Lillian Daniel on Preaching as Leadership

The Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel is Senior Minister of the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, IL. The author of “Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony” and co-author of “This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers”, she is an editor-at-large for the Christian Century magazine. Rev. Dr. Daniel has taught at Yale Divinity School, her alma mater, where she serves on the Board of Advisors, the Chicago Theological Seminary, where she is a member of the Board of Trustees, and the University of Chicago Divinity School. She preached at McCormick’s “Preaching as Leadership: Meeting the Challenges of 21st Century Ministry” event, April 5-6 at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

Q: How do you lead from the pulpit?

To begin, I say, “God is still speaking.” I hope congregants leave a service not thinking they need to be told what God is saying to them, but that they know he is speaking to them. A banner in our church says, “There is more light and truth to break forth from the Word.” People refer back to that to explain that God can speak through anyone, not just the pastor.

 I don’t think anything congregants hear from the pulpit should be a surprise. Often preachers think the short cut is to deliver a prophetic word from the pulpit, but that’s really not the point of the ministry. Rather, it evidences that I, as a pastor and leader, have not done the living room and committee meeting work that I should have in order to inform and invite congregants into what I am called to preach. Anytime you shock your congregation from the pulpit, you exhibit poor leadership outside of the pulpit.

Q: How do you lead your congregation into worship?

I really shy away from a lot of leader-people models. I want worship to be experiential for people: through silence, in the repetition of a Taizé piece, by inviting them to enter into worship.

Q: How did learning to share your testimony re-shape your pulpit leadership?

I learned to become more forthright about what I believe about God and about my story of faith. Now, the element of testimony enters my preaching more than it previously did as I became more comfortable incorporating those personal aspects into sermons.

Q: When did you know you were called to preaching?

I was originally rejected for ordination. However, during my first internship I really thought, “I am called to preach.” Being a pastor gives me something to say in the pulpit and in writing.

Q: What elements of pastoring excite you most?

If I wrote a good sermon, I feel I, with the church, made a difference in people’s lives. When I see the church body behaving in ways that are brave or when I see that a program has come together and gone well, for example when the junior high kids get up and offer a program on Sunday, I take the temperature of the congregation to gauge its growth and health. Similarly, when a program goes poorly, I say, “Well, I am the leader here. Where could I have made a difference in this?”

Q: Why is preaching a skill and craft worth cultivating?

It’s the primary opportunity to impact a large number of congregants. I’m always amazed at pastors who won’t put sufficient work into the sermon. The sermon has to carry significant water in the church today. A pastor typically can’t assume people will join Bible studies or participate in small groups. I’ve changed my sermons to include a lot of basic Bible literacy. Doing some of the exegetical work before the sermon really enables me to preach without becoming clunky with the message.

Q: What is the role of pulpit ministry outside of the faith community?

In our congregation, we’ve dealt with some tricky issues, such as immigration. There’s so much rich content in Scripture that can be brought to bear on that particular subject. It starts with a dialogue, simply asking, “What are we doing about immigration?” Then, you begin to point the congregation to events and resources concerning how to engage the concern at hand.

Q: How do you balance your ministry?

Scheduling is the key. I like to have mornings open for study and sermon preparation but plan meetings in the afternoon. Most of the balancing act requires knowing your own rhythms. If I don’t prioritize the sermon I’ll shortchange 500 people on Sunday morning.  I choose to have my secretary say, “She is unavailable.”

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