Top Preacher Shows Students Their Own Gifts

REAL Possibilities
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Preaching doesn’t get any better than Tom Long. Candler’s Bandy Professor of Preaching, he was carefully selected a decade ago to carry on the legacy of an earlier great Candler preaching professor, Fred Craddock. And that he has. Tom LongNamed one of the top 12 preachers in the English-speaking world, Long receives requests from churches all over the country to grace their pulpits. He’s on the road nearly every Sunday sharing the gospel and his gift, and he’s often booked to preach two or more years in advance.

When Long’s not preaching or preparing his next sermon, he’s writing books that are as revered as his preaching  (19 and counting), including Accompany Them with Singing—The Christian Funeral, The Witness of Preaching (now in second edition), Preaching from Memory to Hope and the soon-to-be-released What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering and the Crisis of Faith (Eerdmans Publishing).

Yet Long says his favorite part of his triune job—preacher, scholar, and professor—is teaching students. “The most vocationally fulfilling role is to equip people to be creative, responsible preachers. Nearly every skill I have is pressed to the maximum in the classroom.”

It stands to reason that delivering a first sermon in front of one of the world’s foremost preachers would scare the daylights out of students. But with Long’s approach, students know they are safe.

“‘Do no harm’ is my motto,” he said. “The first task is to make sure they don’t fall hard. If they fall hard, it can scar them for a lifetime.”

How does he prevent injury? “I look for the glint of gold in each sermon, so students know they’re good. I want them to know they can do this. Once we get that out there, then we can work on some growth areas.”

Stacey Harwell (MDiv ’10) is a great example. Now the minister of community building at Centenary UMC (see related story), as a first-year Master of Divinity student she didn’t think she wanted to be a pastor because she feared preaching. “Tom Long told me, ‘You can do this’ and that gave me the confidence I needed,” she said.

Adds Long, “Students are walking a tight rope when they preach. They do and don’t want to do it. It’s scary and thrilling, and it doesn’t let them hide.”

That anxiety is all too familiar to Long. “I was terrified at first. I was so paralyzed by stage fright that I couldn’t even recite in class,” he said, referring to his days in college. It was only in seminary, when he was required to stand up and preach, that he manage to tamp down the fear. Later when he served as a parish pastor, he worked “really, really hard” on preaching. “It was a wonderful agony.”

Today, says the famous preacher, “I still get keyed up when I preach.”