Did you have a career before you went to seminary? What was it?
Mine was nursing. Surgical Intensive Care. I worked in a clinical setting for four years before heading off for my M.Div.
My nursing training and career helped with many aspects of parish ministry.
Preaching wasn’t one of them.
Preaching is Harder When Your Background Doesn’t Include Writing or Public Speaking.
What’s your background?
People attend seminary with all kinds of backgrounds that may assist in various aspects of ministry.
A background in business or finance is great for managing the parish finances.
Work as a lawyer helps with legal aspects of being in charge of the nonprofit that is a parish or other ministry.
Engineering leads to clear thinking and the ability to distinguish the “trees” from the “forest.”
Intensive care nursing helped me distinguish between what’s “life and death” and what isn’t. (Hint: It isn’t “death” unless it’s an actual death.) It allowed me feel at ease in any crisis, and during hospital visits, I could translate medical jargon into terms parishioners could understand. Very useful!
But nursing didn’t help much in the pulpit.
I had no idea how to write. And the last time someone guided me on my speech rate was during my final thespian jaunt for my ninth grade play.
How about you?
Prior to seminary, what prepared you to write...
- and memorably?
And how about public speaking? How much training did you receive before, during, and after seminary to…
- speak at a rate everyone can understand, no matter the acoustics
- use vocal inflections to make your point
- use gestures in service of the message
- not fidget?
Most of us haven’t taken writing classes since seminary, nor have we joined Toastmasters.
Unless you’ve had a genuinely helpful colleague (as opposed to the “well-intentioned” colleague), you’re probably like the rest of us:
You’ve had to figure it out on your own.
And that’s not easy.
So how do you improve your writing and speaking when you lack formal training? Try these tips the next time you preach.
Tip #1: Make a recording and watch yourself.
In the absence of a professional mentor or teacher to provide feedback, you'll need to become your own constructive critic. You will initially feel resistance because watching yourself is hard. What you don't know can't hurt you, you think. The problem is, what you don't know can't help you either.
Self-awareness is the starting point for professional growth. So become a student of your strengths and weaknesses, your subconscious habits, your quirks and charm. Stay open.
With smart phones and iPads, it’s easy to have a recording made. Ask anyone in your congregation to record one of your sermons with the device most convenient for you.
Then (gulp!) watch yourself. Just do it. Set your ego aside, and embrace a spirit of curiosity and compassion.
Tip #2: Watch yourself in a spirit of curiosity, Noticing what worked and what didn't.
Get curious about all the things that went right. Yes, notice all the things that worked, that felt compelling, that had the congregation laughing, nodding, or otherwise engaged. Write them down and thank the Holy Spirit for working through you!
Also, get curious about what was less effective. Are there any verbal or physical "tics" or reflexes that distract you? Were you easily heard from start to finish? Was your thread of logic clear from point to point? Were there places your listeners seemed to lose interest? Why?
Consider what you could do differently in service of the Gospel. The goal is to magnify the Lord, to spread the Good News as deeply and widely as we can. So get curious—rather than judgmental—about what you want to do better, and write that down as well.
Tip #3: Watch yourself with the spirit of compassion, remembering your call.
Preaching is hard. It’s really hard.
It requires two complex skills (writing and public speaking) for which you've received little formal training. Practice without additional training and feedback will only take you so far.
And yet, you preach anyway—in spite of all its difficulties and challenges—because you’re obeying your call.
Because Jesus commanded you to feed his sheep.
Because God is always in the business of using imperfect, under-prepared, insecure folks who feel inadequately equipped for the work (think Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Jonah, Mary, Peter, etc.).
And still God says:
“Well done, good and faithful servant!”
God does not ask more of us than this: that we show up and do the good work prepared for us. No matter how skilled we become at any aspect of ministry, including preaching, all we can do is be faithful to our call.
"Here I am, Lord."
You are doing the best you know how to do.
So as you watch yourself in a spirit of curiosity and compassion, hoping to grow and improve, remember your real audience is an audience of One, and He is already deeply pleased because you've been faithful to the call.
If professional growth stems from self-awareness, spiritual growth stems from the honest acknowledgement that God has made us and prepared us for the work to which we've been called—and God will be faithful to complete that work in us and through us.
Together, professional and spiritual growth will help you become the preacher you desire to be, to the glory of God.
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Let me know what preaching challenges you face. I’m here to help you “Be Good News to Preach Good News.”