When I was a pastor in Massachusetts, one year a cousin visited us for Easter, and came to hear me preach. I found it a little nerve-wracking as always to have a family member in the congregation. But later, another cousin told me he said I seemed like myself in the pulpit.
Thomas Merton says in New Seeds of Contemplation, in a chapter titled “Integrity,” “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God.” (p. 98) What does it mean to be ourselves in the pulpit: the particular preacher we are intended to be by God?
The tension of preaching is always to be our true selves in the pulpit, in a way that truly connects with the listeners. Sometimes preachers say what they truly think, but the listeners don’t understand what they are saying, or are upset by it. When we preach in a way that says, “take it or leave it,” without leaving room for disagreement and conversation, our leadership suffers. At other times preachers preach in a way that pleases the listeners but isn’t really expressing their own true convictions. When we are hiding in the pulpit, the power of preaching suffers, and we pay a price internally over time.
You can take the long view, too. You will preach differently to a congregation the first year as opposed to the fifth as opposed to the tenth as opposed to the 20th. If it’s about relationship, then the relationships take time to develop. The year my cousin visited I’d been preaching to that congregation for a decade.