Is there a u in sermon?


“I don’t like to talk about myself in sermons,” a preacher told me recently. I’ve heard that a lot from pastors. There’s a sense that we are there to present the word of God, to talk about what commentators and theologians say about the Scripture, but not to focus a spotlight on ourselves. I respect that idea, but I don’t practice it myself. Because I don’t think it’s possible to separate myself from preaching.

I’m all over my sermons. Is it because I’m an ego-maniacal exhibitionist? Not really. Those who know me well (well…my husband) can tell you just how many secrets I keep neatly wrapped up only for myself. You wouldn’t know it if you heard me preach every Sunday, but my self-disclosure boundaries are actually pretty high. I don’t talk about personal things publicly unless I’ve adequately dealt with the event emotionally and spiritually, and I’ve gotten the appropriate blessing from the other people involved.

Perhaps the reason I come to preaching from a little different angle has to do with a shift in interpretation in general. There was a thought that we could cross over a bridge–a hermeneutical bridge–and transport ourselves into the first century. We could learn all of the customs and the traditions of Jesus and the disciples. We could understand the author’s intent, and then we could present that intent to our congregations.

This worked for a really long time. Especially since the writers of most of our commentaries were academics–and European white males.

But then, we began to hear disparate notes. And a chord began to form when women and ethnic minorities began to crowd the halls of academia, pointing out the neglected texts of terror and wrestling with the scriptures in new ways.

The liberationist movement began base communities asking people–all kinds of people–cleaning women, squatters, children, “What does this mean to you?” Then, women and so many others who were on the outside margins of society began to stand in the pulpits and proclaim what the parables, poetry and prophecy meant to them, in their particular circumstance.

And even though all of these people were speaking all along, we began to listen to each other. Intently. As we did, a great symphony arose from Christendom. We understood these powerful words in the contexts of different people, and we realized that no one ever really knew the author’s intent completely. No one ever made it over that bridge without dragging a whole lot of baggage with them.

As preachers, we read texts through our own eyes–our socioeconomic background, our educational experience, our family relationships, our heartaches, and our triumphs. And so, as I prepare my sermons for Sunday morning, I can’t separate myself from the Scripture. I’m right in there. I have a messy relationship with all of those words.

And I don’t try to separate myself. I try to be acutely aware of my location in the text, and it’s location within me. I begin to think about how it resonates, inspires, angers, or irritates me.

When I read about Mary giving birth to Jesus I can’t ever forget that good Saturday when I became a mom, and I can’t help but realize that all of my life, as many times as I heard that story echo from a pulpit, I had never heard it coming out of a mother’s mouth.

And so, I tell the stories, the stories of the scriptures along with my own stories, with all the sights, smells, and emotions. Not because I’m a very open person, but because I hope that my particular context might help someone else. That the small details of my particular narrative might somehow tap into the great meta-narrative that forms us as people. Because I hope that I can add a note to that symphony. A note that resonates inside of someone else, and allows them to be a part of it.

So, what about you? Do you ever tell personal stories? Why or why not? What works for you in the pulpit? What inspires you when you hear others preach?

the photo’s by parasol


30 thoughts on “Is there a u in sermon?

  1. I can distinctly remember the first time I saw a woman robed, and heard her reading the scripture and leading the prayers – in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, no less! And then the first time I heard a woman preach from the pulpit, Lee talked about cheerios, babies and the grocery store. It was only a few short years before I was in a pulpit. I had discovered that the gospel could be spoken in MY voice, too. When a man recently accused me of using only “feminine” imagery in my preaching I was stunned into silence, but what occurred to me is how many incomprehensible sports-imagery sermons I had struggled to understand! There is definitely a “U” in my preaching, and the ones with the most U are the ones best received – if the comments of both men and women count for anything.

  2. Ha ha ha! I received my religious education while the Chicago Bulls were rising to new heights as a basketball team. And you would not believe the number of sermons I sat through, sighing deeply, thinking, Even if I kept up with all the sports… I really doubt that Michael Jordan actually relates to that parable.

    Sports analogies aren’t all bad. But I agree. I think we’ve paid our dues. We’ve sat through enough of them, at least enough so that we can talk about the cheerios a little bit.

  3. I hear you. It seems to me the dangers to avoid are (1) having the sermon be all about the preacher (which can happen whether or not the pronoun is used), and (2) not inviting others in so the “you” fails to become an “us.”

    Big generalization time: I think male preachers too often forget sexist and socially-privileged (though dubious) position from which they speak. For the gender that has blamed women for sin to use personal examples might reinforce these stereotypes. As a listener to sermons, I don’t care what another man has to say about himself. But I’d love to hear a new perspective with new insight.

    It’s a balance thing. Let’s say, if “I” is regularly in your sermons more than ten times per sermon, it might be time to look outward a bit more. Hmm, off to search my sermons to run this test…

  4. In my opinion, what I find people desperately want most out of a sermon is to know how the Scripture is relevant to their daily lives. Gone are the days of teaching generic “truths” or “principles” from a passage and assuming everyone will just automatically apply it to their lives as if it came with some unwritten but known magic, step-by-step instructions.

    I find that I can’t adequately help others to know how a passage is relevant to their daily lives, unless I have a damn good idea how it is relevant to my life – in detail, with examples. And I regularly find that my struggles in finding the relevancy of Scripture in my life, is often similar to other people’s struggles.

    I wonder how much of the “Don’t preach about yourself” mantra, is from an outdated image of The Minister. The Minister knows more than you and doesn’t have the struggles that you do, so how could examples (yes, he) from his life benefit you? But I think people today are looking for ministers that more follow Jesus’ example of a wounded and vulnerable leader. I think people want a minister who can help them find God in the chaos and hurt of life, not because they learned how in seminary, but because they’ve had to do it themselves and are willing to let people in on the highs and lows of those experiences.

  5. I preach personally, too. But I carefully wade through my sermons for the BBT test: can most people in my congregation easily put themselves in the “I”? BBT encourages “I” stories that are set in the common life and culture of your congregation (walking the dog is the example she gave). She says stories in which the preacher is “set apart” by having gone to seminary or having done CPE or having done some fantastic mission trip to some-place far, far away create a “pastor as paragon of christianity that you will never, ever catch up to unless you, too, go to seminary/Uganda/tour with up with people” dichotomy that is hard to hear.

    I tend to agree. I know many of the “mountaintop” experiences feel so, so preachable. But when you’re in the pews thinking that what is described is something you will never, ever have the opportunity to do, it does feel pretty crappy. I think you can preach stories from these experiences that don’t feel alienating, but it takes some good crafting, and grounding the stories in the quotidian.

    Then there’s the “this one time, at band camp” phenomenon—where no sermon is complete without a football/music/trip to Asia reference. That makes me crazy. (I suffered through 5 years of Abraham Lincoln stories with a pastor who was, um, obsessed.)

    Sadly, I got this BBT advice about 5 years out of seminary, after having subjected my first congregation to many stories of this cool thing that happened at seminary….

  6. Yet another great conversation here. Carol, you so effectively invite conversation. I appreciate that so much.

    It is strange, but after six years of preaching nearly every Sunday I don’t think I have a fixed preaching style. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I find that different texts call me to very different styles of preaching- some very didactic, some very personal, some very dramatic. That’s probably an obvious statement, but it is just what comes to mind as I reflect on my preaching. Those sermons which have, as central, a personal story are deeply appreciated by a significant cross-section of the congregation. Then again, the 1st person monologues I’ve been doing all Lent are appreciated by an even larger cross-section. That, in and of itself, is interesting. 1st person is captivating for the congregation I serve.

    I definitely don’t hesitate to use the “I” in preaching, but am discerning about what level of self-disclosure is appropriate from the pulpit. Susan’s input from BBT is helpful and I’ll be thinking on this. Your thoughts about not sharing something unless it is worked through and you have permission from all involved leads me to realize how frequently a conversation from the week in which I’m preparing a sermon finds its way into the sermon (with permission of the conversation partners unless it is totally innocuous or easily generalizable). In that case personal experience that is not fully processed regularly shapes my preaching.

  7. I’ve wanted to try the 1st person monologue, but I’ve been too chicken. You say it works well? How do you do it? Are you scripted? Do you always speak for women, or have you spoken for men? Good for your congregation to allow that sort of freedom.

    I often go through exercises, a thought process where I try to imagine what a character was thinking…. You know… this sounds very cheezy… but I sort of try to channel them. Not in a supernatural sense, but in an acting sense. It’s often helps.

  8. Great thoughts. I think nearly everyone here has said the same thing, and I’m not going to be that different. Essentially, personal disclosure in a sermon is good so long as it is not self-absorbed, and the experiences described are translatable to other people’s life context.

    To add one note – I think it is a very important that the preacher remember what it is he or she is doing, ie: proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. If your life experience somehow assists that proclamation great. But a sermon is not just a touch-feely lecture, or a teaching moment for practical life lessons. A sermon is about the Word, about proclamation, about making the presence of Jesus Christ known and felt. I know some preachers who use personal experience to great advantage in this enterprise and I applaud them, but I do worry personally about the temptation to be egomanaical in the pulpit or just to forget what an awesome responsibility we are charged with and turn a sermon into a fireside chat.

  9. Great article, I’m coming up on celebrating my first year of ministry with an established church who have a history of 140 years of men in the pulpit. 140 years of sports and hunting and “guy stuff”. When I preach I am so mindful of exactly what you stated “I don’t talk about personal things publicly unless I’ve adequately dealt with the event emotionally and spiritually and I’ve gotten the appropriate blessing from the other people involved.” I struggled throughout seminary when I was told do not use the personal, do not use your story, change the names, put up our boundaries. I like you keep my secrets close to my heart, but I know that when I share pieces of myself with my congregation it allows them to open up. I spent 25 years in the corporate sector as a public speaker and presenter and I can give academic and intellectual sermon anytime but I do not believe it is what is needed in our churches today, people need to see themselves in the story and see a message that they can carry into the world, a message that on Wednesday they can continue to have “Aha” moments. Thank you for your writings they are so insightful.

  10. I read “What is the What” by Dave Eggers, and it was interesting. It was about a Sudanese refugee-one of the lost boys. And the history of the country became important to me because of the singular words–his retelling–was so vivid. It was personal, detailed, and something in those particular words woke me up to this expansive reality. When I was able to make this personal connection with the narrative, and the larger history became important to me.

    I hope that’s what we can do in our sermons. It’s not that I want people to know every detail of my personal life (yikes!). It’s that connection–to put it in Jungian terms–it’s a connection to the collective unconscious.

  11. For a book on said questions, I’d recommend Lucy Rose’s “Preaching in a Roundtable Church.” Rose’s sermon style was often entirely in the first person, but also inviting others in through her narrative.

    Or for a more recent work, Anna Carter Florence’s “Preaching as Testimony” for a strong argument that highlights testimony through several centuries of women preachers and ends up with ideas for application today.

    Shawn’s comments make me a bit nervous. He says, “…[that model] is from an outdated image of The Minister. The Minister knows more than you and doesn’t have the struggles that you do, so how could examples (yes, he) from his life benefit you? But I think people today are looking for ministers that more follow Jesus’ example of a wounded and vulnerable leader.”

    I agree, BUT, ministers do have a certain authority and education. No matter how much you understand the priesthood of all believers, parishoners will hold you up higher than you should be. Male ministers using examples from their lives will be heard as “I went to seminary, I know stuff” no matter whether that’s the farthest thing from their mind or not. We don’t need more men drawing attention to themselves, but inviting other voices into the conversation that men have kept out.

  12. I have used monologues on occasion, but not recently. I don’t know if I think they work all that well for a sermon, unless there is somthing I can “don” to show that I am putting on a character. I did some monologues for Lent one year: different people took turns doing them (not me) and I think they worked well.

    I’d like to say that I have a variable preaching style, but I don’t think it’s true. I do use personal stories, but I try not to use “preacher stories” you know, “I went to a pastor’s meeting” sort of thing. I try to use stories from everyday life that others can be invited into. and I don’t ALWAYS use a personal story. I think the thing about being personal, is not always about using a personal story. I think the story has to be authentic. So I use examples from literature, or from old movies.

    I’m terrible at didactic sermons. I wish I were better. I love to tell stories, personal or otherwise.

    I said something derogatory about myself once, to a staff member, about having a set “style” and maybe being too predictable, and this person said, “What’s wrong with that? Garrison Keillor opens every Saturday with “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone…” and you don’t hear anyone complaining. So although I’d like to be more versatile, maybe having a “style” has some advantages…

    Just thinking about this one.

  13. In the church I’ve been attending this past year, the called & installed pastor has been out on maternity leave since mid-January. In her place, congregants have been taking turns in the pulpit with guidance from some of the H.R.’s in the congregation.

    The most powerful, the most compelling sermons have flowed out of a sense of what Anna Carter Florence identified (for me – a product of a PCUSA seminary) as Testimony: deep personal stories of their encounter with Christ and The Word in the middle of the day to day struggles of their life (which include some tremendously heavy burdens of illness and grief and death and loss. It had power because they chose to struggle publicly with the scripture and with their understanding of where and how God is at work in their life.

    Personally I love/am terrified of preaching – for me it is a moment when the word spoken becomes The Word and is mediated by the Holy Spirit as it enters into the congregation’s ears and hearts and minds. Its sooooo not about me. Its sacred.

  14. Okay. It’s been recommended to me about 20 times… now this discussion…. Time to buy Anna Carter Florence’s book.

    I haven’t heard of Lucy Rose’s. Sounds interesting. Thanks, Adam.

  15. Glad I checked back in here. My 1st person monologues do seem to work very effectively as sermons. I script them, but memorize them and deliver them from the floor. I don’t wear any sort of costume (just my usual robe and stole) and this year I have experimented with male, as well as female characters. A man with a theater background in the congregation recommended that I take silence before and after to allow the character to emerge and leave. I’ve been doing that Lent 2-4 and it seems helpful. Prior to this year monologue preaching was only something I did VERY occasionally. But I decided to do it for every week of Lent this year. I’m collaborating with a colleague on the writing to make it more doable. You can find the monologue I wrote from the perspective of the Woman Caught in Adultery for Lent One (off lectionary just this week) here, the monologue I wrote from the perspective of the Man Born Blind for this past week here (down a bit in purple font), and the one I’m doing next week I wrote several years ago and have done more than once already. That was probably the first monologue sermon I did here and it was received so well it gave me the courage to try more.

    All sorts of people in the congregation respond powerfully to preaching in this way, but the youth have retained details of biblical stories and engaged me in such profound conversations after I preach in this way. I think that I don’t often connect terribly effectively with the youth through my preaching so I decided this Lent was for them.

    I’ve heard that monologue sermons often don’t work, especially if the worship leader is doing anything else in the service, but that is not my experience.

    If you do exercises like you suggest, you could easily write such a monologue and you might be surprised at how effective it turns out to be.

    I think that this approach could be really cheesy. I guess it is just a good fit in my particular context.

  16. ACF references LR’s book in hers, so you can probably start with the ACF. I have some quibbles with it, but it’s an overall great book (when don’t I have quibbles with a book, though). I particularly love the historical pieces at the front of the book—the chapters that I thought I’d hate!

  17. I just got Anna Carter Florence’s book after PPB’s recommendation (thanks so much!) and skipped to the “how to” stuff at the end – it definately looks like something I want to read all of. Looking forward to hearing your opinion of it, too!

    Also, I will see her in Mpls at the festival of homiletics in May and will hopefully be able to report back more on her MO.

    RE preaching in teh first person – I did this two weeks ago with the Woman at the Well — had the scripture read in 3 parts and then told the story from 3 perspectives. I wore a purple sacky sort of dress instead of a robe and took off my shoes so I was in bare feet and had a scarf that I moved around for the different characters, each of whom (woman, male disciple, female townsperson) talked about how they had been changed by Jesus. I preached outside of the pulpit – notes in my pocket for emergencies but I did not look at them.

    I havent been preaching regularly all that long, but it was the most positive feedback I’ve gotten from any sermon by far – LOTS of comments even later in the week and even several emails to say “thanks” from people all over the map theologically.

    All this, a very long way to say it’s worth trying.

  18. “I think that this approach could be really cheesy. I guess it is just a good fit in my particular context.”

    I didn’t mean what you were doing was cheesy. I meant the use of the word “channeling” was cheesy! Like I’m Demi Moore at the pottery wheel…

    Thanks for the links.

  19. And.. I’ve been thinking about Adam and Shawn’s discussion. There’s a particular balance between a wounded healer and an expert. As a woman, I think this is a slippery beam.

    Remember Hillary? When she sighed and became really human for about 3 and a half seconds on the campaign trail? I thought that she had a nervous breakdown trail, the way that the media was covering it.

    Then, I saw the actual footage, and couldn’t believe it.

  20. thanks for clarifying, More Cows. I like the idea suggested about having some time for the character to “enter” and “leave”. I think if I had more acting background, I might feel more comfortable with it,but I do like writing them!

    I used a couple of them for teaching a confirmation lesson. I was “Rebekah” once for a confirmation class, and the class really listened and wanted to know what happened next. I didn’t have a script memorized for that one, though. And I ended my lesson with the two boys (Jacob and Esau) feuding, so that the class would have to look it up in the Bible to find out what happened next.

    P.S. More Cows, I don’t find it Cheesy … but I just find it difficult to take off the “pastor” mantle and go into character, and then go back again.

  21. Carol, this is such a wonderful conversation! In 15 years of preaching, I did occasional monologues (mostly of women, but a few men) and they were always well received. For me, it was another way of inviting people into the living nature of the scripture.

    But mostly I preached more conventionally and quite personally. Definite boundaries, kept my own secrets, preached only those parts of myself that I had enough distance from, and only used examples that felt really connected to the text and its impact on me. I like the idea of testimony. I hope that’s what I offered.

    I often found, after I shared something in the sermon, that I’d get several calls that week from parishioners who related to what I said and wanted to share something — about infertility, for example, or guilt or depression or a deep experience of prayer. I liked that my sermons could be a bridge to deeper conversations.

  22. Yes. I think they can be bridges. After all no one ever says, “Henri Nouwen’s writing. It all about him. Or Parker Palmer. What a narcissist.”

    Instead, we know that their experience is about something we all take part in. And it’s about meeting God in the midst of the humanity. We know that we share something deep with these men, because they were brave enough to talk about their depression or their woundedness.

  23. I’m late to the discussion… Nice blog you have here!

    At a former Episcopal parish (in SF) the preaching style was to take the lection, find a resonance in your own life and then, preaching from your experience, draw the congregation into responding to the text with their own experience. This was facilitated by sharing elicited from the congregation after every sermon (usually 4 – 6 folks volunteered sharing). Far from being a monologue, it turned into a community midrash on the text.

    But when I was in (a different denomination’s) seminary, my mentor wouldn’t let me present a Lenten homily project based on the same idea. “You should never say ‘I’ in a sermon” I was told.

    But now I cannot imagine preaching the other way. It seems totally dishonest. I’m not an expert – especially after some seminary and 20 years preaching and writing about religious things. When I hear impersonal “expert” preaching I zone out… I think it’s the difference between midrash and pontificating that makes or breaks the whole thing.

  24. I agree with Shawn, that people want to hear how scripture and the Good News applies to them — and they often need personal examples from the preacher.

    I did one monologue (John the Baptist) and it was VERY well received. No costumes, no nothing. Preached from the pulpit, so not “performed.”

    In 9 years of regular preaching, the single most effective technique (measured by congregational response, of course) was to come away from the lectern and preach at the chancel steps — with or without notes. It has been a challenge to keep the content and do it without the full manuscript. I’m still working on it (have been mostly doing it — not always — for a year now — Lent 2007). People love it, though I don’t see it as any more personal. I’m a writer. I love my images, my metaphor, and so I hate to give that up to some extent.

  25. Huw,

    That’s fantastic. You’ve inspired me. I think that’s how I’ll preach my Maundy Thursday sermon.



    I know that struggle well. In a perfect world, I’d write the sermon and memorize it, with the metaphors and images. But, of course, there’s more to the pastorate than preaching. And that would just take way too long…

  26. Carol, This is so timely to me, as I opened my sermon 3 days ago with this sentence: “I have been taught that preachers aren’t supposed to share too much of their private lives.”

    I went on to reveal a somewhat funny family dynamic that I somehow tied to the John 9 healing of the blind man, and the feedback has been really positive.

    all this to say that I find people hunger for authenticity and humanity (of both genders) in the pulpit, and personal references can be used towards those ends within limits. and, I’m with you, if I have to remove myself from the sermon, then I can’t preach — and I’m not much of a lecturer.

    blessings to all of you in this conversation…

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