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Finney (Converse All Stars), Mitchell (Merrill Hiking Shoes)

Most or our parents hope that we will, to some extent, follow in the footsteps of our name sake – filling their shoes, so to speak. Well, here’s the rub. I’m named after a great uncle who was a Southern Methodist circuit rider, John Stephen Mitchell – an itinerant circuit rider in the backwoods of east Tennessee and North Carolina. He literally saddled up his horse every morning and trotted between Knoxville and Ashville, over the mountain passes, preaching the gospel along the way to all who would listen. The problem is this. I’m not big on horses. I’m not a Methodist. I’m not crazy about accosting strangers and preaching to them out of the blue. If I were to fill his shoes, I’d need some pretty hefty hiking shoes.

Circuit Rider

To make matters worse, there’s the whole business of my named professorship at Vanderbilt. I’m not sure whether Divinity School Deans think the same way parents do about “filling the shoes” of those whose named professorship one holds, but if they do, mine presents all kinds of issues. I occupy a chair at Vanderbilt Divinity School named the Charles G. Finney Chair of Preaching and Worship. And Finney, many of you recall, was a rather fiery, pragmatic, itinerant revivalist preacher for much of his career. He firmly believed in something he called The New Measures – by which he meant that there are, no longer, any “measures” and so anything goes in the conversion of sinners to God. Dare I try on those shoes?! In our generation that might mean trying on a pair of Converse All Stars.

Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

So why me? I’ve not been a fan of itinerant preaching most of my career. In fact, as a purveyor of so-called “collaborative preaching” I’m probably the person least likely to fill the shoes of either of these itinerant types.

When I left parish ministry and went into teaching preaching, I realized, about one year into the job, that all teachers of preaching are faced with a tough choice. The job description is simply too big, and something has to give. Teaching, research, writing, and publishing constitute a full time job, and being a seminary’s publicist as “road show preacher” on top of that, if one wants to have a family life, means that one of the other pieces of the job description has to get the short end of the stick. And even if one can get a reduced teaching load, or a guarantee (in writing) that one’s tenure committee will value this kind of “service to the church” as highly as published books or articles, life on the road still threatens one’s time with family.

Because I placed a very high priority on my family, and I loved classroom teaching, research, and writing, I moved itinerant teaching and preaching into the back seat. I learned to say “no” and only preached and taught locally – within a 50 mile radius. In effect, I let itinerant preaching go. I don’t think the seminary president or the development officer liked it, but for the past 25 years, I’ve only preached 3-5 sermons a year – not much to be sure.

It turned out to be a good decision for me and for my family. Weekends at home, going to the ball park, tucking in my kids, going to church together as a family, meal times and prayers together – these were all hugely important, and our family flourished.

I realize that there are those in my guild who are by nature and calling itinerant preachers – good ones. They have to be on the road doing what they are called to do. I know it makes things pretty tough when it comes to time at home, and many of these folks manage amazingly well.

Now that my children have graduated from college and are on their own, I find myself wanting to re-up that part of me that loves being in the pulpit. I don’t have the weekly time to take on a congregational placement on the side, so this means that I have to re-think itinerancy – trying on those shoes once again, so to speak.

And so, for this sabbatical, I decided to turn the “no” button off and accept a couple of invitations to preach (once abroad and a 6 sermon series at a pastor’s school in Hastings, NB), and devote at least 25% of my current sabbatical time (that’s a lot for me!) to writing, practicing, and preaching sermons, not quite one per week, like the old days in the parish, but enough to prime the pump so to speak, in case the coming years present me with a few more possibilities of getting “out and about” as a preacher.

Back to the shoes. Why in the world I was named after an itinerant circuit rider and wound up as the Charles G. Finney Professor of preaching? Is it a sign? Is God having a little fun at my expense? I don’t have a clue. But you know what they say: “If the shoe fits wear it.” So, on this sabbatical, I’m “trying on few (old) shoes.”

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