Let’s Talk About Weddings

I rarely visit with a pastor who enjoys doing weddings. Just mention weddings to a group of pastors and you hear things like this:

  • “It takes the whole weekend: Friday rehearsal, Saturday wedding, and boom—Sunday is here.”
  • “Everybody wants a Princess Di wedding these days. Couples are more concerned with how things look than what it means.”
  • “Many of the couples don’t take premarital counseling seriously.”
  • “I feel like rent-a-preacher.”
  • “Weddings? I’d rather do a funeral any day.”
  • And “You never know about the mother of the bride.”

Enjoy them or not, they are part of our duties as pastors. They provide an opportunity to deepen relationships with a church family, provide leadership to help a couple build a better marriage, and offer a gospel opportunity in the wedding sermon/devotional. In short, weddings give a pastor another avenue to shepherd the people toward Jesus.

I have mixed emotions when it comes to doing weddings. The better I know the couple and the family, the more I enjoy doing their wedding. I’ve been pastor where I am long enough that I have married persons who I visited at the hospital on the day of their birth. Those weddings mean a little more. Lots of shared history and experience together. I feel like they are family. It helps me, too, because I will only marry persons with whom I have connection. I haven’t been rent-a-preacher in years. At least two or three times a year, I get a call at the office: “Hey, pastor, we’re going to be in Hot Springs two Saturdays from now, and we’re looking for a Baptist preacher to do our wedding. Will you do it?” I feel zero guilt and remorse when I say, “No thanks.” If a person is connected to the church, I am glad to be part of the wedding. If they are not, there are plenty of rent-a-preachers available.

That said, let me chart out some things to think in regard to pastors and weddings:

If the church doesn’t have a wedding policy, help the church formulate one. Policies protect both the church and the pastor. Policies detail who can be married in the church and who can perform weddings in the church, a requirement (or not) to use the church wedding coordinator, calendar considerations, costs, premarital counseling expectations, A/V and custodial requirements and costs. Some policies even spell out the kind of music that can be played. The key in any policy statement is detailed enough to provide clear direction on the things that matter most to a church but general enough to provide a little wiggle room.

Determine your personal positions on issues like these: interfaith weddings or where one of the couple is not a Christian; how you will respond to a couple that is already living together before marriage; how you think about things like doing the Lord’s Supper for the couple only during the ceremony; what you will do if after getting acquainted with the couple, you’re convinced the marriage is a bad idea.

Determine what you will expect of the couple in regard to premarital counseling. Some churches offer required classes. If you do the counseling, how many sessions and what is your plan? Will you use some kind of standardized testing? Will you require any outside reading or homework assignments between sessions?

Know your role in the wedding rehearsal. These days, many churches provide coordinators or the couple hires a coordinator. If a coordinator is employed, what is your role. Personally, I prefer to run the rehearsal. If the wedding is in the church, I do run the rehearsal. I know how to do it. I do it well. I get everybody ready for the wedding day. I’m efficient. But these days, more and more weddings are in non-church venues. In that case, I tell the coordinator that while she/he is in charge of the overall rehearsal, I will take charge once we get the wedding party in their places. It works well. As to the rehearsal dinner, sometimes I go, sometimes I don’t.

Develop a wedding day ritual. I like to get there at least 30 minutes before the wedding, check in with the coordinator, check on the wedding party, and refresh my thoughts for the sermon/devotional. I like to share an appropriate Scripture, keep my words brief and to the point (5-10 minutes), keep it as personal as I can, and insert the gospel in the process. For years, I rarely mentioned the gospel. I’ve tried to remedy that in my old age. A wedding is as much a gospel opportunity as a funeral. After the service, I ask the photographer if he/she can take my picture with the couple first. I’ve yet to encounter one who wouldn’t do that. When I was younger, I went to more receptions. Of course, most receptions in those days were in the church. Fewer and fewer receptions are in the church now. So I may or may not go to a reception. I’ve yet to have anyone complain if I didn’t show up.

Consider your attire: make sure you own a black suit (a marrying and burying suit, as one preacher called it). Black is always appropriate. Of course, some couples prefer more casual attire. Check with the couple about that. I learned from my wife to ask about the bridesmaids colors, so I can pick a tie that doesn’t clash.

And what about taking an honorarium for your work? My policy, as I tell the couple during premarital counseling, is that I don’t want to be paid to perform their wedding. I consider it part of my responsibility as their pastor. If I pastored a church that didn’t pay very well, I would rethink that policy. I’ve never charged a fee, but I have gratefully received whatever a family wants to give. These days, since families know my no-charge policy, they tend to give me a gift card of some kind. Most want to do something. Let them.

So there you go: a few thoughts about weddings. What have I missed? What would you add or change?

Some of My Favorite Books on Preaching

Like many of you, I’m an avid reader.  I try to read across disciplines with a few novels thrown in each year.  But I burrow down deeply in the disciplines I most enjoy—preaching and pastoral ministry.  Blogs that list the writer’s favorite books get a read from me almost every time.  I came of age as a pastor in an era when intentional mentoring wasn’t much of thing.  Pastors tended to be more suspicious of each other, competitors with each other.  Count me as one who is glad to see that era mostly gone.  All that to say that most of my mentors in my formative years as a pastor were authors.  So books mean a lot to me.

Could I tell you about my favorite books on preaching?  If you know much about these books, you’ll notice that they tend to reflect a more right-brained approach to preaching—image driven, use of imagination, narrative style, word-precision—more a running train of thought than a sequencing of points.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I am not criticizing traditional three-point preaching.  When the text calls for it, I preach that way too.  I don’t know exactly how I would describe my “style.”  Words like expository, text-driven, text-centered, theological, all describe preaching styles.  Not everyone interprets those words the same way, however.  I guess I would describe my preaching as “biblical”—a prayerful attempt to preach the meaning of the text in the genre and mood and tone that text.  As most preachers desire, no matter their style of preaching, I want the church to learn something, feel something, and do something as they engage with the text and the sermon.  Experience has taught me that when the head and the heart take hands, they can move the will in the right direction. 

Every preacher is familiar with Phillips Brooks’ definition of preaching from his 1877 Lyman Beecher lectures on preaching at Yale: preaching is “truth through personality.”  As we learn to preach, we tend to mimic those preachers we like the best.  Over time, a preacher finds his/her voice.  My preaching reflects my voice.  That’s why people who know me would say I’m the same person in the pulpit and out.  I preach the Scriptures out of the personality God has formed in me, shaped by my internal wiring and by my experiences.  Most of my favorite books reflect preachers whose “voice” resonates with mine.  They speak to mind and heart and will.  But I suppose I need to say: I may not agree with everything in every book, but these are the preaching books that continue to visit me in my mind when I’m putting a sermon together.  Here are those books …

  • Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages by Haddon Robinson.  If I could only own one book on preaching, this would probably be it.  Published in 1980, it is now in its third edition.  I’ve tried to read everything Robinson wrote on preaching.
  • Preaching by Fred Craddock.  This is his “textbook” for preaching.  Craddock was unique among preachers.    He was much criticized for his book As One Without Authority for his inductive approach to the text.  But Fred could preach, and he could teach preaching with the best of them.  I have also tried to read everything Craddock wrote on preaching.
  • Homiletic: Moves and Structures by David Buttrick.  Buttrick greatly influenced the way I understand sermon structure.  This is a technical book not so well known as books by Robinson and Craddock, but it is worth wrestling with.  At least it was for me.
  • Preaching the Literary Forms of the Bible by Thomas Long.  I try to read everything Long writes about preaching too.  His “textbook” on preaching is The Witness of Preaching, but I chose Literary Forms because Long got on this approach before everyone else.  Now it’s common for preaching profs to encourage a strong look at genre in structuring a sermon.  It wasn’t so common when Long wrote this book in 1989.  The concepts of this book are in my head every time I wrestle with a text for preaching.
  • Celebration and Experience in Preaching by Henry Mitchell.  African-American pastors know this book.  We white pastors need to know this book.  Mitchell helps us see how the sermon is not just a part of worship; it’s an act of worship.  We white preachers won’t be able to pull off celebration in preaching like our black brothers and sisters, but we can learn from Mitchell and appropriate what we can.
  • The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Even those of you who don’t believe a woman should preach would benefit from Taylor’s experience and learn a little something from her preaching style (saying a lot with few words) in the sermons she includes in the last part of the book.
  • Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness by Jeffrey Arthurs.  You may not know of this recent book, but Arthurs explains and demonstrates the importance of vivid language, story, delivery, and ceremony to preach sermons that stir believers to live their faith.

For my more left-brained pastor friends, two indispensable books are …

  • John Stotts’ Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century
  • And Tim Keller’s Preaching: Communicating the Faith in an Age of Skepticism.

I’m suspecting that John Piper’s new book Expository Exaltation will be another strong book on preaching in a more left-brained style.  I plan to read that this year.

Finally, I would also recommend the following books to provide a wide range of preaching possibilities:

  • Spirit, Word, and Story: A Philosophy of Preaching by Calvin Miller.
  • Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness by Jeffrey Arthurs. 
  • Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon by Bryan Chapell.
  • On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation and Practice of Preaching by H. B. Charles, Jr.
  • The Homiletical Plot by Eugene Lowry.
  • Preaching for the Rest of Us by Robby Gallaty and Steven Smith.
  • Peculiar Speech by Will Willimon.

So, what’s your next read as you seek to improve as a preacher?  These books provide a wide range of preaching insight.  Could I challenge you to read two books on preaching this year?

And because I’m always looking for good books on preaching, what would you add to this list?  What are your favorite books on preaching?  Feel free to comment below.

On Sleeping in Church

It’s been said that preachers are a group of people who talk in somebody else’s sleep. It happens—probably happens every Sunday most everywhere. Somebody in the congregation or the choir nods off to dreamland. This is nothing new. One of my favorite stories in Acts is the story from Troas in chapter 20, where Paul, planning on leaving the next day, and having still much to say, preached all night long. A young man named Eutychus moved during the preaching to sit in a window. Was he feeling sleepy? Maybe the smoky haze of burning lanterns called for some fresh air. Who knows? But we do know this: while sitting in the window listening to Paul drone on and on, Eutychus fell asleep and out the window—a three-story fall that killed him dead. But not to worry, the church rushed down to him, and Paul raised that boy from the dead. Some wonder if Luke included this story as comic relief, to prove Paul as a prophet in the vein of Elijah and Elisha, or to provide an example of judgment on those who neglect the word of God. Maybe it’s all of those. Being a preacher, I certainly find the comic relief in it—especially since Eutychus would live to sleep in church another day.

Every church has its sleepers. I remember a man in a congregation I served who kept his eyes closed for most of my sermon. He told me it helped him concentrate. I think he was catching a few winks. A friend of mine was in a church where a particular man fell asleep every Sunday. And one Sunday, the man was so deep in his sleep that he slept through the sermon and even the closing hymn. Fed up with it, the pastor called on this sleeper to close in prayer. Sound asleep, he didn’t hear the pastor call. So the pastor called on him again, and the man next to the sleeper grabbed his shoulder, shook him awake, and said, “You’re supposed to pray.” “What? Huh?” The man groggily stood and prayed, “Thank you, God, for the food we’re about to receive.” Thinking he was at lunch, he said a blessing. It happens. It’s never bothered me much when somebody falls asleep during my preaching. I figure that if the church can provide twenty minutes of rest to some worn out soul, then we’re still doing some good.

But not every preacher feels that way. I read a story about sleeping in church that happened in a Puritan church in Massachusetts in June, 1646. I found the story in On This Day in Christian History by Robert Morgan. The Puritans of colonial New England appointed “tithingmen” to stroll among the pews on Sunday mornings, alert for anyone nodding off during the long, often ponderous sermons. They carried long poles with feathers on one end and knobs or thorns on the other. Worshipers napped at their own peril, and the results were unpredictable. Obadiah Turner included this entry in his journal from a particular Sunday (I’m Americanizing the English a little bit):

Allen Bridges was chosen to wake the sleepers in worship. And being much proud of his place, he had a fox tail fixed to the end of a long staff with which he may brush the faces of them that nap during the sermon, likewise a sharp thorn whereby he may prick such as sleep most sound. On the last Lord’s day, as he strutted about the meetinghouse, he did spy Mr. Tomlins sleeping with much comfort, his head kept steady by being in the corner, and his hand grasping the rail. And so spying, Allen quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard and gave him a grievous prick upon the hand. Whereupon Mr. Tomlins sprang up much above the floor and, with terrible force, strike his hand against the wall; and also to the great wonder of all, profanely exclaim in a loud voice, “Curse ye, woodchuck!” He was dreaming ,so it seemed, that a woodchuck had seized and bit his hand. But on coming to know where he was, and the great scandal he had committed, he seemed much abashed, but did not speak. And I think he will not soon again go to sleep in worship.

I think Mr. Tomlins could have avoided his embarrassing moment if he had owned a book I purchased years ago: 101 Things to Do During a Boring Sermon. In this book Tim Sims and Dan Pegoda offer a variety of games, diversions, musings, and the like to stay awake while the preacher waxes on and on and on.  Among them:

  • “Bird Brain” in which the bored worshiper lists as many state birds as he can and then matches the state birds he’s listed to church members who look like one of the birds.
  • There’s also a game called “Song of Solomon” in which the bored worshiper composes an oozing love letter to a prominent church member, then leaves it, unsigned, inside a hymnal or pew Bible. Not only will composing that letter keep you awake during the sermon, it’s bound to perk up the person who finds it the next Sunday.

Sleeping in church: it happens.  We preachers aren’t immune either. I remember reading this bit of preaching counsel: “Rule #1: don’t fall asleep during your own sermon.”  Perhaps, we preachers could work a little harder on being more engaging in our preaching.  But even the best preachers will preach a handful of people to sleep. 

I wonder if Eutychus realized what he was starting on that hazy Troas night. His tribe has increased. That’s just life; that’s just church. People are going to sleep in church from time to time. But my real concern is not for those that sleep through a sermon now and then but for those who are in a deeper spiritual slumber. They may wear the form of Christianity, but their faith is only skin deep, not heart deep. They are asleep to the presence of Christ around them, asleep to his promptings, asleep to the needs of their neighbors, asleep to God’s word and God’s will and God’s ways. Some of them may stay awake through every sermon and take good notes—notes that move from ear to page while bypassing the heart.

Those are the folks I worry about. But their situation is not hopeless. If God can raise the dead, he can surely wake the sleeping. I pray he will. There’s a life to be lived, a God to be worshiped, truths to be learned, and a world that needs God’s touch through you.  Sleeping in church won’t help.  Sleepwalking through the week won’t help either.

So, preachers, may God give us grace and unction to preach sleeping people awake, and awake people to vibrant worship and Christian living.

On Getting Feedback on Our Preaching

I don’t know about you, but I was not looking forward to preaching lab in seminary days.  I was not thrilled about preaching to my peers, looking into the eyes of fellow students, a sermon critique form on their desktop.  Some were sizing me up, some seemed disinterested, one blew the dust off his just sharpened pencil—the pencil he would use to critique my sermon.  I had to preach to that.  Still struggling with security issues, I was nervous.  I was as consumed with how they might critique my sermon as I was with preaching the sermon.  Sitting at the back of the room, the professor pointed his finger at me—the cue to preach my sermon.  Believe it or not, I still remember my text.  It was from Philippians 4 and the main idea was “we can find contentment in Christ.”

So I preached the sermon and received my first ever formal feedback.  I’d preached many times before that day, but I never received any feedback beyond, “Good sermon, preacher.”  “I enjoyed that, preacher.”  “God’s got big plans for you, preacher.”  Nobody I preached to had a critique form in front of them.  None of them were listening to find fault or to make me better.  They were praying for a word from the Lord through a young preacher like me.  But my classmates and professor had to critique me: What did I do well?  Where do I need work?  How did I explain, illustrate, and apply the text?  What annoying mannerisms did I employ in the delivery that were distracting to listeners?  Want to know the harshest critique I received?  “He was too polished.”  I needed to unpack that criticism, but I felt like I survived with barely a mark on me.  That was some 40 years ago, and I’ve received little formal feedback since then.

In the church I served in seminary, I was the Associate Pastor but did most of the preaching during an interim period.  One member, a friend and the father of a couple of kids in my youth group, offered me helpful critiques, asking me one time, “Do you know how many times you use the words uh and you know when you preach?”  I didn’t.  He told me.  He helped me.  Made me a better preacher.

During doctoral studies, my peer group spent one session critiquing a VHS copy of a sermon I had preached in the church I served.  We each had to take our turn.  That was helpful too.

But since then, formal feedback has been hard to come by.  I try to get it in staff meeting, but it’s not much different than what I get post-service on Sunday mornings.  I get it.  It’s not easy to evaluate your boss.  For one season, I invited people to join me in a group on Sunday night to dialogue about the morning sermon.  Few came.  Didn’t last long.  And I’ve done a church-wide written sermon evaluation form for any who wanted to participate.  That was interesting but not very helpful either with this exception: one person told me that I looked to my left way more than I looked to my right as I preached.  I took note of that helpful critique.

So where can we go to get good feedback?  Let me suggest some things.  I have not tried everything I suggest, but I’m thinking about it.

  • Don’t completely discount immediate feedback in the lobby of the church after the service.  If you know your people, you know which feedback is legit and which is perfunctory.  Take special note of those who rarely give feedback.  If they were moved enough to speak to you, you need to listen.  I still remember my all-time favorite post-service feedback.  It came from a man who had never given me feedback before.  He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’ve never had my butt so thoroughly chewed and enjoyed it so much.”  That told me I struck a good balance between grace and truth on that day.
  • If your church has the capability to record or video your sermon, watch/listen to it once or twice a month.  It strikes me a bit self-indulgent to do that every week.  But now and then could be helpful.  What do you like?  What annoyed you?  Did you get to the gospel?  Did you transition well?  How was your vocal cadence and dynamics?  What could you have done better?
  • We don’t utilize a teaching team in our church, but if yours does, that’s a ready-made feedback group who can give feedback both before and after the sermon is preached.  This seems to me to be most helpful.
  • I’ve heard some preachers suggest using your spouse for feedback.  Wives (or husbands as the case may be) can be good.  I have a cartoon of a pastor and his wife in their car on their way home from church.  The pastor says to his wife, “You know, that sermon would have had a lot more impact if you hadn’t yelled ‘Ha!’ right in the middle of my second point.”  Some spouses feel equipped to give you solid content feedback.  But all spouses can provide feedback on your energy and passion level in your preaching.  They probably have a deeper sense than the average church member about how present you were in the preaching moment.
  • Another possible feedback source is to enlist a “preaching coach”—a seasoned preacher you respect and believe you can learn from who will give you periodic feedback on your preaching.  There are surely some out there who have the time to do this.
  • And still one more avenue of feedback is this: the health of the church you serve. Not every church has the capacity to grow much numerically, but churches grow in any number of ways: mission engagement, biblical literacy, generosity of individuals and the church body, evangelism, unity and fellowship, etc. If your church is healthy and showing signs of growth in some of these areas, that may be the best feedback on your preaching you need. You are feeding the flock. They are getting it. They are growing deeper in discipleship.

So feedback is important and can make better preachers of us all.  Still, I do want to give just a little push back against getting too caught up in seeking feedback. 

First, there’s something sacred about the preaching moment.  It can’t be replicated in a video.  Being in the room in the moment can have a mystical component not caught on a replay.  In other words, a sermon can be much better in the moment than it appears when reviewed outside of the worship hour.

Second, God’s Spirit can use God’s word through God’s servant for God’s people in ways that cannot be analytically reviewed.  Haven’t you had the experience of stepping down from the pulpit feeling like you laid an egg only to have several people tell you how much God used that sermon to speak to them in deep places in their hearts?  And by the same token, haven’t you stepped down from the pulpit waiting for people to dump a bucket of Gatorade over your shoulders in celebration of a home run sermon only to discover in the heart of the church it was a weak grounder to the pitcher.  The Holy Spirit is the wild card here.  He can use us at our best.  He can use us at our worst.  Which is the fly in the ointment of feedback.  Too much fascination with feedback can get us too self-focused or too self-conscious or too concerned about how we are preaching to the point that we make it about us instead of Jesus, that we make it more about our affirmation than God’s declaration, that we make it more a job to accomplish than an act of worship.  May John the Baptist’s words be ours, “He must increase; I must decrease.”  The Holy Spirit’s role in the preaching moment can’t be evaluated by strictly human means, if at all.

And then, third, when it comes to getting “professional” feedback, every preacher has his/her own style.  Most preachers I know tend to think that their style is the “best” and the “right” style.  That means their feedback will be tempered by trying to fit you into their mold.  While the person giving feedback can be helpful on how you handled a text or the clarity of your main idea or delivery critiques, they may not be so helpful on “style” issues: exposition, narrative, point-driven outline, train of thought, manuscript, notes, no notes, etc.

Here’s the bottom line: get helpful feedback where you can as you can, learn from it, improve from it, but don’t become a feedback junkie.  As John Denver sang, “Some days are diamonds, some days are dust.”  As Tony Horton says about exercise, “Do your best and forget the rest.”  Pray hard.  Work hard.  Trust the Spirit.  And let it go, holding on to God’s promise that his word (no matter how well or poorly we preach it) doesn’t come back empty.

What do you think? And what is your best feedback story?