5 Lifetime Lessons from My First Year of Preaching
Understanding the shift in perspective and identity as the lead pastor.
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When I was an assistant pastor in Washington D.C., my mentor and boss Dan Claire apprenticed me in the ministry of preaching. I was giving one sermon per month, which meant I was supporting but not carrying the preaching of the church. I loved the process of crafting sermons from different genres of Scripture, receiving feedback along the way about exegesis, delivery, and application. The semi-regular schedule allowed me to feel the intensity and responsibility of preaching without becoming a crushing burden.
After three years, God called me to plant and lead a new church in Chicago. On Launch Sunday, I went from simply delivering individual sermons to shouldering the preaching ministry. Adjusting to this new reality was a process! All of a sudden, there were new responsibilities beyond mere sermon development that I had to learn on the fly. The more intentionally I embraced them, the greater the impact of the preaching ministry. These five responsibilities have been particularly crucial:
1) Lead through preaching
Lead pastors and planters are called to define reality for the churches they lead. They are responsible to ask and answer fundamental questions like these:
- What are we doing and why are we doing it?
- What is the story of this church? Where did we come from, and where are we going together?
- Why does this church exist in the first place?
- What is important to us? What will capture our imagination and best efforts?
Healthy churches need to hear from their leaders all the time about the answers to these questions, and preaching is a natural place for it. In the last year, I have used the preaching ministry to encourage our church toward generosity, Psalm-based prayer, and hospitality. In each case, I chose to cast the vision through the setting of expository preaching. Leading your congregation and preaching from the Bible are a natural fit. This process should not be rushed, lest we commit pastoral malpractice. In each case, it has been important for me to listen, reflect, and pray, which requires the second responsibility.
2) Take study and prayer retreats
Solitary retreats are not a break; they involve some of the hardest work I have ever done. They are not a waste of time or abnegation of responsibility; they are an investment in your soul, mind, and heart. This investment will pay significant dividends for your church, because God uses these retreats to transform the quality and anointing of your preaching. No one else in my congregation or on my staff is responsible to feed my heart, challenge my mind, and commune with God on my behalf. So it has been important for me to get away with my Bible, journal, and books during weeks when I am not preaching. Last June, I took a week-long study leave. I read the Scriptures, the church fathers, and some pastoral theology. I was struck by how seriously the people of God have responded to the character of God throughout history. By the end of the week, I had a preaching plan for the next five months. I came back energized to preach again.
3) Design series, not just sermons
In the last year, I have learned to multiply the impact of a sermon by setting it in a thoughtfully crafted series. When I was an assistant pastor, I could sit back and let others do the long-range sermon planning! Not anymore. A sermon series allows for the church to go through a long journey, creating unity and shared experience along the way. Each series needs a central theme and rationale, even if you are preaching through a book of the Bible or the lectionary. The length of the journey gives people time and space to buy in, and even catches those who are not able to attend every week (which includes a lot of people these days). I try to frame up the series at the beginning, make connections to each sermon throughout, and then give ways for people to take the content further.
4) Communicate your preaching plan in advance
This is a tough one for me—I'm a chronic procrastinator. My best inspiration often comes near a hard deadline. I noticed that this keep-my-options-open approach was a frustration to my staff and leaders, because it held up other aspects of our church ministry. After I planned a couple of series well in advance, it freed our Scripture readers, visual artists, musicians, and small group leaders to plan their ministries in response to the upcoming series. This in turn made me more excited to preach the series, and my last-minute inspiration didn't go away. I found that my confidence and energy about the preaching plan generated their confidence and energy, creating a positive feedback loop. Advance communication also gave space for the staff and congregation to weigh in on the series with helpful feedback, which improved the finished product.
5) Grow in endurance
As lead pastors and planters, we are called to pour ourselves out like a drink offering for the church we lead through our preaching and the preparation behind it. When we launched our church and I was the primary preacher, I was mentally and spiritually exhausted after just five consecutive weeks of preaching. As the year progressed, I worked my way up to seven weeks. This past fall, I went 10 weeks in a row; by God's grace (I was sick as a dog after week 10). All the while, I noticed that my preaching endurance was growing, which felt like I was training for a marathon.
Fr. Stewart Ruch, my Bishop and preaching coach, told me this past January: "Aaron, the best way to improve your preaching is to get up there and preach when you're tired, preach when you don't want to show up, and preach when you don't feel prepared." His advice has rung true. After preaching through Lent and Good Friday this past year, I was running on fumes. I felt I had nothing left for Easter, which we expected to be our biggest Sunday post-launch. So I prayed desperate prayers and dug deep, taking naps on the floor to keep my prep going through Holy Saturday. By God's grace, a sermon about Jesus' resurrection came together by the dawn's early light. I was grateful that God used our Easter service and that sermon to reach new people from the community.
I want to say one last thing: the transition from assistant preacher to lead preacher is not in essence a shift in techniques and tasks, but a shift in perspective and identity. These five responsibilities reflect that shift, but do not encompass it. When I became a father, it was important for me to learn how to think and live like a father, not simply learn a new set of techniques like changing diapers and chopping up food. When we become lead preachers, Jesus calls us to carry the challenging mantle of leadership in his name. Accepting this mantle is a spiritual and emotional process that requires new levels of maturity and intentionality.
Aaron Damiani is the pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church, a church plant in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent.