Letter to Pastor Kennedy on the topic of Sermon Originality

Letter to Pastor Kennedy of Foothills Community Church
On the topic of sermon originality.

15 February 2008

Dear Pastor Kennedy,

My family and I visited Foothills Community Church last month (13 Jan) as part of a project we’re doing, introducing our cradle-Episcopalian daughter to the wider body of Christ before she decides to be confirmed in the Episcopal church. As part of the project, I’ve been writing reflections about the different churches we’ve visited. I wanted to link back to the scripture you referenced that Sunday in your sermon “Some Errors That Will Ruin Your Faith”, and so I googled “Colossians 2: 16-23.″ I was surprised to find Ray C. Stedman’s sermon “The Things That Can Ruin Your Faith.”

The similarities between the two sermons make it apparent that Stedman influenced your thinking. As an English professor and a writer, using the ideas of others is something I’ve often done, but always with attribution. This got me to wondering what the ethics of borrowing are on the theology side of the house, and my brief research led me to a vigorous and interesting current debate.

On one side of the debate, there’s Steve Sjogren, who urges pastors, in his essay by the same name, “Don’t Be Original–Be Effective!” and goes on to tackle the question of what is heavy borrowing, good stewardship of time, and effective with an audience. He, like Rick Warren, advises pastors to focus on effectively connecting with “not-yet believers”, and not to fall prey to the pride of originality.

On the other side, Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, suggests that there’s an “implied agreement with the congregation” that the sermon is original.

As a cradle evangelical, it’s always been my perception that the central focus of the service is the sermon. Many of the writers in the debate on sermon originality point to the “primacy of preaching” as one of the key components. Pastors in all denominations are called to do a huge variety of jobs (from preaching to pastoral care, administration to maintenance of the physical plant), and it’s always been my thought that only the very few excel in all of these areas. Our last priest was a great speaker and administrator, but not a great manager or pastor. The one before that was very pastoral, but had no aptitude for the practicalities of administration or finances.

I can see how leaning on the work of others would be beneficial to a pastor whose week only contains the same 168 hours the rest of us have, but whose job pulls him in different directions. Even Augustine suggests preachers memorize the works of others for delivery. My father tells me that, at his old church, the pastor’s contract specifically set aside 20 hours a week for sermon preparation, which I’m not convinced would actually free someone to concentrate solely on a sermon, but definitely shows the desire of the congregation to support that particular work of their pastor.
I guess I’m ultimately writing to ask several questions, all of which stem from my curiosity:

What is your perspective on the use of other people’s works? Has your view changed over time? Is it a personal decision? Or is it something that developed within the leadership of Foothills Community Church? Or is it a practice embraced by Village Missions? Or, conversely, did Ray Stedman’s thoughts on this particular passage at this particular time speak to you?

What is the rational behind it? ( Sjogren suggests its use for effectiveness in delivery, others suggest it for stewardship of time. Does it enable you to work more effectively in the other roles you have as pastor?).

Are there any implications for the role of the pastor? (As we’ve been exploring churches, I’ve noted that many larger churches have the roles of the clergy spread between several pastors, so some are called to preach, others to provide pastoral care, etc. We were part of a small group of churches in rural western New York that decided to embrace what’s called “Total Common Ministry” where folks were called from the congregations to fill portions of the role usually designated for a full time priest, as the two priests the churches were sharing were reaching retirement age. What these larger churches are doing is similar, but on a full time, multiple-staff scale).

How common is the practice? (If Augustine championed it, it can’t be all that new, even if it’s new-to-me. Obviously, there’s a bunch of people trading thoughts on the subject online, and a number of reasons on both sides to embrace or reject it, and I guess this question assumes you have a wide number of clergy friends with whom you might have had opportunity to explore the issue—but that might be a wholly unfair set of assumptions on my part).

Yours was the first church we visited in this project, and the experience opened up new questions and avenues of thought for me, that have been interesting to research and wrangle with. My parents have enjoyed their time at Foothills thus far (they’ve been in Germany visiting my siblings since the 28th of January. Their Space-A flight with the military landed them in the UK for a week before they were able to get passage to the continent, and they will attempt to make the return trip on Sunday or Monday—but it’s always a bit of an adventure).

Thank you for your consideration of my questions.

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