Design Your Own Preacher Camp — A Re-reprise

Photo: Meg Peery McLaughlin

Photo: Meg Peery McLaughlinIt’s become a tradition now, to re-post this piece as I prepare to head to preacher camp. Some of the details are different now [see brackets] but the basic idea is the same.

Are you a preacher? Get yourself a preacher camp:

~

I leave on Sunday for my yearly meeting with a group of clergy that calls itself “The Well.” (The story of how we ended up with that name is a post in itself. Suffice to say that the Hebrew word, ha-beer, had something to do with it.)

We patterned ourselves after a group of hoity-toity pastors that have been meeting together for something like 25 years. I think there are other groups like ours too. This is our [sixth] year to meet, and here’s how it works:

We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, and for each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing and presenting an exegetical paper. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” There are currently [18] people in our group, which means we leave with a head start on 36 weeks of preaching.

People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s really not that complicated to put a group together. I would love to see these groups propagate. So to encourage people to give this a try, I thought I would write down a few things we did to get started or keep going. I think most of this is taken from the hoity-toity group, so no claims at originality.

1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider. Decide what kind of denominational/regional/theological/seminary diversity you want, or don’t want.

2. Have a covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two.

3. Have a “dues guy.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on how big people’s continuing education budgets are, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.

4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person draws names out of a hat to figure out who’s assigned to which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations about 9 months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on as we speak). We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t mean it necessarily takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are “the decider” for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group (if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”) so it’s good to have someone in charge.

5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. Now we upload our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptop and/or print them, if they’re a scribbling type. We make them due two days, and if you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies of your own paper for everyone.

6. Schedule for the week: We do [35] minutes per paper. The person reads the text, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and we even try to schedule a free afternoon. Heaven.

7. Leave evenings free. I’ve heard that the hoity-toities do papers into the evening, and honestly, I don’t know how they do it—by the time we finish for the day, I’m fried. Guess that’s why they’re hoity-toity. [I have since learned that’s not correct—they are mortal like the rest of us!] Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy.

So, there it is. The Well is one of the best things I do as a clergy person and one of my happiest weeks of the year. And I say that despite the fact that I preach the lectionary less than half the time. The scripture study is awesome and stimulating, and of course, spending time with other people who “get it” and with whom you can be real is HUGE. I think I laugh more that week than I do the rest of the year.

Note: Friday Link Love will be back in two weeks.

Design Your Own Preacher Camp: A Reprise

I’m off today to Preacher Camp in Montreat so I thought I’d re-run my post about how our group got started, hopefully to inspire others

A couple of things have changed since I wrote this, but the basic gist is the same.

Get yourself a Preacher Camp. You’ll be glad you did.

– – – – – – – – –

The Well. By the way, did you know that the Hebrew word for well is beer? Yes indeed.

I leave on Sunday for my yearly meeting with a group of clergy that calls itself “The Well.” (The story of how we ended up with that name is a post in itself.)

We patterned ourselves after a group of hoity-toity pastors that have been meeting together for something like 25 years. I think there are other groups like ours too. This is our fourth year to meet, and here’s how it works:

We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, and for each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing and presenting an exegetical paper. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” There are currently 15 people in our group, which means we leave with a head start on 30 weeks of preaching. From time to time we think about adding members, but haven’t figured out how to do so without cutting into evening free time, something we are not willing to do.

People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s really not that complicated to put a group together. I would love to see these groups propagate. So to encourage people to give this a try, I thought I would write down a few things we did to get started or keep going. I think most of this is taken from the hoity-toity group, so no claims at originality.

1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider. Decide what kind of denominational/ regional/ theological/ seminary diversity you want, or don’t want.

2. Have a covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two. Nobody has arrived empty handed.

3. Have a “dues guy.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on how big people’s continuing education budgets are, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.

4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person draws names out of a hat to figure out who’s assigned to which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations about 9 months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on as we speak). We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t mean it necessarily takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are “the decider” for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group (if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”) so it’s good to have someone in charge.

5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. This year we’re uploading our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptop and/or print them, if they’re a scribbling type. We make them due by Saturday morning before we leave, and if you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies of your own paper for everyone.

6. Schedule for the week: We do 40 minutes per paper. The person reads the text, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and this year we even have a free afternoon. Heaven.

7. Leave evenings free. I’ve heard that the hoity-toities do papers into the evening, and honestly, I don’t know how they do it—by the time we finish for the day, I’m fried. Guess that’s why they’re hoity-toity. Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy.

So, there it is. The Well is one of the best things I do as a clergy person and one of my happiest weeks of the year. And I say that despite the fact that I preach the lectionary less than half the time. The scripture study is awesome and stimulating, and of course, spending time with other people who “get it” and with whom you can be real is HUGE. I think I laugh more that week than I do the rest of the year.

Feasting Giveaway: We Have a Winner!

I’ve enjoyed reading all the nominations of people to receive the Feasting on the Word set. It made me wish I had copies to give to everyone… for everyone seemed to be doing great ministry and would have made good use of the series. (Hint, hint, to friends of mine who have the series but plan to buy the CD-ROM…)

I basically wrote down every nomination I received via comments, twitter and gmail, and assigned each nomination a number (people who were nominated several times were listed multiple times). Then I used a random number generator to pick one of these people.

The winner is…Catherine Foster!!!!

Catherine was not only nominated by several people, she also counter-nominated one of her own nominators (so he got listed twice too). Which is lovely and gracious in my humble opinion.

Catherine, contact me at reverendmother03 (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll make arrangements.

I was also touched to receive an e-mail from a reader, offering to pay shipping. How lovely.

Life is beautiful.

When Life Gives You Hardback Lemons, Turn Them Into CD-ROM Lemonade.

Several years ago, the good folks at Westminster/John Knox Press announced a new set of biblical commentaries, a series of twelve volumes on Revised Common Lectionary texts. It is called Feasting on the Word, and it is a massive undertaking. There are four short articles for every scripture text in the lectionary. With four texts per Sunday to choose from and three years in the lectionary cycle, that amounts to some 2,500 articles in all, if my math is right. Read more about the series here.

My first question upon hearing about this series, lo these many years ago, was, “No CD-ROM edition? Ex-squeeze me?” Alas, it appeared not. And the publishers appeared to be proudly “of the book,” writing in their promotional materials, “We offer this print resource for the mainline church in full recognition that we do so in the digital age of the emerging church.” Which, to be honest, I found a bit irritating. Was this some kind of line in the sand? I do not like lugging books around. It is so mid-Gutenberg-era, no? What I DO like is writing sermons in St. Arbucks and especially Panera, which my friend Michael says is Latin for “sermon birthing room.”

But, Feasting is a great resource for lectionary preachers and still well worth having, even in its less ideal (for me) format. So, thanks to a nice discount for contributors, I made the investment.

You know where this is going.

It’s 2011 now, and guess what “proud to be hardbound” series is now available in CD-ROM?
Now that all twelve volumes are sitting on my shelf?

Grr.

I am choosing to believe that WJK changed their minds about CD-ROM after a groundswell of requests, rather than believing that they had a super secret plan all along to be coy about the CD-ROM, get people to buy the books and only then spring the (searchable and in many ways superior) CD-ROM format on us.

Still, Grr.

After I vented to Robert about this for a moment, I thought, “How can this annoyance become redemptive?” The CD-ROM is way more useful to me and how I work, and I have the book allowance to make it happen, thanks again to a contributor discount that puts it within reach. But I don’t need both the CD and the books… and some people out there might prefer books, but can’t afford the series.

SO!

I am giving away my 12-volume Feasting on the Word hardbound commentary.

Between now and Friday, I am taking nominations for worthy recipients. Tell me why you or a friend should be the recipient of this series (which I will ship, book-rate, anywhere in the continental US at no cost to you). New pastor? Recent seminary graduate? Off to serve a small church with minimal resources and not much of a theological library? Tell me why you’re the one.

Leave your nomination in the comments, or if you’d rather keep it private, e-mail it to reverendmother03 (at) gmail (dot) com. Nominations are due at 5 p.m. EDT Friday, May 27.

Friday Link Love

Some stuff I’ve been captivated by this week:

Mars Hill — Broken Bottles

As I indicated a post or two ago, I adore Rob Bell. He’s one of my pastors, truly. And I listen to him and feel very sad that my little old Tiny Church is stuck with yours truly ever week… OK, not really. But really. This recent teaching of his on Ecclesiastes was one of the best I’ve heard by him. Recent teachings are only available for free for a limited time, so check it out soon.

Can a Fake Smile Be Bad for Your Health?

The scientists examined what happened when the drivers engaged in fake smiling, known as “surface acting,” and its opposite, “deep acting,” where they generated authentic smiles through positive thoughts, said an author of the study, Brent Scott, an assistant professor of management at Michigan State University.

After following the drivers closely, the researchers found that on days when the smiles were forced, the subjects’ moods deteriorated and they tended to withdraw from work. Trying to suppress negative thoughts, it turns out, may have made those thoughts even more persistent.

But on days when the subjects tried to display smiles through deeper efforts — by actually cultivating pleasant thoughts and memories — their overall moods improved and their productivity increased.

See, I had always heard that behavior can modify emotions, that acting a certain way in practice can help bring about that mood internally. So if you want to be happy, act happy. This seems to add a little nuance to that. There’s something in here that relates to authenticity too, I think.

Organizing Secrets from a Manhattan Design Guru

This is a decent enough article about being organized, but what I really loved was this line:

Staying organized is like gardening. You’re constantly weeding; it’s part of your routine.

I genuinely enjoy being organized and having a sense of order in my home, which is admittedly not fancy (and not perfect), but there is a place for everything and I try not to let it go too long before returning things to their proper spots. I’ve often felt bad about this though, like the truly creative people thrive on chaos, and neat freaks are just people who don’t have enough to occupy their time. (Where do I get such bizarre notions?!??) Hearing organizational efforts compared to gardening, which is a discipline that brings beauty to the world, was very freeing for me.

Parents Magazine: Twenty-five Manners Every Kid Should Know

I caught this in the print edition at the hairdresser’s and thought it was a pretty good list of etiquette for kids… warning, link is in slide-show format which I find annoying. Still, good stuff and we have some things to work on.

Come Along for a Ride into Space

A lovely six-minute video:

Cinematographer Luke Geissbühler and his 5-year-old son Max made a homemade spacecraft out of a Thai food takeout container and a weather balloon, and outfitted it with an HD video camera and an iPhone. Last August, they sent it into space.

“The mission was…was send it up into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond the earth…Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall…It would have to survive 100 MPH winds, temperature of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over a 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing….To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds and transmit a GPS coordinate to a cell phone tower….Then we have to find it.”

And finally, tonight is the National Day of Unplugging. We are So There. Hope you’ll participate too.

What’s Your Preaching/Worship Planning Process? Here’s Mine

Yeah. Right.

I love hearing how other pastors put sermons together. Advance planning or seat of the pants? Or something in between? Writing on Thursday or Saturday night? It’s all good.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me to hear that I have a process. I don’t follow it slavishly and it probably works as I intend it to less than half the time. But the Spirit works as much through intentional planning as the spontaneous lightbulb moment. This I believe. (In fact, I think planning makes space for the lightbulb moment to happen, but hey, I’m a J on the Myers-Briggs, I would think that.)

I’m doing a lot more series these days, and about 6 weeks to 2 months before the series begins, I’ll set aside a few hours or a half-day to plan. I put together a packet of papers with one page for each Sunday/topic/text. There is space on the paper for me to brainstorm specific items:

  • resources I already have for this text (papers from the Well preaching group I’m in, maybe a sermon from the last time I preached the scripture)
  • images
  • quotes (e.g. for the bulletin cover)
  • spiritual practice/insert—I’ve been doing half-page study guides for people to take with them and use the following week. These include questions, things to try, additional quotes. I’m not sure how sustainable this is long-term, and I don’t do them for every series/season… but I think they add a lot. They also give me a place to put stuff that didn’t make it into the sermon :-\
  • liturgy
  • hymns

I keep this with me at all times, so as I read stuff in the news, or ideas occur to me, I can capture them on the sheet. I also look through my Evernote files to see if there is material there that I can use.

Then this is what I do each week… ideally. *ahem*

  • Tuesday is a big sermon/worship day. I read the scripture text, jot down some notes, and figure out what is stirring within me. I re-familiarize myself with what’s in the planning packet. I also write the order of worship, but hopefully I’m not starting from scratch, thanks (again) to my planning packet. Lately I’m also writing the bulletin insert, called the GPS (grow pray study), on Tuesday. Getting it done on Tuesday means our part-time administrative assistant can copy and collate it in the bulletin, so it saves me time to get it done early, but this makes for a very full day.
  • Wednesday: I create a .doc for the sermon. That’s all I do that day for worship. But having a document ready, with the header and the text and all that jazz, is the equivalent of parking downhill when it comes to actually writing on Thursday. I will also do a little reading based on the previous day’s work—commentaries, Well papers, etc. But no writing. This is a blatant psychological trick I play: I don’t usually feel like sermonating on Wednesday, but Surely I can get the document set up in Microsoft Word! That takes five minutes! And read this article? No problem!
  • Thursday: I write a sermon draft. My goal is not necessarily to have it done, but to reach a place that if [random cataclysmic occurrence] happened over the weekend, the sermon is basically preachable.
  • Friday I finish the draft and write the prayers of the people. I also choose the hymns for the following week, which I give to my organist on Sunday so he has a week to prepare.
  • Saturday is our family’s Sabbath day so I do my level best to have the sermon done on Friday. That makes for some late Friday nights sometimes, but I prefer those to late Saturday nights.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook today that she’s “getting it all done 30 minutes at a time” (paraphrased). I say Amen to that. Preaching is a huge task and a humbling responsibility. The perfectionism and the immensity of this weekly task can be crippling for me. So that’s why I break it into chunks. And I know I’m not alone.

So how do you do it? Non-preachers, how do you “chunk” your work?

Facts, Schmacts

“Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts, schmacts.” -Homer Simpson

Oh Homer, even though you said that almost 13 years ago your words are so prescient. (Prescient, Homer. It means foreshadowing.)

This morning Newsweek magazine, in response to polls indicating that as many as one in five people think President Obama is a Muslim—he’s not—published a slide show of other “Dumb Things Americans Believe.” Their examples:  witchcraft (21%), death panels (40%) and that the sun revolves around the earth (amazingly, 20%). Just 39% of people believe in evolution, despite widespread scientific consensus. Newsweek’s title is perhaps unhelpful, but the point is sound. And I found the piece refreshing in a journalistic culture in which the press, in the name of objectivity, reports both “sides” of an issue, even in cases where one of the sides is wrong on the facts and/or fringe in its belief.

I have to say, this is something that I think about a lot. I suppose that misinformation is nothing new, but the Internet is like a Wild West free-for-all when it comes to rumors and misinformation. If you want to believe something, you can and will find support for it. But it makes it very difficult to communicate. It makes it difficult to preach when literally everything we know is up for grabs.

I can’t find it now, but did you catch the study a few months ago about attitudes among scientists about global warming? Many layfolks who are climate-change skeptics say that the scientific community is not united in its beliefs about the human causes of global warming—that there are a lot of scientists who doubt it.  That’s true, but among scientists who study it most closely and have published peer-reviewed research, the sense that humans are to blame is much clearer. Not everyone who calls him or herself an expert actually is an expert, in other words… but that’s not welcome news in a culture that disdains elitism, a culture in which people want to “decide for themselves.”

Earlier this month I attended portions of the Faithful Politics conference at Montreat. I was technically on vacation so I didn’t attend it all, but in one of the sessions I did attend, the speaker talked about the need for empathy as we seek to understand people with whom we disagree. I think that’s very true and as Christians, how we engage the questions of the day is as important as (more important than?) the answers themselves, which is really the message of my sermon on Sunday. Bickering and in-fighting is a pretty poor witness. As Tony Jones has said, “Two generations from now we will no longer be arguing about gay marriage, but we will be arguing about whether cloned humans are entitled to receive communion. So we’d better develop some norms for working through our differences rather than continuing the tired win-lose way we go about it now.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

But empathy and norms only get us so far, when we can’t even agree on what the facts are.

Lately we’ve been talking to Caroline about the difference between fact and opinion. She will ask a question like, “What’s the most beautiful thing in the world?” and after giving our thoughts we’ll usually say, “That’s an opinion question though, which means there isn’t one right answer. Different people will answer it differently.” Then she will ask “What’s the largest thing in the world?” which, once we clarify what “largest” and “thing” mean, is obviously a question of fact. (What is the largest thing in the world?)

This lesson we’re trying to teach Caroline seems very quaint, in a way. One of our cultural challenges is that, because we can find anything out there to support our own views and biases, we have forgotten that there are in fact differences between fact and opinion.

It doesn’t matter how many websites argue the contrary: whether the President is an American citizen is not up for debate. It’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of fact. He’s a citizen or he isn’t, and even if 80% of the public thought he was born in Kenya, it wouldn’t make him born in Kenya. (Incidentally, why are we polling on matters of fact anyway?)

I’m very willing to listen to people who disagree with me on matters of opinion—I’ve heard from some church members after Sunday’s sermon who explained their thoughts, and some differed from mine, but we heard each other. But it’s much harder—impossible, even?—to engage with someone who doesn’t even subscribe to the same facts you do. I’m not sure how useful it is to try, actually.

We’ve always had disagreements in our nation. When people say we are more polarized now than ever before, I want to say, hello, Civil War? But it does feel very intense and unsettling to me, and I think this Internet free-for-all doesn’t help.

Finally, I have to turn all of this back to myself, too: are there things that I take as bedrock that are not actually factual? Are there things that I hold so rigidly that others cannot engage me?

Image is from the Newsweek feature mentioned above.