Forty Years of Ministry – Reflections Past and Present

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 8, 2017

1 Timothy 4:11-16 ESV

The last week of December was a significant milestone for me of sorts, and for Mary Lou and our children as well.  As the year 2016 closed, I completed 40 years of preaching and ministry.  I felt like 40 years of preaching and doing ministry was “sermon worthy,” and some reflections on ministry – both past and present – might prove to be interesting, instructive, and affirming.

That scripture passage that I read to you from the first letter of Timothy was a significant passage that served as a guiding star for me, in a manner of speaking.  Letting no one despise your youth, giving yourself to public reading of scripture and exhortation, not neglecting the gift you have within you, and the council of elders who give their blessing for ministry were all things that spoke to my life in an uncanny way as I struggled with commencing the path to ministry. That passage became my passage.  As suggested in that passage, like the supposed recipient of that letter who appears to have been quite young, I, too, was quite young when I began preaching – only 21 years of age.  The month I turned 22 was when I began “full-time” church work.

In those early years, I only got two vacation Sundays a year, which meant I preached at least 50 sermons every year for several years.  Eventually I worked up to three vacation Sundays a year, and then four, which meant preparing only 48 sermons a year.  The last few years, I have been fortunate to have our Director of Education and Assistant to the Minister preach six sermons a year.  And often it has worked out that I had a funeral or memorial service to prepare during those weeks that Suzanne has been scheduled to give the upcoming Sunday sermon, which has been a tremendous help.  But I guesstimate that over the past 40 years, I have delivered close to 1900 sermons, not counting wedding homilies and funeral and memorial service homilies.

The denomination I grew up in and entered the ministry in permits preaching (in the early years of the denomination it was called “exhortation”) before ordination or even before completing college and seminary.  One who feels called to preach and the ministry meets with a Committee on the Ministry, and if he or she is deemed to be gifted for preaching and ministry, then a blessing is given to preach and visit the congregation, but not to perform weddings or serve communion or other official duties.  Such was my case.  It was deemed that I did, indeed, have the passion, gifts, and calling for preaching and ministry, so I was given the Committee’s blessing and began preaching every Sunday at a little country church of about 60 members in January of 1977.  Our Sunday attendance generally ranged from 30-35.  On a special Sunday such as Easter, we might have 40 or 45.

But what was it that drew me to the ministry at that young age? you may be asking.  Pure and simple, it was sermon preparation and delivery.  My primary motivation for ministry in those early years was writing sermons.  I was drawn to taking a biblical passage or idea and then composing a sermon around it.  Initially I had no thoughts of being a full-time minister of a church, with all the day-in and day-out responsibilities that having oversight of a congregation entails.  I had seen some ministers get crossways with their congregations, or with a few powerful personalities in their congregations, with the result of the minister being run off.  I really didn’t relish such an idea J.  My original idea was to be a lay preacher or traveling preacher, filling in on Sundays or preaching special services, with no other responsibilities other than sermon preparation and delivery.

But God, the Universe, the church, or those I looked to for guidance had other plans.  I soon found myself on the fast track toward full-time Christian ministry and began making preparations accordingly.  During both my college work and my seminary work, my primary focus of interest was preaching and classes that I felt would enhance my preaching ministry.  So in college I majored in Philosophy & Religion with a second major in English writing and literature.  I took two college classes on logic, which were a tremendous help in organizing sermon material.  I loved literature, because it gave me material to draw from for my sermons.  And in seminary, and much later in my doctor of ministry program, I took more classes on sermon preparation and delivery than any other topic.  And I probably have read more books on the subject of sermon preparation and preaching than any other topic.

As an aside, I was reminded last week of a joke that a little girl played on me at church camp one year.  In those early years I spent a week each summer as a church camp counselor, taking along some of the children from the congregations I was serving.  One summer’s day, a third or fourth grade girl who attended the congregation I was serving came up to me at church camp and jokingly said, “What did you do with that money?”

Confused, thinking she had given me some of her money at the beginning of the week to take care of, I replied, “What money?”  She returned, “That money your Momma gave you for preaching lessons, because you sure didn’t use it to learn how to preach!”  And then she and the other kids skipped off, getting a good laugh at my expense.  Well, maybe you feel the same way today, wondering what I did with that money I was supposed to use for preaching lessons! J.

At any rate, as I said, I soon found myself in full-time church ministry, with all the day-in, day-out responsibilities and problems that are peculiar to being a local church pastor.  I served churches early on that were known to be difficult congregations because of the strong personalities and the different factions that were at odds with each other.  There were times when I got very discouraged and wondered whether I should stay in ministry.  But it was always the love of sermon preparation and preaching that kept me there.

Feeling the need for a change of pace, in 1989 our family moved to Franklin, Tennessee, where for 13 years we labored to gather a new congregation from scratch, grow a church, build a church building, and try to establish a strong, self-sufficient congregation.  That was the most difficult work – both emotionally and physically – I have done in ministry.

Then after years of struggle with my own personal theology and sense of self, I changed denominations as I identified with New England Congregationalists and transitioned to the United Church of Christ in 2002.  Then in 2008 we moved here to this United Church.

Well, fast forward to the present – I still have a love of sermon preparation and delivery.  I still relish coming up with and developing a sermon idea and starting a new sermon on Monday morning.  But I am willing to confess that some weeks it is a challenge to compose a new, fresh, interesting, informative sermon, and at least 46 times a year.

But as I reflect on the present, in addition to my love of sermon preparation, there is something more that energizes me in ministry; and that something more is this community, this special church family.  We have grown to love this church family dearly, and we are as close or closer to the people here than in any other congregation where we have been.  Yes, the real joy of ministry here has become the associations with you all – the members – and the loving relationships we have formed here.  I find it a real joy gathering here for services, Coffee Hour, Wednesday on the Hill potlucks, In Reach meetings, and other special gatherings because of the friends and smiling faces that I find each time I come here.

I appreciate the way that Richard and Joy Smith, Suzanne’s parents, put it.  As some of you know, Richard is a retired Baptist pastor.  He and Joy love coming to church here.  And if they didn’t live in Nashville, they would make this United Church their church home.  Richard has said of this United Church on more than one visit here, “This is what a church community is all about.”  That is a pretty significant statement, coming from one who spent several years as a pastor himself.  And I whole-heartedly agree with him.

So my conclusion this morning is an invitation – an invitation for you to pat yourselves on the back.  And if you can’t reach around to pat yourself on the back, then reach over and pat your neighbor on the back.  The United Church of Oak Ridge is a place where I feel free to preach as I feel led to preach.  But it is also a loving, supportive community of friends that makes coming here to preach an even greater joy.  So I thank you for that.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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