  2. John-Julian, OJN

    As I have tried to promote any number of times: homiletics classes need long and deep exposure to professional, classical actors!

    These are the people who know the language inside out, they know the sounds, the management of voice, etc., etc. And they also know the audience: that is, they know what will make an impact (and how to project that) and which will just fade away. And they tend to be literate: to know the literature and the breadth of culture.

    In the seminary where I hang out with some regularity, in three years I have only heard four students (reading the lessons at Office and Mass) who are even decent readers – to say nothing of preachers! They just don’t know the language; they don’t know the sounds; they don’t know the poetry or how to make it sing. (I almost choked when I heard one reader speaking of “the mayan bohn bland” – which was Texasese for “the man born blind”…..)

    And – forgive me, young’uns – but this is not surprising: they are surrounded all their lives not by glory, but by nothing but a slam-bam culture, a screech-grunt culture, a twang-flop culture — and where could they ever have met Oedipus, or Lear, or Dr. Johnson, or Thomas More?

    And there is absolutely nothing I can do about it except lament.

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