In the Free Methodist Church, every annual conference has a ministerial appointments committee. It is this committee’s duty after careful consultation to appoint all ordained personnel to their places of service.
In doing their work the committee usually interviewed one or more representatives from a local congregation. In this interview, the representatives had opportunity to explain the needs of their church and to ask questions regarding the suitability of a particular candidate.
From time to time I was in on those interviews. At other times I had private conversations with the lay persons involved. With a certain regularity I heard the following question: “But can this person preach?”
There were other questions too: does this candidate have skills in giving pastoral care to individuals? Or does he have ability to administer a congregation? Or will she offer visionary leadership?
But the question that came up most often as I recall was, “Can this person preach?”
It seemed clear that lay leaders had an instinct about the pastoral task that made their question perceptive. It wasn’t that other aspects of the work were unimportant. Those speaking for a local congregation usually wanted a well rounded pastor. But, whatever other gifts the prospect might have, if it surfaced that the gift of preaching didn’t exist in some degree of development, interest flagged.
Where did this insight come from? One might say from the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. The power of the Scriptures was rediscovered in that mighty awakening and with it the importance of proclamation and teaching as the minister’s primary tasks.
But it goes deeper. Think of the prophets of the Old Testament – Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, to name only three of many. “The word of the Lord came to me,” they said, or they prefaced their messages with, “Thus says the Lord.” They believed they were proclaiming a divinely inspired word with authority.
This was only further amplified in the New Testament. Jesus came preaching. He sent his apostles out to preach the truth of his kingdom. Paul wrote to the younger Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Later he wrote, “I give you this charge: Preach the word….” (2 Tim. 4:1,2). The primacy of preaching is inescapable in the Scriptures.
A young pastor just out of seminary once admitted to me — after I had done some probing — “I don’t believe preaching is where it’s at.” I asked him, “Where, then, is it at?” His response: “I think it’s in rapping with a few young people informally.” Only after he got the matter straightened out in keeping with the Scriptures did his preaching take on an energy that won him a hearing.
All this is not to say that preaching alone will assure pastoral success. Rapping may have its place, but the four-fold task of the modern pastor is: to preach and teach the word; to offer pastoral care to the flock of God’s people; as a shepherd, to seek the lost; and to administer the church so as to assure it is ordered and has clear purpose.
But it is my lifetime conviction that when the church is in a growth and outreach mode it grows from a Spirit-anointed pulpit outward.
The question, “Can this pastor preach?” doesn’t mean “Is he a brilliant orator?” Or “Does she wow the congregation with her scholarship?” It does mean, “Does this pastor give evidence of having prepared heart and mind to make some biblical truth clear and compelling to the people?” Or, “ Is it obvious that this truth is ordered for delivery and moves her own heart first?”
These are demanding times for pastors everywhere. Congregational expectations are high. Pastors who labor at the crossroads or in an urban enclave find their gifts are unfairly measured against colorful television preachers. Lay officers sometimes fail in that they don’t know how to support and encourage their leader. The drop-out rate is too high.
But the task of leading a congregation in our modern world is still a lofty calling. In spite of the pain and disappointments that sometimes make the road rough, its rewards over the long pull are immeasurably great. And those who pursue it well continue to make the preaching task a sort of lynchpin for all other pastoral duties.
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