Things for United Methodist preachers to unlearn…

This commentary was originally posted on the Kyrie Eleison blog.

Being a creature of habit, both Type “A” and a bit on the OCD side, I like routine, rhythm, and routine better than anyone. If something works, I leave it alone; if it’s functional, I don’t try to improve it or buy something new. Over the years I have seen pastors work this way, and pastoral work is hard: writing/designing sermons takes time, study, planning, and discernment; pastoral care often interrupts the busiest of schedules. When you find something that works, we tend to run with it. We keep sermon files so that when we move, we don’t waste previous work done. We function on local church, district, and conference levels in ways that are comfortable for us. We gravitate toward like-minded colleagues and find comfort in such community. These things “work” for us.

But not really. It’s not working.

For us to offer Christ to a hurting world, we have to transcend some of what “worked” for us in the past.  It requires a lot of introspection and self-awareness. It requires some confession and repentance. It requires that we “unlearn” some things which have become rote for us as UM pastors. Having recently read John Wesley’s “Large Minutes” and being challenged by scholars Andrew Thompson and Doug Meeks, I’m led to share these things:


  • Our seminary professors and continuing ed teachers were wrong about clergy professionalism. If we are to being about discipleship, conversion, and mission, we can’t have “professional distance” from those we serve – we have to be intimate with those we engage! If we do not live this and model this, we cannot expect anyone else to do it. Jesus MET the woman at the well; he didn’t say to himself, “This is improper,” even though most everyone else probably did. Our society has confused intimacy with sexuality; it actually comes from the Latin intimatus/intimare, “to make familiar with.” Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt – it breeds a relationship!



  • Preaching needs some change. It’s a sore spot for most preachers to be told anything critical about their preaching – but my experience is that collectively, we’re missing the mark. When I was younger I was asked to preach at a 6-day revival; I had no idea what to do. An older colleague advised me, “Preach your six ‘sugar sticks.'” If I had it over to do again, I would have met with the church leadership several weeks beforehand and heard their story, their struggles, and their edges know I would know the context. Preaching has to be (a) hermeneutical, (b) preach Christ, and (c) help us make a connection WITH Jesus. As Wesley was clear to note, preach the Christ whom the scriptures witness, not the scriptures themselves. I have to remind myself often: it’s the logos, stupid!



  • UM Pastors – more specifically, elders and deacons – act too much like a union (I’ve blogged about this before) and not enough like servants and vessels. I’m not the only one that has noticed this; our polity once protected pastors so they could be about Kingdom work (i.e., security of appointment), but it has now turned into (a) a financial benefit/liability that we may one day not be able to honor, and (b) led in some cases to ineffectiveness through malaise. Few of our laity have such a safety net, and indeed in some congregations, the pastor may be among the highest earners in a local church when salary, insurance, pension, housing, and other benefits are considered.



  • The Book of Discipline is too large, connectional and conference structures too wieldy, and theological/missional/discipleship questions as well as policy questions are often decided by popular vote instead of theological/missional focii. What was once a tool for order has become an imitation of US government bureaucratise and an entity unto itself. When we need a judicial council to tell us (or prevent us from) how to do mission and discipleship, we have got serious problems (there hasn’t always been a judicial council, by the way). These things can change – even the Book of Discipline. If you don’t believe one individual can make change, think again.



  • We don’t live the trust – much less model it – that the Kingdom and the denomination demands of us. We often get put on committees or commissions and remain silent, waiting until the parking lot or text messages to our buddies to kibbutz and critique… thus depriving the institution we vowed to uphold and denying the spirit of conferencing that is so at the heart of our Wesleyan DNA… and then turn around and chastise our congregations for doing the same after board and council meetings! Of course it means conflict and difficult conversations. However, Christianity – indeed, Jesus – was no stranger to conflict or hostility. Read the correspondence of John and Charles Wesley, who were even estranged for a period of time over differences of opinion. Or read John Wesley and George Whitfield. St. Nicholas attacked Arius over heresy (though probably didn’t slap him at the Council of Nicea as legend says). Without trust and honesty modeled and lived, we cannot embrace the deep change that this season required of us!



  • Like it or not, we have to be generalists. More than once I have heard, “That’s just not me” or “I was raised/educated in a different era.” To those that we serve, that is a great disservice. For example: I didn’t grow up with nor was educated in the use of multimedia in worship or for preaching. However, I have since learned that only about 9% of the population are auditory learners – and a lecture-style of preaching and witness is thus limited in its effectiveness.

    Now, do I personally like using images, movie clips, etc. in my sermon illustrations? Personally, no. But I’m learning how to do it – because it is effective for many and helps address the hermeneutical task of preaching, which today has become a larger and more diverse method of verbal AND non-verbal communication of interpretation of the biblical text… which is NOT to be confused with exegesis, which is the more narrow focus of examination of the text. I wasn’t taught this or raised with this, but they are effective methods of preaching that I cannot ignore. God could care less whether or not I “like” something personally.


We also have to be counselors, spiritual guides, able to read/interpret a financial report, teach doctrine, lead catechesis, and develop leadership to aid in all these things. None of us will be experts in any, much less all, of these things. But they are part of the authority of being ordained and licensed for ministry, and in a Wesleyan ethos we have to continually ask ourselves these questions: (1) What shall we teach? (2) How shall we teach? (3) What shall we do?

I used to think we used the model of medicine or law in training our pastors and leaders (lay or clergy) for ministry. But I am now of the opinion that we need to embrace the model of artisan/apprentice. It’s relational. It’s modeled. We mentor others as we are mentored. It’s the education the disciples received – and after 3 years, they were commissioned to “go and teach.”

We’ve got a lot to unlearn, and a lot to learn. But oh my, what a journey and opportunity!

The Rev. Sky Lowe McCracken is district superintendent for the Paducah District of the Memphis Annual Conference.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Sky McCracken

Tim – Susan Engle wrote a piece about this:

Sky McCracken

This is a time of deep change and anxiety – and we *have* to have each other's backs. I got your back, brother.


Why is this all on the Pastors' backs? As a Board Chair we are leaders in the Church, any change that is to be effected and needs to be communicated not only from the Pastors, but the Board as well. It is the easiest job in the Church to review last months financials, listen to building concerns and updates and get the latest capital campaign update. What a disservice we do for the congregation. We along with the Pastors are the ones that should be in the lead in rotating our Church out of the way we have always done… Read more »


As an elder serving in the Tenn. Conference, here is the question I would like district superintendents and our bishop to answer: "Do you have my back?" When I try to institute the "deep change" in my church that the bishop's Strategic Mapping Team says we must do, and the resistance gets elevated to higher levels in the hierarchy, will your first reaction be the same old thing – see whether my church is paying 100 percent of apportionments and then do whatever it takes to keep those checks coming? I agree that unless we clergy change the way we… Read more »

lillian sheffield
lillian sheffield

Amen and amen. Whenever we assess, reward, and place value on a person (pastor) based on their salary or earning power, we are definitely not Kingdom-focused. Jesus' ministry was not his 'career'. He was made poor so that we might become rich. On and on… when will we begin living the gospel? Not only are parts of the Discipline unwieldy, but certain sections foster this attitude and way of operation. Rev. McCracken, may I transfer to your district?


Thank you. I believe this is well-spoken and needs to be heeded. I particularly think what has become the "career path" for clergy has been extremely detrimental to the kingdom of heaven work we are to be about. I also believe we should not lose hope–there is a future and it is good.

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