Panic in the Pulpit

Most of us learn to preach by imitation and we imitate what we admire.  When I was in seminary, the preacher I most admired wrote his sermons in a black, 6 b 9 notebook -- so I bought a 6 by 9 notebook.

Moreover, I noticed that when he was ready to turn a page, he made a dramatic gesture toward heaven and while everyone was looking up, he flipped the page.  I practiced that maneuver too.


Like most seminarians I thought I had a call to ministry, but I was not certain that I would ever get a job in ministry.


All the churches I had served as a seminarian were very small when I was there and became defunct soon after I left.  I did not think that their closing was attributable to my preaching, but I often wondered.  In later years, I became the presbyter’s designated hitter.  When a congregation was without a minister and the pulpit nominating committee was moving slowly, I was appointed to be the supply preacher, which always mobilized them into immediate and frantic action and a permanent pastor was very soon found.


In any case, on the night before my first pulpit audition — and because I wanted to make an especially good impression on the congregation — I recopied my sermon notes in my black notebook.  The next day the service went smoothly until it came time for the sermon.


When I opened my notebook, I could not locate my sermon.  I knew it was in there somewhere, but I did not see how I could admit that I had misplaced it without raising some grim questions about my competence.  Moreover, I knew that, no matter how many heavenward gestures I might make, I could not keep the congregation staring at the ceiling long enough to find it.  Therefore, in an absolute panic, I decided to preach for the first (and only) time entirely without notes, expecting that through the good offices of a kind providence my points would come back to me.  Alternatively, I rather hoped I might be given an even better sermon, since we are told, “Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour” (Matthew 10:19).  I figured my hour had come.


Therefore, I launched into the introduction and the first point, but when I finished that material, no second point appeared.  By now it was entirely too late to admit that I was winging my way from a blank sheet of paper, and I could not very well stop with a five-minute sermon.  So I turned to another blank page and preached the first point again in the past tense, hoping tht by the time I got to the third point, I would remember, and could use, the second point for the third.


Unfortunately, nothing new occurred to me so for the third time I preached the first point again, this time in the future tense.


When I had occupied sufficient time to think about quitting, I realized that without the second and third point I could not produce a conclusion.  Therefore, I put the introduction in the conditional tense and preached it with dramatic sincerity as a charge to the congregation.  Then I let go with a heartfelt prayer and sat down to reconsider my vocational options and the waste of a seminary education.


The congregation was disposed to be kind, but a few years later, a dear friend admitted to me that on this Sunday she had confided to her diary, “Whatever else you can say about this preacher, he makes his point VERY CLEAR!”


Anyway, I later discovered that while I was dying a thousand deaths in the pulpit, the chair of the nominating committee was paying very little attention to me.  She was watching my wife!  Now I have always been delighted to be judged on the merits of my wife.  And when our two young children became restless during the sermon, Margaret reached into her purse and handed each of them a piece of string.  They spent the rest of the service happily and quietly wrapping and unwrapping the string around their fingers.


Unknown to me, at that moment, and for that cause, I became the unanimous choice of the pulpit nominating committee.  They figured that any woman smart enough to carry string in her purse to keep bored children occupied was not so dumb as to marry a man who would not be an acceptable pastor.


Charles Partee
Presbyterian Outlook
July 1999