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For years I have been frustrated by twin problems common to preachers.
First, I often know the principles I want to express, but because I preach regularly, I don't have enough illustrations to communicate them most effectively.
Second, I have scores of books and magazines I would like to read, but I simply don't have the time. My shelf is filled with good and important works from which I could glean powerful illustrations, but even if I were to read around the clock, I doubt I could get through them all.
But in the past few years, thanks to a readers' club, I have been able to file more than 1,200 illustrations a year that are up-to-date, that fit my style of preaching, and that come from a wide variety of sources I could not tap on my own. And I spend only a few hours a month.
I picked up the idea from Kenneth Meyer during a D.Min. seminar. He suggested pastors form a team of lay people to help with the research necessary for a regular pulpit ministry.
A readers' club requires only two or more lay volunteers, the magazines and books you select, some file folders, and, ideally, a secretary or volunteer to coordinate it.
The first step is to make a list of books and magazines you would like to read but will probably not get to. I choose books that are readable and not highly technical. Most of the books I already own, though some are available through the church library. For example, my list for one month last year included A Portrait of My Father, by Peter W. Law, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, by Harold Kushner, and Up with Worship, by Anne Ortlund.
The list needs to be updated and replenished regularly, so it's helpful to allocate part of what you normally spend on books, or part of a church book allowance, for the club.
I announce in the bulletin my desire to have people assist me with research for sermons, and ask interested people to call my office. Every time I have done this, two weeks of running the announcement has yielded more than enough people. Obviously that number varies with the size of your ministry, but two or three readers who know what to look for can provide an abundance of material.
I send a letter to the people thanking them for their interest and explaining the readers' club. I hold a meeting to fill in details, answer questions, and give volunteers a feel for the illustrations I'm interested in. Here's the information I usually cover:
I review the reading list and ask people to select something from the list that interests them. Initially I didn't do this, and people read books not on the list, often ones I wasn't interested in.
I don't set time limits or reading quotas, but I suggest they take one book at a time (checked out through my secretary) and try to turn in material each month.
In my system, it is important that people are reading from a wide variety of sources. I tell them that will mean approximately half of their reading will be from secular sources. I try to help the readers realize that secular books and magazines provide many helpful insights, and that I will often be using information from them.
I explain I am looking for illustrations and quotations that are out of the ordinary, that will capture people's attention. I encourage them to listen carefully to my sermons to identify the kinds of illustrations I use.
I've found it's difficult to train anyone much beyond that. Some people have an innate ability to select appropriate material; others, no matter how much I instruct, continue to select dull, mundane information. But my experience is that more than enough valuable material is turned in to make the project worthwhile.
I show them how I want them to mark the material when they find an intriguing illustration or quotation.
For books: When the books are mine, they simply mark a bracket around the material and then fold down the corner of that page. If the books are not mine, they jot the section and page number on a four-by-six card.
For magazines: I provide readers with six file folders, each with a different heading: Old Testament, New Testament, Human Interest, Family and Social Concerns, Spiritual Life, and Miscellaneous. The headings can change according to your interests. If the magazine is mine, they may simply tear out the article and file it in the appropriate folder. If it is not mine, they tag the pages and note the category.
I then detail how the material they turn in will be used: my secretary will photocopy the marked pages, and I will go through them each month and decide if each is something I can use. If so, I give it a subject heading and have my secretary file it in a file folder or type it on a card.
When I have finished my exegesis and commentary studies for a sermon, I then look through the appropriate subject headings for illustrations I have filed and select the most pointed ones.
So that no one will misunderstand or be hurt, I explain clearly that I cannot guarantee everyone's illustrations will be used in a sermon. I am drawing from many sources and may not use an illustration until several months or even years from now. I also say with some humor that when I do use an illustration in a sermon, I will credit the source but not mention which reader found it.
I meet about once a month with the readers to answer their questions, clarify procedures, and add people who want to join the readers' club. At these meetings I always tell the readers how much I appreciate their ministry.
It's amazing the number of helpful illustrations even a few readers will submit. I currently have a relatively large group of 15 to 20 people who turn in illustrations regularly, and each week I file about 15 new illustrations that come from them. For any given sermon, I now have 30 to 45 illustrations to choose from. Thus the illustrations I use tend to be more appropriate and powerful.
In addition, the readers' club helps give me a feel for books I would never open otherwise. During a typical month, six to eight books are being read, so in just three months' time, I've read excerpts from 20 to 25 books. It's not the same as reading them word-for-word myself, but the readers' club frees me to concentrate on the books that lie in my areas of burning interest.
I suppose the greatest result of the readers' club is the feeling of shared ministry the club members develop. These people feel good about helping me prepare for preaching, and they know they have a significant part in the church's pulpit ministry
David R. Walls is pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix, Arizona.
When a parishioner is transferred from a small-town hospital to a larger one miles away, the distance can prevent personal visits from the church family. To maintain church contact and alleviate the ill member's homesickness, the Siren (Wisconsin) Covenant Church has sent "get-well cards" on cassette tape.
When Craig A. Nordstrom was pastor, the church recorded its hour-long Sunday worship on a ninety-minute tape. During the service Nordstrom announced who the tape was being recorded for, and invited family and friends to stop after the service and add their greetings on the half-hour of tape remaining. People offered messages of greeting and encouragement, prayers, poems, and even jokes. Children of hospitalized parents played recital pieces on piano or flute. One person used the tape to promise a welcome-home dinner at a local restaurant!
The pastor then took the cassette and recorder on his next hospital call.
"Tapes take up little space in a hospital room," Nordstrom points out. "They carry the warmth of familiar voices, and they become a memento of the church's caring when the patient returns home. We found patients replay them over and over."
Couples coming for premarital counseling are sometimes reticent to talk, for a variety of reasons: their general nervousness, a natural shyness when talking about deeply personal matters, or perhaps the fact they don't know the pastor well or fear the pastor will find them incompatible.
Even when engaged couples do talk freely, one member of the couple may dominate the conversation, while the other struggles to articulate feelings. Bruce Rowlison, pastor of Gilroy (California) Presbyterian Church, uses an intriguing approach to help engaged couples express how they feel about important issues in their relationship.
In his office, Rowlison keeps a bag of toys that represent real-life objects, for example, Monopoly money, a plastic telephone, a baby doll. When the conversation stalls, he may suggest they play a simple ice-breaking game as a change of pace. Each person takes a turn reaching into the bag, pulling out one of the toys, and telling what the item represents to him or her.
"One man took out the telephone, threw it across the room, and exclaimed, 'I hate the thing. It's always interrupting my time with people,' " Rowlison remembers. "The nonverbal communication becomes more animated, and the way they handle each object-facial responses, glances, and gestures-tells a great deal. I've been amazed at how these simple toys help couples talk openly."
When planning a new program or preparing a controversial sermon, pastors need to know what attitudes they're facing. And even the best intuition can sometimes miss the thoughts of certain segments of the church.
An inexpensive but helpful research tool is the survey, which Stephen C. Butler, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in South Burlington, Vermont, has put to good use.
Butler uses short surveys at least once a year to find out what his congregation believes, what their desires and preferences are, even how much they are capable of giving.
During the announcement portion of the service, he distributes paper and pens, asks a few simple questions that can be answered in five minutes, and then has the ushers collect the papers. (When the survey involves more than four questions, he has the questions printed on the papers that are passed out.)
For example, Butler wanted to know how much time members had available to volunteer for church work. He also wanted to check whether it was true, as someone had told him, that women today don't have volunteer time. So one Sunday he asked: "Do you work outside the home?" "Do you have more, less, or the same amount of volunteer time available as five years ago?" and other questions.
Butler discovered his people had more volunteer time than he'd thought, and that the women in his congregation did have time to volunteer, varying with their age and number of children.
Another time, after a fellow pastor claimed that few Methodists believed in heaven, Butler surveyed his congregation:
1. Do you believe in heaven?
2. Do you believe in hell?
3. Do you believe in life after death?
The survey proved the fellow pastor wrong, and the results helped shape Butler's preaching.
On a third survey, Butler invited the people to participate in a "paper tithe," where they wrote the amount they'd give weekly if they gave a full 10 percent of their income. No names were attached to the figures, and the information was kept private, allowing Butler to see how close the congregation as a whole was to tithing its income.
"Some pastors wonder if the congregation will object to being surveyed on a Sunday morning," Butler says, "but I've found just the opposite. Most Americans want to know how their thoughts and opinions compare with their friends' and neighbors'. They will gladly take part in a survey as long as (1) it's done anonymously and (2) the results are made known to them shortly thereafter."
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