The transformative power of preaching

Jen Bradbury
Jun 14 · 5 min read

Both last week and this week we'll be talking about transformational moments in ministry: Moments that have transformed our faith or changed the way we do ministry. Over the next few days, you'll hear from several women in ministry who serve in various capacities - some paid, some volunteer; some in youth ministry, some not – from various denominations around the world.

Today's post is written by Bromleigh McCleneghan. Bromleigh and I were childhood friends who met when her dad was the pastor of the church my family attended. When he was transferred, we lost track of one another until we reconnected via the wonder of Facebook. Today, Bromleigh is herself a Pastor, an Associate for Congregational Life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. A gifted writer, she's also a frequent contributor to the Christian Century and the co-author of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People.

Shortly after I graduated with my M.Div., my Bishop appointed me to a small, suburban congregation as a solo-pastor. The church faced a number of difficulties: an aging and shrinking congregation, a building in need of repair and renovation, a sense of loss and abandonment, frustration and self-defeat in the ongoing lack of financial resources. We had a rough start, the congregation and I; I was there for three and a half years and eventually defined all of that time euphemistically as a “transition period.”

But over time, we came to love each other. We didn’t always like each other, but we tried to love each other: to do our best to understand the complex personhood of everyone in our small community and to both challenge and support each other. We also spent a lot of time learning how to respond to changes and difficulties outside our control. For example, our church was only two blocks from the mighty Des Plaines River, in a community whose ancient sewers were frequently overwhelmed. The trustees and I spent a lot of time sucking up water from the church basement, finding the funds and the will to deal with cracking asbestos floor tiles, and interviewing companies about sealing solutions.

This was a terrible use of time, I thought. This was not what I wanted to do, this was not what my parishioners wanted to do.

There’s no silver lining there; it was terrible. Spending twenty grand you don’t have on asbestos abatement to make sure your building is safe is awful, as is losing groceries in the parsonage when the power goes out for days at a time. When my District Superintendent asked me point blank if I wanted to be appointed to the church for another year, I burst into tears (to the great surprise of both of us).

But despite all that, I learned a lot at that church; it was there that I really became a pastor, and it was there, on a ridiculously weather-effected morning, that I became a preacher.

As a solo pastor, I preached roughly 48 Sundays a year. So while I grew increasingly comfortable in the pulpit, I had always been a manuscript preacher: my preaching professor still tells the story of the first time I tried to go off notes in a class, and got lost, and simply sat down. Preaching without a full out text with nice complete sentences and well thought out transitions terrified me.

I have also long been a last minute sermon writer. I have my texts well in advance, I usually know what I’ll be saying, and I mentally add ideas and sources and find thinkers and stories over the course of the week. But I don’t sit down to write until Friday or Saturday, or, in those days, Sunday in the early morning hours, when the house is quiet and there is no one I can cajole into distracting me.

All this goes to say that one Sunday morning the power was out. Out at the church, out at the parsonage. This was in the years my laptop battery could offer a solid, and infuriating, 90 minutes of power. I could thus access the outline I’d started, but I couldn’t print it, or email it anywhere.

So, I sat down with my ideas and my Bible, and wrote an outline. I stuck a post-it note on the page of the text I wanted to excerpt, and I took a bunch of deep breaths. When the time for worship came – and, of course, we held it, for Christians do not need electricity to gather in His name – I did not stand in the pulpit, but the decision was more practical than any self-imposed referendum on my authority: the sound system was out, as were the lights. I brought a music stand and stood before the gathered people, an even more intimate number than usual in our small congregation, and I prayed, as I always do: May the words of my heart and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

The sermon wasn’t great – as those who love me most never cease to remind me. I can say more with a nice, tight manuscript. But it was preached. And that experience transformed my sense of my own authority as a preacher: I knew what needed to be said on that text for those people that morning, and so I said it. It wasn’t polished, but it was authentic, and thoughtful.

I want to be clear, as someone who thinks lazy preaching is among the worst of the banally evil sins pastors can commit, that my transformative moment was not one in which I realized “Hey, I can wing it and still be okay!” Rather, it was that preaching is not something that I do apart from the rest of my ministry, apart from the rest of my life of faith, apart from the witness of my life. And when I’m authentically, faithfully myself in ministry with a congregation, I can dare to preach what I know, to speak of the meditations of my heart. Craft and forethought are still key, but if I know who I am, and I can see how God is at work in a congregation, and I can hear the whisper of the Spirit’s grace and challenge through the text, then my testimony will be acceptable in God’s sight, regardless of whether it’s preached from a manuscript or notes.

Though the vagaries of the power supply in that town could never be counted on, if I could hold fast to what was good, what was God and what was Gospel, I didn’t need a printer, or internet, or even lights to share the light of Christ.

Other posts in this series:

Jen Bradbury - The transformative power of conflict;

Pam Voves - The transformative power of story;

Elle Campbell - The transformative power of women in vocational ministry;

Gina Abbas - The transformative power of carpet;

Becca Baker - The transformative power of friends;

Rachel Blom - The transformative power of the church;

April Diaz - The transformative power of asking for help;

Rachel Bahr - The transformative power of mission and the work of relationship