“I felt like I had the fundamentals of preaching from seminary but I wasn't really happy with my preaching. I had some great books to read but I didn't know how to apply them. I felt like I was just delivering information, just saying something. I felt like I was missing something.”
The Reverend Mitch Tollett is an Episcopal priest and the solo pastor of a pastoral-sized congregation in Tyler, Texas. His feeling that he was “missing something” is common in preachers.
He knew what he should be offering in his sermons—Good News that inspires—but he also knew he wasn’t hitting that mark. And he didn’t know how to create the steps to get him from where he was to where he wanted to be.
The content of his sermons wasn’t his only problem. There was the stress of writing sermons week after week.
“I used to have what feels like panic attacks when it came to planning sermons. On Tuesdays I'd [think], ‘Man I've got another sermon to write!’ So the other structure I was looking for was: how do I plan my weeks so I don't spend my Saturday night at midnight writing.”
Like many clergy, Mitch has a family he wanted to devote his time to on the weekends. Plus, he actually has a personal life! He didn’t want to spend all his time and energy on weekends to producing a lackluster sermon.
“I was looking for ways to help me identify how to move forward in my preaching beyond the books on my shelves. I'm an experiential learner, so reading from books by itself without guidance didn't really work for me. I heard about Backstory Preaching and got excited because there would be an ability to learn more and someone to help guide me through.”
Mitch joined the Backstory Preaching Mentorship in 2016.
He found the core components of the Mentorship—our spiritually based Lectio Divina sermon development process, the 1:1 mentoring, small groups, and parish-based sermon listening groups—vital to his growth as a preacher.
Lectio Divina for Sermon Prep
“For me learning Lectio Divina and applying it to preaching was a way of studying the text with meditation—going deeper than I had before instead of skimming across the top. When you do the whole Lectio Divina process, you can't help but go deeper.”
“The one-to-one was very helpful. I had a really good relationship with my mentor. I could be vulnerable with her. She could be critical with my sermons but never harshly critical; she gave me things to work on. I gained confidence and was encouraged to keep moving in the right direction I had intuited but couldn’t articulate.
Small Group Support
“The small group was great because it gave me encouragement to try new things. It gave me a group also to be vulnerable with and to hear their struggles and know I wasn't alone in mine. Misery loves company, but so does learning! We learn better with each other.”
Parish Listening & Feedback Group
“It was hard to find a listening group who was willing to be vulnerable because when the sermon touched them deeply it made them [feel] vulnerable to disclose what it was that reached them. I was surprised to discover that listening to sermons is a vulnerable process. People’s insights and reactions to the sermon and the text are powerful. Sometimes they didn’t want to share that.
Still I finally formed a group who was willing to listen vulnerably and give helpful feedback. At the beginning of the Mentorship, the comments I got were like what every preacher gets: ‘Good sermon.’ Or ‘That was good.’ But the longer I was in the Mentorship, the more the comments began to change. The comments got more specific, more thoughtful. They were pondering the sermons into the week. My sermons were making more of an impact.”
After concluding the Backstory Preaching Mentorship, Mitch continues to grow in his preaching.
One Year Later
A year finishing the program, a former homiletics professor in Mitch’s congregation said, “You’re good. We’d better watch out, other churches are going to snatch you up!’
Two Years Later
Mitch has continued to grow as preacher as a member of the Backstory Preaching Collective. He’s hearing from ordinarily stoic, rare-to-comment parishioners who say things like, “I really enjoy your sermons,” and “You’ve really gotten good.”
Those comments mean more to him than even the professor’s comments: “It’s very encouraging…I know myself that I've grown.”
Is the Mentorship for You?
Mitch believes preachers should join the Backstory Preaching Mentorship because “the process of sermon prep itself becomes more of a meditation. It becomes less anxiety provoking. I used to panic about what I was going to say, but now [I think], What am I going to discover this week? Or how am I going to think about the congregation differently this week?”
In addition, Mitch says preachers should join the Mentorship because “There’s a joy in delivering the Good News better. There's a joy in connecting with people in your congregation in deeper ways. I'm not saying what you're doing now is shallow, but believe it or not, you can get into some even deeper waters and impact people in more meaningful ways.”
A DIY Approach
If this isn’t the right season for you, you can still apply similar principles in your own preaching life:
establish a sermon prep process that feels life-giving rather than draining
find a group of clergy and support each other in both the day-to-day struggles and in growing in your craft
ask members of your parish if they would serve the congregation by offering specific, constructive feedback on your sermons
find a preaching mentor who will not only offer gentle, honest suggestions for your preaching but who who will help you discover and process through faulty mindsets or false narratives holding you back from being the preacher God called and created you to be
you can always join The Collective for camaraderie, personal growth, and guidance in weekly sermon prep
Changing the status quo in your preaching life requires intention and support. But every preacher can do it.
Every preacher can improve and discover a preaching life of more joy and less stress.
Mentorship Information Sessions
Discover whether the Mentorship is right for you this year.
Tuesday, Sept. 25th at 10:00 a.m.
Thursday, Sept. 27th at 9:30 a.m.
Monday, Oct. 1st at 2:30 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 4th at 8:00 p.m.
Join Mentor (and BsP’s Founder & Steward) Lisa Cressman in a live webinar to learn more about the time commitment, program details, and structure of this 6-month preaching intensive.
Sign up to receive a link to join the information sessions and to receive an application when they’re available on October 1st.