Reflections on Preaching and Teaching

Next time you see a preacher or teacher who has influenced your life, thank him or her on behalf of the countless people they touch who never look back.

by Gary Riggins
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esterday I talked with a friend, Clayton Watson, a Lee University graduate and successful young pastor in Florida. After catching him up on the juicy talk around campus, we moved on to the fun and games in his line of work. People don’t generally know it, but pastoring is difficult work. In fact, on my list of favorite jobs, I would rank it only slightly ahead of stuffing fertilizer into burlap bags on my Uncle Major’s chicken farm.

In the late ’70s, when we were all crazy (there are photos to prove it), I accepted the pastorate of a small church in Orlando to supplement my day job as teacher in an alternative program at Union Park Junior High School. My thinking was, How hard can it be? It’s only for a year, and all I have to do is show up with a oral book report once a week.

I was dead wrong! After about 20 minutes on that first Sunday, the 14 hard- headed people left in the congregation and I knew it was not my calling. Once, after a particularly brutal Sunday, I looked up the word preach in the dictionary, hoping to get a better handle on what it was I was supposed to do, and I found it. Honest to goodness, Webster suggested that to preach is “to urge the acceptance or abandonment of an idea especially in an officious or tiresome manner.” That’s it—a description of preaching that I seemed to fit!

As I think about it now, that concept could describe most of the stuff I do in the classroom. Maybe teaching and preaching have more in common than a rhyming scheme. Both require subject knowledge and speaking skills, but also patience, caring, and commitment. Good preachers and teachers always know their work is more than just an exercise from the neck up. Indeed, they must know a lot about themselves and understand how to build, structure, and nurture relationships with messy human beings—activities that are best understood at the gut level.

As a pastor, I found out most of the real work is done behind the scenes. Without the hard and often chaotic work done during the week, Sunday morning show is at best just a show—full of sound and fury signifying nothing. On the good days, the congregation sees a finished product of a week well spent. Teaching works about the same. The magic that happens in the classroom is usually in direct proportion to the hard work poured into lonely hours of preparation.

However, teachers and preachers are never fully aware of the impact of their hard work. Personally, I can recall only a few of the literally thousands of sermons and lectures I’ve heard, but the kind faces behind the words are hard to forget.

The influential preachers and teachers walking the halls of my brains may not have always had perfect lesson plans or sermon outlines, but they thought that I mattered. In tough times, I can still hear them whisper advice and occasionally even drop a hint or two to the “Final Jeopardy question.”

Unfortunately, these powerful preachers and teachers are often not even aware of their influence. I have never properly thanked Miss Dunnaway, my sixth-grade teacher, or Brother Wakefield, my pastor in some rough teen years. Like all good teachers and preachers, they were aware that it takes more to get through life than just being able to recite the parts of speech or the books of the Bible. Trust me, they would be shocked to find their names in this essay. That little Riggins boy did grow up (at least he got a lot older)!

This week, there will be thousands of hardworking preachers and teachers delivering sermons and lessons to nearsighted people like me. For most hearers, it will be just a pleasing collection of words. But for a few, a phrase here and there may bounce around in a brain and eventually shape some of life’s most important decisions. Sermon outlines or lesson plans never indicate what the result will be.

So the next time you see a preacher or teacher who has influenced your life, thank him or her on behalf of the countless people they touch who never look back.