"The Preacher's Panel of Shame" (and What I Learned from Sitting on It!)

Sharing a laugh with my colleagues during the "Preacher's Panel of Shame!" L-R: The Rev's Nikki Mathis, Lisa Cressman, Kate Spelman, Susan Ironside, Tripp Hudgins. Photo: Mary Donovan

Sharing a laugh with my colleagues during the "Preacher's Panel of Shame!" L-R: The Rev's Nikki Mathis, Lisa Cressman, Kate Spelman, Susan Ironside, Tripp Hudgins. Photo: Mary Donovan

Last week I had the great privilege to teach and preach at the Preaching Excellence Program (PEP) sponsored by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation. PEP annually brings together about sixty Episcopal seminarians from across the U.S. and Canada for a week-long intensive.

Eight preaching professors and clergy served as the faculty. One of the plenary sessions conducted by all of us was officially called, "The Worst Sermon I Ever Preached and What I Learned from It." But the nickname was, "The Preacher's Panel of Shame!"

I haven't laughed so hard in ages as I disclosed my own worst foibles and heard from my colleagues about theirs! Rather than reveal our "worst" sermon (which for all of us had been blessedly erased from our memories; God is merciful!) we on the panel revealed three of our biggest mistakes and what we learned from them. Here are my "Top Three."

1) Don't be a "Lone Ranger"

The first sermon I ever gave as a newly ordained deacon was as a guest preacher in a local parish near my seminary. I was preaching on the Hebrew Scriptures and really struggled to put it together. My memory is fuzzy (thanks be to God!) but it was a harsh, complex text and I think I came up with a harsh, complex message.

A few days after preaching it I received a two-and-a-half page, single-spaced letter (in the mail, mind you) from my Old Testament professor who had been in the congregation that day. The sermon was so bad his letter began, "I am rarely moved to write a letter in response to a sermon, but this one warrants it." It only got worse from there.

Lesson? If you're struggling to write a sermon, get help. Don't think you've got to have all the answers, or know what you're doing, or that you'll embarrass yourself by asking a colleague for a listening ear. There's no shame in seeking assistance! Isn't that what we tell our parishioners all the time? Why should we be any different?

Seriously, I wish I'd had The Backstory Preaching Collective available back then where I could have gone for help. That's one big reason I created The Collective, so I could spare you from sitting on "The Preacher's Panel of Shame!"

2) Have Back-Up

One of my favorite things to do is write a story as the sermon. On one occasion I had written a story and just as I reached its dramatic climax, I lost my place! I had to tell the congregation to wait...wait for it...I've almost got it...so sorry...ummm....almost got it....and on and on it went. This happened not once, but twice at the early and middle services, both times at the height of the tension of the story.

Why did I lose my place? Not because manuscript pages went flying, and not because I had memorized it and forgot where the story was going. I lost my place because I was using an iPad for the first time and somehow made the pages skip way ahead.

Now, to be sure, I had practiced a lot so I knew how to use an iPad for a sermon. However, I had not practiced enough that I knew everything that could go wrong and how to fix it on the fly!

Lesson? When trying something new have a back-up, just in case. I wish I had printed the manuscript and had it with me for just such an event. It's not enough compensation that the third and final service that day went smoothly technologically.

3) Don't be a Show-Off

I have a reputation for doing unexpected things in my sermons. In years past that included, on very rare occasions, speaking in an accent in a portion of some of my story sermons. More recently it's become controversial to use accents in storytelling because it may be seen as disrespectful. I wouldn't do it now, but twenty years ago, and in the way I used accents, that wasn't a consideration.

This particular sermon held some vignettes I had written and I used the same accent for each one. It fit and it worked. However, the penultimate paragraph contained a final vignette told in the first person using a different accent.

Here are the three things to know about that paragraph. One: The paragraph wasn't needed. Two: I did the accent only because I was having fun and not because it developed the sermon message. Three: I used the congregation as an audience. I recognized all three of these points at the moment I uttered the first syllable of that paragraph but didn't have the grace or experience to know how to stop and skip to the concluding paragraph.

Lessons? Don't abuse the privilege to be a preacher. Don't mistake offering a word of God as a chance for personal amusement. Don't take a personal point of privilege or take advantage of those listening because they're a captive audience. And most importantly, don't abuse the trust our listeners extend to us.

Or else you, too, could find yourself a panelist on "The Preacher's Panel of Shame," Bwah-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!

Want to avoid "The Panel" for mistakes in storytelling

and, (on the upside), learn how to tell stories more effectively?

On Tuesday, June 12, the online Backstory Preaching Collective+ will be pleased to hear from the Rev'd Dr. Lisa Lamb, Fuller Theological Institute! Join us for this wonderful continuing education opportunity and discover how to tell stories that grip your listeners' attention and illuminate the sermon message (while avoiding the pitfalls that weigh your sermon down!).

Other lecturers in the coming months in The Backstory Preaching Collective+ include Ron Allen (Christian Theological Seminary), Leah Schade (Lexington Theological Seminary), Micah Jackson (Bexley-Seabury), Ruthanna Hooke (Virginia Theological Seminary), Karoline Lewis (Luther Theological Seminary), Sam Wells ( St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London), and Bishop Rob Wright (Atlanta).

You won't want to miss a single one!