Frank W. Sherman appreciated a good sermon.
He wanted it Bible-based. He wanted it to hit home. He wanted the preachers who stepped into the pulpits of United Methodist churches to inspire their listeners.
And he was willing to put his money where their mouths were.
Rev. Gene Zimmerman, a retired pastor in the Florida Conference, remembers how the Institute of Preaching came to be.
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“I was part of the original group” that founded the program, he said, noting that the institute began in the 1980s. Zimmerman was then preaching at Southside UMC in Sherman’s hometown of Jacksonville.
“He said he’d heard enough poor preaching in his life that he wanted to help,” Zimmerman recalled.
Sherman had had a successful career in banking. In 1984, he and his wife, Helen, who both died in 1997, established scholarships for United Methodist seminary students who go to Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.
“He stopped me one day and said he had an idea that a lot of laypersons would like to go to seminary,” Zimmerman said. Sherman’s original idea was to establish a seminary program in Jacksonville, but that didn’t work out. Eventually, the Shermans decided to fund scholarships for students at Candler.
The Shermans also funded a continuing education program, Institute of Preaching, for practicing clergy in the Florida Conference. Originally it brought seminary professors and talented preachers together once a year with pastors interested in honing their preaching skills.
Today the institute, coordinated by Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, incorporates those same elements but adds a component of critiques from lay volunteers.
And the program started by the Shermans in Florida has since been exported to Cuba, the Bahamas and Haiti. Using grants from the Institute of Preaching Fund, experts from Candler have traveled to the islands to share tips on sermon preparation and delivery, along with theological education. The grants also help defray travel and lodging expenses for the local pastors who attend.
Both the Bahamas and Haiti have far fewer ordained clergy to tend the flocks than do typical U.S. conferences, said Zimmerman, who has led numerous mission trips to the Bahamas. Congregations rely largely on lay pastors to lead them in worship.
Frank Sherman’s goal of “sharp, on target, biblical preaching” has continued through his financial legacy, Zimmerman said.
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.