Most of us preachers were trained to preach within a parish setting, and that continues to be the predominant location for most Christian preaching — but not all.
Despite our training, many of us find ourselves in other ministerial settings which may require different homiletical skills and understandings — hospital, campus, and military chaplaincy, for instance. I have encountered few articles and no books on the subject of preaching within these unusual settings. In this article, I would like to explore some of the characteristics which I believe are needed for good preaching in extra-parish contexts.
Self-Understanding and the Three-Ring Circus
Some years ago my colleague at Duke, Paul Mickey, did a study of ministry in which he noted that most pastors have a fear of venturing beyond the bounds of their parochial settings in their own ministry. We pastors feel most comfortable in settings where it is clear that everyone there wants our ministry, where there is a solid consensus among the congregation about who we are and what we are doing. In other words, we are most comfortable and cozy within the confines of our own churches.
Yet much ministry, according to Mickey, occurs in the setting of a “three-ring circus” where a number of differing agendas are at work. And most pastors don’t work well in three-ring circuses. They become timid and intimidated, their work becomes diffused over too wide an area as they try to be all things to all people and succeed only at being less effective for everyone.
In my experience, clergy who do well in extra-parish settings are people who have great skill at ministry within three-ring circuses. Essential to such skill is a clear self-understanding of why we are there as clergy.
The U.S. Army, the average hospital or university, does not exist for the promotion of Christian discipleship. People who live by the Christian faith, who also live in the military or a university, must learn to live by their religious beliefs in the middle of a system which may not be directly supportive of those beliefs. Can you work in your ring of the three-ring circus even while some very different and even conflicting activity is taking place in the other rings?
Chaplains are required to be many things to many people: mental health counselors, strengtheners of morale, educators, referees, upholders of the institution, etc. But if the chaplain ever allows these subsidiary, albeit worthy activities, to edge out the central, unifying purpose of being there as a religious leader, the chaplain’s preaching will suffer.
Poor preachers — civilian or military — are generally those who fail to take charge of their schedules, who allow all sorts of activities — filling out reports, attending meetings, answering the phone, opening mail, unproductive conversations — to crowd out precious time that should be spent on reading, prayer, and preparation of sermons.
I will admit that chaplains have particular administrative demands placed upon them because they are members of a larger staff and accountable to officers who serve above them. Chaplains sometimes complain about the hours they must attend meetings which have little to do with the specific tasks of ministry. But all the more reason for chaplains to carefully monitor their time, to build in time for development of the skills and insights which good preaching requires.
As one military chaplain put it to me, “The trouble with all the hours you spend working on preaching is that those hours are ‘invisible’; nobody knows how long it took to construct that twenty-minute sermon. So it’s tempting to spend time visiting the troops, attending every meeting, being seen by the chief officer rather than working on preaching. It takes guts to say, ‘All that is important. But this is more important’.”
Do we have enough faith in the validity of what we do as preachers to take charge of our time and make the time which good preaching demands? Preaching requires self-confidence and self-confidence arises, in great part, because of our conviction that God wants us to do what we are doing, that God is fulfilling divine purposes by our presence where we are.
Timid, hesitant, half-hearted, confused proclamation arises, not so much because the preacher is poor at constructing sermon outlines, but because the preacher has low confidence in his or her vocation. The trumpet gives forth an uncertain sound.
When the message grasps the messenger, when the messenger is convinced that nothing is so important for listeners as hearing this message, then the messenger will find a means of communicating the message.
High Tolerance for Ambiguity
This observation is related to the first: Effective preachers who serve in institutional chaplaincy situations seem to have a high tolerance for what I call “mess in ministry.” Truly effective ministry often occurs in situations which can only be defined as “a mess.”
Recently, I completed research for a book on ministerial burnout. As part of my work, I interviewed dozens of people who counsel pastors and priests, asking them to identify reasons why some people fail at ministry. One counselor told me, “The only thing I am absolutely sure of is that no one who has ever been a photographer or printer should be allowed to go into the ministry.”
Why? “If you need to get your whole world in focus, if you are accustomed to looking at the world through a tiny hole, if you value precision and exactitude — you’re going to be miserable in ministry,” he said.
In the three-ring circus of institutional ministry, it is my impression that chaplains who must have their theology tight and precise, who must be sure that the recipients of their ministry are truly dedicated to the faith, are not very good preachers.
I had to learn this for myself in a university chapel setting. When I first came to my present appointment, I was misled into thinking that, because I had this beautiful Gothic building, this big student choir, a seat on the faculty and prominence in the university, that I was in a basically Christian setting. Later I learned that I was in a pagan, not a Christian environment. That is, the extracurricular activities, the classes, the courses, the faculty, the predominant values and motivating reasons for being here were not specifically or even incipiently Christian. What was I, a Christian communicator, to say in such a setting?
The challenge, in settings like ours, is to be able to live with ambiguity without being engulfed by it. Any chaplain who forsakes his or her identity as a religious leader and capitulates to the spirit of the age, blends in with the woodwork and becomes just another manager of people, just another mental health counselor, just another personnel trouble-shooter will end up tragically.
Good preaching arises from those who know who they are and who deeply believe that what they have to say is important, life-giving, saving, and essential even though it may not be supported by the powers-that-be and the predominant values of that particular social setting.
In my own religious background, we have the tradition of evangelist — the person who brings the faith to a faithless setting. I realized that I would have to see myself more as an evangelist than as a pastor. I would have to understand that I was speaking into a world that did not explicitly confirm me or my message.
It makes all the difference in the world that we adequately picture our role or we will draw the wrong conclusions and speak the wrong word.
In Touch with People
Many have noted that good preachers tend to be good listeners. When we do not listen, when we fail to speak in the language of our people or to specifically address their real concerns, our preaching falls upon deaf ears. Some sermons fail to hit their targets because they are never aimed!
Daily, in-depth contact with our listeners is excellent sermon preparation. In seminary, many of us learned skills in how to listen to scripture. I wish that we knew as well how to teach the ability to listen to our people. Laity complain that their preachers’ sermons are incomprehensible, abstract, and removed from real life. That complaint is usually rooted in a preacher who fails also to be a pastor.
From my observations, many institutional chaplains may have less problem with this than their civilian counterparts. Too many pastors have ready-made congregations. A family has been a member of this congregation for fifty years and will attend no matter who the preacher is. But chaplains deal with “congregations” which are often in flux, present on a purely voluntary basis, and likely to be absent if spiritual needs are not being addressed. So chaplains may do a good job of listening to their people so they will know what and how to speak.
I remember being deeply moved by an Army chaplain who spoke to young recruits at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He began his sermon by recalling his first days in the army — his fear, his uncertainty, his desire to impress all of his buddies by his toughness. Every young soldier’s eyes were fixed upon him. They had never heard an officer speak like that about his own feelings or confess to his own inadequacies.
Then the chaplain read the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. He stressed that, while the story is about temptations which Jesus faced, it has relevance to us in our temptations. When we are alone, tempted to be someone other than who God wants us to be, Jesus knows what we are going through. It was a sermon which was heard by the congregation because the congregation knew that they had been heard.
I have been critical of the tendency, in modern preaching, to reduce every biblical text to some personal, usually psychological problem. Ultimately, the preacher is responsible to the biblical text. But the preacher is also responsible to the listeners’ context, particularly when the preacher is working in a setting where the listeners are in flux, there by their own choice, and confronted with many confusing issues.
We admitted up front that preaching is not easy. No one should be astounded that there are many poor sermons. Preaching, good preaching, takes a lifetime of work, acquisition of skills, clear self-understanding, biblical knowledge, and spiritual formation, and on and on. But this vocation is not only a burden. It is also a high privilege to bring the Gospel into contact with the human context, to speak to people wherever they are, in whatever conditions they may find themselves, the word of God unto salvation.
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Navy Chaplain.

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