The Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church Photo courtesy Carla Pratt Keyes
Their masterful delivery of relevant and relatable messages has earned each of these clergy
members an enthusiastic following. Religious leaders who share the tenets of preparation and reflection, they also keep a finger on the pulse of their congregations, the larger community and world events.
The Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes
When preparing her sermons, the Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church (GPPC) writes "everything down in a mind map," she says. "Then I start surfing the Web. I read newspaper articles, blogs, theological journals, song lyrics — all kinds of things. Sometimes I'll track down books and Bible commentaries." The congregation also conducts brainstorming sessions. "We look at the Scriptures coming up and talk about the themes, images and questions that arise." In general "people appreciate sermons that help them to see the world in a new light … sermons that name the pain they're feeling or a problem they're facing and help them address it somehow." Church member Randy Hallman describes Pratt Keyes as "spiritually intelligent, really sharp and willing to contemplate the complexity of faith." She also "has a wonderful gift for speaking from the heart, and to your heart and soul," he says.
The Rev. James Somerville
The pastor of First Baptist Church on Monument Avenue likens his weeklong sermon preparation and reflection to making a stew. "You've got it in the pot on the back of the stove; you've got to simmer it and really let all of that cook and the flavors mix together over time," says Rev. James "Jim" Somerville. To connect with his congregation, he considers to whom he is preaching and what life is like for them. "I'm not a topical preacher," he says. "It's not like I look at the newspaper and say, ‘Hmm, here's a lot of concern here on health care. I'm going to preach on that.' I preach using the lectionary," a three-year plan for preaching through most of the Bible. On a scale of 1 to 10, Somerville's storytelling abilities are 15, says church member Raylene Harton. "He has such good stories and the way he can identify with people in the pew, he just keeps you engaged during the sermon. When it is over you go, ‘No, we want some more!' " The Rev. Tyrone Nelson The Rev. Tyrone Nelson, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, reads five newspapers daily to stay current (and occasionally lands in newsprint as a member of the Henrico County Board of Supervisors). That discipline, along with being attuned to what's going on with church members, helps him deliver sermons that affect lives. Having an idea of what he will talk about next aids in his weekly preparation. "I preach in series," focusing on a particular subject. Messages that resonate the most, he says, address relationships. "God created us to be in a relationship with each other. People want to know how to do that." Nelson's "ability to make the Scripture applicable and relevant for the 21st century … pulls people to our congregation, especially young adults," says Dwylene Butler, a church member. Rabbi Ben Romer Research is just one step in delivering a stirring and memorable sermon, says Rabbi Ben Romer of Congregation Or Ami. "Information is nice and facts are interesting, but [the message] has to be where the passion is. The bigger part is, where do I want to go with it? That takes me some time, literally sitting and thinking and developing." Romer abstains from using a written text as often as possible. "It's prepared, but it's not in front of me in the sense of ‘turn the page, turn the page.' My intent is to reach the person where he or she is and speak to them," he says. "It has to be real." And his sermons are, says Steve Saltzberg, a synagogue board member. "It's his passion and his willingness to go on a limb and tell people how important these things are. He doesn't hold back." The Rev. Michael Renninger A known storyteller, the Rev. Michael Renninger, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church on Gayton Road, says his style is modeled after that of a childhood pastor who told stories he still remembers 40 years later. "That's what Jesus did in his preaching — he used examples from ordinary life to lead people to the deeper mystery he wanted to teach them." Parishioner Kirk Collins agrees. "He's not afraid to relate personal things that he's going through in order to draw you in." Renninger prepares by reading the Bible passages he is assigned by the parish, as well as commentaries and works by Scripture scholars. "I try to have one ear listening to the Scripture and one ear listening to what's happening in my parishioners' lives," he says. Usually, a major point will come to him in prayer, "and that's how I run with the rest of my preparation."