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 churchs life, forming and reforming it for ministry and mission.
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
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 Gods 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.
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 Womens 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
womens calls are still denied or discouraged in todays 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 womens 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 Womens 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
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