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.
2 replies on “Are You Yourself in the Pulpit?“
I do think preaching is very important, but your point about the difference between the sermon that is preached and the one that is heard highlights the importance of humility about the impact of any one sermon, or even our sermons over time.
The question, to what extent can you be yourself in the pulpit is an instereting one. As you’ve pointed out before, many of our congregational members will have a relationship with our “pastoral role” more than they will with us personally and actually. And, preaching does involve a certain dose of “performance,” after all. Finally, preaching is more often than not a phenomenon of hearing rather than speaking—to the point that the sermon we think we preach is not the one heard on any given Sunday. We may preach the one sermon we’ve prepared, but as many sermons were “heard” as there are people in the pews.
But I do think that one’s capacity, if not ability, to be a genuine self can go a long way in making that important emotional connection with integrity with the flock.