Our journey began the first day I preached a sermon in front of people. Morgan told me after that sermon, “You must free yourself from the manuscript.” I couldn’t imagine doing that, and asked Morgan for help. Our journey continued for fifteen years. I shared my sermons (written and video) with Morgan and we engaged in conversations about preaching, congregations, struggles, God, and life. Join us and watch as I learn to preach, Morgan shares a lifetime of wisdom with me, and we both receive the blessing of friendship and sharing ministry. Come behind the scenes to the place where sermons are made.
It has been said speaking in public is one of the greatest fears human beings can face. A fear even greater than dying. I was often reminded of that fear when I preached funerals in my early years. In those days, the preacher was perched over an open casket. It was a bit like standing at the edge of a cliff, suspended between the person who had died and the people who were very much alive and waiting for me to speak to them. I tried to keep my eyes facing forward into the crowd, but occasionally I glimpsed the dead person lying at my feet. Then I would catch myself with a start and try to resume my public speaking with some semblance of dignity.
Morgan described the experience of preaching in front of people as “solo flight.” In those early years, when I walked up front, the first thing I noticed was I was alone up there. If I dared to take a moment to gaze at the faces, I realized I wasn’t only alone up there, but these people were waiting for me to say something. What, I wondered, would I say today? The only way to take off in this solo flight was to forget I was alone, forget all those people who were sitting there, and just start talking as if I were speaking to a trusted friend about the most important thing in the world. In Isaiah 40, we are told those who “wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary. They will walk and not faint” (Isa 40:31). Most Sundays, as I walked to the front to preach, I would say in my heart one simple prayer, “O Lord, please help me to walk and not faint. O Lord, please help me to walk and not faint.”
But I was still clinging to the manuscript.
“The development of a preacher is the work of a lifetime,” Morgan said to me one day.
Thank God for that, I thought. At this rate, a lifetime won’t be long enough.
I never actually read a sermon from a manuscript after Morgan told me I must let the congregation see my eyes and my face. Instead, I rolled up the manuscript in my right hand, walked down to the floor (on the level where the people were) and preached. Usually I forgot at least half of the sermon. When that happened, I just kept talking until I found my place in the manuscript. Looking back on those two years, I am eternally grateful people still sat there, listened as best they could, and shook my hand when it was all over. Preachers owe a huge debt to the people in the pews. A debt greater than they will ever know.
Each week, Morgan and I met. Each week I told him I could not let go of that manuscript. It would be like being cut off from the mother ship, left to drift in space. Of course, I was already drifting in space when I held the manuscript in my hand. But I still had that piece of paper I could open and read, which I felt was a much better option than running out of the sanctuary.
After about six months of preaching while holding my sermon rolled up in my right hand, I walked to the front empty-handed. I didn’t feel free from the manuscript. But I noticed I could use my right hand while preaching. I’m not sure anyone in the congregation noticed. It wasn’t the breakthrough I had anticipated. But it was a step …
During our 15 years together, Morgan and I shared some of the greatest challenges of ministry: The loneliness of standing in front of the people Sunday after Sunday, proclaiming there is still good news. Good news! The temptation to do things ourselves because it is so much harder to involve others. The arrogance that waits around the corner of every success. The despair that waits around every corner of every failure. The temptation to forget who we are, failing to remember we belong to God, not to ourselves. The struggle with every breath to trust God in all things. As I continue in new journeys, I take the blessing of Mentoring with Morgan with me. And through this book, I also share that blessing with you, dear reader.
Praise For Mentoring with Morgan
“Deeply moving … When I finished Schlack’s book, I felt like I’d been on a rafting trip with two friends, Karen and Morgan. Conversation flowed. We basked in the sunshine of ministerial wisdom. We shot through the rocks of preaching social justice. My companions were unafraid to tackle hard homiletic questions: how to preach with humility, to care about the people, to have the courage of conviction. I enjoyed the journey!”
—Karla Bellinger, Associate Director, John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics, University of Notre Dame
“Karen’s conversation partner, Dr. F. Morgan Roberts, tells her, ‘The conversation between the Christ in you and the Christ in every other life is happening all the time.’ Karen gives readers an intimate glimpse into this conversation and the sermon-making process. She shows us the transformation possible when we listen deeply to ourselves, to one another, and to Scripture.”
—Lynne Smith, OSB, Presbyterian pastor and Benedictine sister at Holy Wisdom Monastery, Madison, Wisconsin
“Those of us in the pews want and need clear, understandable, inspirational preaching. Students of church ministry and even experienced preachers seek to provide that. This book gives a highly readable example of how that can be accomplished for both audiences, through a delightful mentoring experience.”
—Dot Ridings, former Board Chair of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
About the Author
Karen Schlack is retired pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Elgin, IL. Prior to becoming a pastor, Karen was the administrator of child and adolescent psychiatric units, opened the Laureate Day School, was a manager in the healthcare practice of Ernst & Young, and wrote and taught the leadership curriculum for Good Samaritan Society.