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Finding the right words

United Church minister wants to know what makes a sermon meaningful

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When it comes to building the house of God, Rev. Sharon Wilson follows the blueprint set out by a Canadian television home-improvement guru: Make it right.

"I'd like to talk to Mike Holmes on Holmes on Homes because he always talks about doing things right," says the longtime minister at Windsor Park United Church.

In this case, making it right means improving how she constructs sermons for the 220 or so folks who worship each Sunday at the southeast Winnipeg church. Beginning Jan. 1, Wilson plans to spend three months researching what sort of sermons people want to hear.

"I find the people in my congregation to be intensely interesting. Their lives fascinate me. I want to be able to minister to them more effectively," she says of her sabbatical project, which runs until March 31.

A minister for the past 28 years, Wilson always attempts to connect Sunday-morning worship with people's real Monday-morning lives. One of the ways she's done that is to accompany her parishioners to their jobs for a day to understand what sort of moral and ethical issues they face in their working lives.

In her 13 years at Windsor Park, she's made about three dozen pre-arranged workplace visits, to diverse locales such as an automobile impound lot, a hairdressing salon, and a local radio station.

"Always on first blush, people say my faith doesn't have anything to do with my work." says Wilson, 53. "Somehow we have to help people make the connection."

Wilson already has a list of sermon topics suggested by parishioners, including questions of identity, coping with diversity, faithfulness at work, and finding balance in life.

She's hoping to add to that list by asking ordinary and not-so-ordinary folks what they want to hear on Sunday morning, the one day many of them connect with the church.

Wilson is planning a series of informal and formal meetings during her sabbatical, the first of which took place last Wednesday with people from her own congregation. During her upcoming sabbatical, she has scheduled meetings with a wide range of professionals and workers in Victoria, Ottawa, and Toronto, including an ethicist, an addictions worker, journalists, professors in nursing, business, law, and preaching, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who is studying to become an Anglican priest, and the communications director of Maple Leaf Foods.

Intrigued by the public statements made by Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain during the August 2008 Listeria outbreak at his company, Wilson asked for an interview with someone from the company to learn more about the their crisis communication strategy.

"I was fascinated how about how he (McCain) responded to Listeria, which is to say we made a mistake and how can we help the people affected by it?"

And yes, if Mike Holmes agrees, Wilson would be happy talk to the TV show host about how to apply his motto to her work as a United Church of Canada minister.

A United Church minister who teaches preaching at the University of Winnipeg's faculty of theology tells his students that a good sermon should be conversational in order to engage the audience, but most of all it has to flow from the biblical text.

"It's an incarnational event. It's the word made flesh," says Michael Wilson of Charleswood United Church, who preaches at two services most Sundays.

"It's a theological event. To just come and discuss a point is not the issue. What God has said about this issue is the only thing that matters."

That said, the preacher has to understand his or her congregation in order to effectively convey the message of the text.

"I always advocate you start with a scriptural text and then you let it lead you into the topic," says Rev. Michael Wilson, no relation to Sharon Wilson.

"If you know what matters to your congregation, you can keep that in mind when you go to the text."

Sharon Wilson agrees, and hopes her research will give her a better understanding of what really matters to the people at Windsor Park United, as well as Canadians from many walks of life.

Her conclusions may end up in a book or some electronic format, but in the end, what's really important to her is how to communicate effectively from the pulpit.

"I'm not looking solely at work-related issues. I'm looking at the important issues in people's lives and what are the troubling issues of (their) lives," she says.

"If those are the things going on in people's lives, somehow we have to prepare to speak about them biblically, theologically, and morally."

brenda@suderman.com

Real world,

real sermons

JOIN in Rev. Sharon Wilson's research into the sermons people really want to hear by filling in an on-line survey at www.windsorparkunitedchurch.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2009 H13

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