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Nora Tubbs Tisdale, the Elizabeth M. Engle Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship

The teaching of preaching and worship is, for me, not only a calling and source of great joy; it is also a sacred trust that I carry out on behalf of the church of Jesus Christ. In teaching these disciplines, I find myself dealing with those holy acts that lie at the very heart of the church’s life, forming and reforming it for ministry and mission.

I enjoy teaching preaching and worship because they are integrative and imaginative acts. They not only require students to be able exegetes of biblical texts; they also require students to be able exegetes of congregations. Preaching and worship not only require students to be grounded in the theology and history of the church through the ages; they also require students to interpret that faith with imagination and intelligence for a new day. They not only require students to think about the faith; they also require them to embody it, to confess the faith that is within them.

I often tell students that preaching is one of the most vulnerable acts we engage in. When we preach, like it or not, we reveal far more about our own faith and life than we know. Consequently, the teaching of preaching needs to be undertaken with great sensitivity and care. My own mantra and aim in the classroom, as well as in the pulpit, is to “speak the truth in love.” It is critical that the classroom be a place where truth-speaking can take place and where students can receive honest feedback on their sermons and designs for worship. It is equally critical, however, to build communities in which critiques are offered in a spirit of building up, rather than tearing down, and in which the motive for such speaking is one of compassion for the preacher and for the church.

In recent years, three areas have become focal for my own scholarship and teaching of preaching. Each of these areas of interest has arisen out of my own life experience in the church — as a preacher/pastor, as a woman, and as a scholar/teacher.

Preaching and its congregational and cultural contexts

I began my ordained ministry serving, with my husband, Al, as pastor of four small congregations in central Virginia. During those years I began to realize that while my seminary training had well prepared me for exegeting biblical texts, I was far less able to “exegete” congregations, and to preach a word that was not only faithful to the Gospel, but also fitting and transformative for the small, rural, and diverse congregations I was serving. Consequently, I have devoted a great deal of my scholarly work to identifying means by which local pastors can become better exegetes of congregations and their cultures, and reflecting on what such exegesis means for the theology and the art of preaching.

The title of my recent book Preaching As Local Theology and Folk Art accurately reflects the direction in which my research has taken me. Preaching is not only an act in which pastors reflect upon the theology of the ages and bring it to bear in their sermons; it is also an act of “constructing local theology” in which the preacher listens deeply to her/his congregation, discerning through a “thick description” of the signs and symbols of its corporate life the “local theologies” that are evident within it, and preparing sermons that, at their best, are theologically “transformative” for a particular body of God’s people. In like manner, contextual preaching is more like a “folk dance” (my operative image is the Big Circle Mountain Dancing of Appalachia) than the performance of a ballet (in which people go away marveling over the skills of the performer). In contextual preaching, the leader of the dance of faith stays close to the ground of the congregation, using examples, images, language, and forms that enable the local community of faith to want to put on their own dancing shoes and join in.

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Women and preaching

Because I grew up in the life of the church at a time when women were often either discouraged from lifting their own voices in the pulpit, or actually forbidden to do so, I have a special concern for women and issues related to them in preaching. Some years ago I developed a course called Women’s Ways of Preaching, which I have regularly taught — not only as a continuing education course for women clergy, but also as a course for seminarians. One of my goals in that course is to provide “safe space” in which women can freely and openly discuss issues of concern for them in preaching. Among the issues we have discussed are call to ministry (and the painful ways in which women’s calls are still denied or discouraged in today’s church); authority in preaching (and the ways in which women redefine it); gender and speech issues in preaching (and both the possibilities and challenges posed when women’s speech patterns — such as the more frequent use of qualifiers and hedges — find their way into the pulpit); and the use of experience in preaching (and both the liabilities and unique gifts women bring to the pulpit in this regard).

In addition to writing articles specifically devoted to this topic I am also seeking to celebrate the gifts of women preachers by serving as editor for the next three volumes of The Abingdon Women’s Preaching Annual (first volume due for publication in the spring of 1999). This lectionary-based annual will include the sermons of women in a variety of denominations and ministry locations, as well as aids for worship designed by women.

Preaching and the life of worship

One of my own commitments in teaching is to help students think about preaching within its larger locus of Christian worship. To that end I not only share (with my colleague, James Kay) in the teaching of a basic course in Reformed worship; I also teach courses that try to integrate preaching and worship and that require students to practice the preparation of entire worship services.

I am also beginning to reflect more deeply on the questions pastors and seminarians continually pose about the multicultural and contemporary challenges regarding worship that are facing pastors today, and on some of the markers (theological, historical, liturgical, contextual) that might help pastors navigate the worship “shoals” with integrity, intelligence, and care. One of my current projects is the editing, with my colleague in biblical studies, Brian Blount, of a volume of essays written by our faculty that will address issues of multiculturalism and worship from biblical, theological, and pastoral perspectives.

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