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Time to tweak those preaching skills?

Time to tweak those preaching skills?

Institute of Preaching can help

Pastors usually get a polite thanks from church members who file out of the sanctuary after hearing a sermon that took thought and prayer to put together. They hope each time to connect with their congregations in a meaningful way. But a true critique, good or bad, is unlikely to happen in the brief moments of departure.

"Preaching was something I always enjoyed doing and something I feel like God has given me some gifts for," said Rev. Dan Wunderlich, who became an elder in full connection with the Florida Conference in June 2014.

"Normally you get the 'good job' on the way out the door. But it was something I wanted to work on."
Group shot of pastors in 2013-14 institute
Clergy of varying experience levels and from a wide variety of United Methodist churches are invited to participate in the Institute of Preaching. Pictured is the class of 2013-14. Photo from Duke Divinity School.

Wunderlich is among nearly 20 elders and pastors who will complete the 2014-15 Institute of Preaching this month. The institute helps improve preaching skills during three retreats that include classroom instruction, peer group review and fellowship. Between retreats, there is homework, with a volunteer group of lay people from local congregations who serve as a sounding board.

The institute is presented annually through a partnership with Duke (University) Divinity School in North Carolina. Elders and pastors from the Florida Conference and the Western North Carolina Conference are eligible to apply. For Florida pastors, the experience is funded through an endowment set up by Frank Sherman and his wife, Helen, United Methodist laypersons in the Jacksonville area, before their deaths in 1997.

“I’m just thrilled we can continue to offer this continuing education opportunity,” said Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, Clergy Excellence director for the Florida Conference.

“Those who have completed it have found it to be extremely beneficial and an ongoing improvement on their preaching skills.” 

The application deadline for the 2015-16 Institute of Preaching is May 29. Applications include written materials as well as video-recorded sermons. A committee will review applications in June. Click here to apply.

Workshop leaders will be Christine Burkett, a speech pathologist with 24 years on the Divinity School's faculty; Rev. Nathan Fitzpatrick, managing director of the Alban program at Duke Divinity; and Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish, whose 40 years of pastoral experience include 22 years at Hyde Park UMC, Tampa. He currently lives in Winter Haven.

"The truth is that most preachers don’t receive very much helpful feedback on their preaching and most laypersons don’t know how to offer it," wrote Harnish in an email. 

"The Institute of Preaching retreats create a community of friends in which preachers help each other grow in their skills and are renewed in their calling as preachers. It also engages a group of laity in the congregation in providing support, encouragement and helpful feedback to their preacher. The evaluations we receive consistently underscore the way the experience energizes and equips preachers for this important part of their calling."

Preaching styles are individual choices. Wunderlich said the faculty and peer groups recognize there is no "one-size-fits-all.”

"Their goal is to make you the best preacher you can be in the style that fits you," he said.

Passionate about preaching

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.

“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.

Read more about the origins of Institute of Preaching.
Wunderlich prefers to step away from the pulpit and get close to his congregation. He is pastor at Southwest UMC, Gainesville, and a second church nearby, McIntosh UMC.

"I'm a conversational preacher," he said. "I don't use notes. I'm often informal in my delivery. But I try to undergird that with research."

He said he can get excited when he speaks, and he is working to be aware of tempo and pacing when he preaches.

"It's a high-energy thing," he said. 

Wunderlich said he hesitated at first when asked about applying because of the time involved. But he said, "I just decided to give it a shot and I'm exceptionally grateful. Getting to know other preachers has been really great."

Constructive criticism may be even less likely for a preacher who does not have the week-in, week-out opportunity to stand in front of a congregation and deliver God's message.

Rev. Nako Kellum, associate pastor at Cape Coral First UMC and also an institute participant this year, recalled taking only one class in preaching at seminary.

"I really didn't have a lot of learning of public speaking," she said.

Her first church appointment was in 2008. As associate pastor, she generally preaches about once a month. Her senior pastor recommended she apply for the institute.

"Preaching is not my strength, (but) I like it," she said. "I'm called to preaching wherever that is. I'm called to that."

The institute has been an opportunity to grow and take on challenges, she said. 

"You don't get to hear other preachers' sermons that much," Kellum said. "I think the feedback was the most helpful thing. You preach on Sunday, you don't get much extensive feedback. You are putting yourself on the other side and getting honest feedback that is really helpful."

Rev. Armando Rodriguez Jr., pastor at John Wesley UMC, Tallahassee, has about 26 years of preaching experience. But he said, "With time you can fall into routines, into old structures. It is always good to read new ideas and try new styles."

The institute is not about judging, he said, but about identifying strengths and building on those. "They appreciate my skills and everybody's skills," he said.

In some instances, the comments from peers reinforce particular skills that are effective. That can be as important as recognizing what needs to be changed or improved, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez often builds his sermons around Bible stories. "People appreciate my knowledge of the Bible that I bring into my preaching," he said.

But he plans to work on delivering sermons that also connect emotionally and spiritually through personal stories.

"You are exposed to all kinds of styles of preaching and methods of preparing," Rodriguez said of the institute. "It has been very productive from many points of view. You get exposed to a different new network. I recommend it, even for good and experienced preachers. They will definitely be better. You can always improve."

– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.