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4 Ways to Deliver a Message When You Cannot Preach

Engage your community with creative alternatives to a traditional sermon.
by Lee Ann Pomrenke | May 27, 2020

Every preacher has times when the well we go to for inspiration runs dry. This is not a failure; it is a sign of being human. The pressures of adaptation fatigue and working from home are driving us toward it at an accelerated rate. Personal grief or health struggles, exhaustion at overwhelming pastoral care needs and even frustration over conflict overtake all of us at times. Scattered thoughts, increasingly dire news and shifting expectations leave us all emotionally ragged, which can stand in the way of the creative process. To proclaim grace to our congregation, especially now, we need to be able to accept grace for ourselves.  

It is not cheating to take a week off from preaching, especially in a pandemic. You may find, in interrogating that notion, that you are the only one from your congregation who would ever think that. Now, we cannot make “Ask the Pastor” a regular replacement for preaching, but changing it up once in a great while will not hurt anybody. It may open some new possibilities for additional creativity.

Trying a new way of accessing the Word can inspire future creativity. It can do the things a sermon is supposed to do, but in a different way. It can open a conversation about how we approach Scripture and what we expect a sermon/message to do, even in typical times. Some of these strategies will explicitly encourage lay people to see themselves as theologians, to engage our imaginations or to stir up our habits and make us look at Scripture and our understanding of it in new ways. 

1. Lead Dwelling in the Word 

This experience of encountering and interpreting the Word in community is one Faith +Lead has identified as a breakthrough practice. Teaching people to not be intimidated by Scripture and engaging it in their own homes can change lives. Especially in a time of discernment for a congregation – like this liminal time we are all living through now – listening for God to speak to us together breaks down barriers.  

2. Lift Up Theology in our Communal Stories

Debrief stories collected from group conversation or individual interviews, pointing out the theology expressed—even if they didn’t realize they were doing theology. Appreciative Inquiry questions are a pointed way to approach this. Dr. Leah Schade shared during an interview at the recent Festival of Homiletics about a pattern of giving a sermon on a controversial topic (without using triggering words) followed by a guided communal dialogue the next week, then a follow-up sermon framing what was heard and what it means. We are living through a controversial time, for which the middle or last step of this rhetorical pattern could become its own message.   

3. Ask the Pastor Anything

Have some of your personal testimony ready to share, in case people do not immediately jump in. What is unique about you or your leadership in their context? Your transparency at this time about challenges may communicate the Word in a different way than your prepared exegesis typically does. Dr. Karoline Lewis included in her Festival of Homiletics lecture the exhortation for preachers to tend to our own “self-exegesis,” examining and unpacking our own biases and what we bring to interpretation of Scripture due to our personal characteristics. Dr. Lewis also suggested that our favorite Bible story likely reveals our theology in a nutshell. 

4. Show That Art Speaks

Gather poetry, music or visual artwork with interpretation, tying them together with a theme. This is an excellent time to reinforce that the Holy Spirit speaks and acts not only through intentionally religious words, but even through our hearing of secular or seemingly unrelated music, poetry, prose and artwork to impact our faithful belief and action. Online performances (attending to copyright permissions) of many art forms could add an experiential emphasis to the Word.

Now is a crucial time to find online community for sharing creative ideas. The Faith+Lead Learning Lab is one such supportive community. Join us there to discuss these ideas and more.


About the Author

Lee Ann Pomrenke

Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an interim pastor in the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, digital content editor for The Faith+Leader, and author of Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, Inc, 2020). She also blogs at leeannpomrenke.com.

Photo by Magda Ehlers

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