Preaching professor turns "player coach"

January 15, 2014

United Methodist News Service - 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.”

Read more.