By Sam Hodges*
PLANO, Texas (UMNS) — At Christ United Methodist Church, clergy have their own personal trainer.
Alyce McKenzie doesn’t correct the pastors on crunches or make them move aerobically. She works with them on focusing a sermon, finding fresh metaphors and taking risks to connect better with people in the pews.
“In this visual age,” she notes wryly, “all people want is the reality of careful preparation and the appearance of total spontaneity.”
McKenzie is George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, part of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But since August, she’s also been preacher-in-residence at Christ Church in nearby Plano.
It’s at least a rare arrangement, and may be a first.
“We’ve had bishops-in-residence (in the United Methodist Church), but I don’t think we’ve ever had a preacher-in-residence,” said the Rev. Don Underwood, longtime senior pastor at Christ Church.
McKenzie meets one one one with Underwood and associate pastors about sermons in progress, challenging them as she sees the need, offering “that’ll preach” affirmation as often as possible. She gently critiques after watching the finished product online. And, once a month, she guides the clergy staff in group discussion about the preaching craft.
She’s a player coach, preaching one Sunday a month herself at Christ UMC — all three main sanctuary services — and always demonstrating the “sanctified imagination” she stresses to the regular clergy.
Therapists are known to divide patients into those who need tightening and those who need loosening, and McKenzie — while demanding of herself and others preaching that grapples seriously with a Biblical text and theological issues — loosens by precept and example.
One Sunday at Christ Church she got on her knees and crawled in telling a story. Another time she led the congregation in singing the 1970s pop song “Feelings,” going on to make the point that faith is about more than emotion.
“Nobody’s ever sung in a sermon here before,” said the Rev. Stacey Piyakhun, associate pastor at Christ Church. “She sort of opens the door for the rest of us.”
Voice of experience
McKenzie’s interest in effective communication comes naturally. Her father was Robert Howard Fowler, a historical novelist, newspaperman and founding publisher of Civil War Times Illustrated magazine.
An author herself — her books include Preaching Proverbs, Novel Preaching and (with John Holbert) What Not to Say — McKenzie holds degrees from Bryn Mawr College, Duke Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary. She joined the Perkins faculty in 1999 and was president of the Academy of Homiletics in 2012.
McKenzie also is an ordained United Methodist elder and earlier in her career served as an associate and interim pastor.
“I had 12 years of pastoral ministry, and I wouldn’t trade that experience,” she said, adding that it helped her understand that sermon preparation is usually just one of the demands competing for a pastor’s time and attention.
The idea for the residency at Christ Church came after Underwood called McKenzie last summer. He had lost a valued associate minister, the Rev. Alexandra Robinson — now pastor of Walnut Hill United Methodist in Dallas — and wanted McKenzie’s advice on finding a promising young preacher.
“When I got off the phone with Alyce, I realized that who I really wanted was Alyce,” said Underwood, author of the new book The Long View: Reflections on Life, God, and Nature.
It took some arranging, including gaining the support of Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference and Dean William Lawrence of Perkins; but Underwood was able to work out a one-year contract for the part-time work.
`Easy to say and hard to forget’
He and the other pastors agree that McKenzie quickly proved a hit with the congregation for her own well-researched, richly anecdotal sermons, which she delivers without notes. The pastors also say she immediately made a difference in their sermons, through coaching and critiquing.
The Rev. Denise Peckham used to preach every Sunday as pastor of Button Memorial United Methodist Church in Little Elm, Texas, but is in the pulpit less often as a new associate at Christ Church. She got help from McKenzie in making the transition.
“My big fear, and I said this to her, was that I was going to get out of that rhythm of preaching every week,” Peckham said. “She’s been helping me to find a new rhythm.”
For the Rev. Clay Horton, in his first appointment as an associate at Christ Church, having McKenzie as preacher-in-residence means getting even more of the instruction and encouragement he first got from her in a preaching class at Perkins.
“There’s no grading. You get more input before the delivery.” — The Rev. Clay Horton, in his first appointment as an associate at Christ Church
Horton finds the arrangement actually has advantages over the classroom.
“There’s no grading,” he said. “You get more input before the delivery.”
One weekday last fall, Horton and McKenzie met in a conference room at Christ Church, he with a legal pad and she with a tablet computer. McKenzie began the session with a prayer:
“We thank you for the great gift and privilege of preaching and for your calling upon our lives and energy and wisdom that we have from you to fine tune our craft. We ask for your guidance now, and a sense of your presence in all we say and do.”
For the next hour, they worked together on a sermon on the subject of the call to ministry Horton would be preaching at the church’s contemporary service.
McKenzie helped Horton decided how much to use of the Isaiah passage in which the prophet says, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” She also encouraged Horton to overcome his reluctance to share his own story of the call to ministry and to find ways to have the audience participate in the sermon.
Clarity and engagement — those were two of McKenzie’s emphases.
“Remember, things need to be easy to say and hard to forget,” she told Horton.
“We thank you for the great gift and privilege of preaching and for your calling upon our lives and energy and wisdom that we have from you to fine tune our craft. We ask for your guidance now and a sense of your presence in all we say and do.” — The Rev. Alyce McKenzie
When Horton did preach the sermon, on Nov. 10, he not only told his call story in detail, he led up to it by giving two brief versions of call stories and having the audience vote on which they thought applied in his case. He also risked using humor more than he usually does, and he broadened the idea of call to apply to lay people who are in difficult work or family situations that they need to continue in faithfully.
Horton said he got considerable positive feedback from both his mentor pastor and a church committee that’s advising him in his early stretch at the church.
“The way I opened with the call story — that was kind of a bold step for me,” he said. “(McKenzie) gave me permission to do that, and encouragement. I think it went over really well.”
A happy distraction
In McKenzie, Christ Church’s clergy have access to someone deeply involved in the study of effective preaching. Her book “Novel Preaching,” for example, draws on numerous examples from creative writing for advice on enlivening sermons, while also surveying leading theorists of homiletics and offering a sampler of her own sermons. The book has 12 pages of endnotes, reflecting the breadth of her research.
“We thank you for the great gift and privilege of preaching and for your calling upon our lives and energy and wisdom that we have from you to fine tune our craft. We ask for your guidance now and a sense of your presence in all we say and do.”
But, McKenzie says, teaching the preaching craft must always be in the service of proclaiming the Word. That goes for working with the clergy at Christ Church.
“It’s not all about alliteration,” she said. “Part of my role is to be a theological gadfly.”
Though the preacher-in-residence experiment is only about halfway through, Underwood has declared it a great success and hopes he can persuade McKenzie to renew the contract.
She’s pleased too, noting that she’s benefited from the feedback Christ Church clergy have given her on her sermons there. She joins Underwood in hoping the preacher-in-residence experiment can become a model for churches.
But, McKenzie also acknowledges, the Christ Church connection, good as it is, has not been the most exciting recent development in her life. She became a grandmother the day before Thanksgiving, when her daughter, Rebecca Gingles, and son-in-law, Dallas Gingles, had their first child: 7 pound, 11 ounce Graham Jefferson Gingles.
“The people of Christ Church are delightful,” McKenzie said. “But a baby grandson is awfully tough competition.”
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org