Monday, April 13, 2015

Ten Commandments For Preachers (not related to the sermon!)

            When parishioners gather, after church, for some roast preacher, it isn’t always the sermon that gets jabs. And there’s more to being the preacher on Sundays than bringing an exegetically smart, creative sermon to the pulpit. So I’ve put together, here, a list of ten commandments for preachers. None have to do with the sermon. The list is meant to compliment my column from a few weeks ago, “Ten Commandments for Worship Leaders.”

One: On Sundays the wise preacher’s work starts long before worship, and ends long after. Get to church early to greet volunteers, musicians, early comers, kids on their way to nursery, and so on. Stay late to say “thanks for coming,” and “good-bye,” to as many as you can. It’s amazing how many pastoral hints you’ll pick up on. And if church is about community, the pastor’s job is to be a leader in trying to create and model it.

Two: Tell children’s sermons. If church is a family affair, and if the little children are supposed to come to Jesus, and if we are supposed to learn how to receive the kingdom from the child in our
midst—well, they should be in our midst. You’re their pastor too. You get to learn names. Telling children’s sermons humanizes you not only in their eyes, but in the entire congregation’s eyes. You live the reality of church as the family of God. People will laugh at the wise things they unexpectedly say. So get down to their level, eyeball to eyeball. Keep it really short. Don’t talk down to them but talk with them. Laugh.

Three: Remember that announcements made before or during the service, while they may be a challenge to integrate, are another critical part of building community. Depending on how you handle announcements it can sound like there are never enough volunteers, or like you’re glad for the many you have. You can make it seem like nothing of importance is going on, or like the church is bubbling with activity. Whether it is in marriage or a corporation, communication and how it is handled can have a huge impact on morale. So use announcements to show the humane, the exciting, and the empathetic side of your church community.

Four: Smile. I once directed a high school production of Oedipus. Afterwards, Oedipus came to me in tears, wondering why I thought she had failed (yes, this Oedipus was a woman). The thing is, she had not failed. But I was so serious in my demeanour, so critically observant in my role as a director, that even as I sat in the front row for the whole play, I forgot to smile. I nearly ruined the show. Pastors—smile! Don’t be goofy. Don’t avoid other emotions. Don’t try to be a nothing but a cheerleader. But when you have the chance, when the occasion is right, smile. People catch on that whatever else church is, it can often be a happy place, as it should be most of the time.

Five: A bit of self-deprecating humour goes a long way to making people feel at home. Whether in the announcement time, or a sermon, or as I shake hands with people on the way out, making fun of yourself just a bit makes you accessible and real. Nothing signals underlying problems in a church more quickly than a pastor who isn’t laughing at himself once in a while.

Six: Don’t strive for perfection. Or, another way of putting it might be, don’t take yourself and your every move so seriously that you can’t be as human as anyone else in your audience. God knows, I try to dress the part, I try to remember to polish my shoes, and I try to lay my tie straight on my shirt. But like Jennifer Lawrence, I’ve tripped on the steps up to the pulpit. I’ve forgotten lines and misplaced sermon notes. And while I don’t want to play the part of a dufus, I’ve often fallen into the role for a few minutes here and there. When I do, I try to relax, apologize if necessary, and do a bit better next time.

Seven: Every Sunday, try to find someone to thank, publically. It isn’t that there is ever a shortage of people worthy of thanks. But it is human nature to create shortages of appreciation.

Eight: Apologize. Not more than is necessary. But if you miss a hymn, or if the janitor forgets to put water in the baptismal font and you have to send someone out for it, or if you forget the name of your council chair during announcement time—stop for a moment. Note the mistake. Apologize. Smile (see number 3, above), and move on.

Nine: Listen to your own sermons once in a while. You’ll be surprised by what you learn. I drop the end of my sentences sometimes. I use too many “ums.” I can correct these things, with a little effort and if I’m willing to engage in a bit of self-criticism.

Ten: Listening to your own services is also a helpful way for preachers to get some idea of how badly they’ve fallen into the bane of church, the preacher’s drawl. In a way, such drawls are unavoidable—we all have our own style of speaking, our own accent. But if having a style is unavoidable, the best thing you can do is work on making it unpredictable, lively, and engaging. Speak as if to equals (they are, after all). Don’t drone on in a monotone—listen to how the best radio announcers vary tone, loudness, timbre, and speed. Let some emotion in. Important for preaching, but doubly so for prayers.

            I’m sure readers can add their own ten or twenty commands to the list. Perhaps it would be better to call them all suggestions--less presumptuous.  But I’d love to hear more suggestions, especially from those in the best place to offer them--pew sitters. And maybe, one day, I'll write a list of ten commandments for sermon time.


  1. A distracted comment: I am looking at the picture and thinking how brave you are. I would be afraid of never getting up from that position as I think my knees would be too stiff (I'm 57 and would definitely fail any fitness test involving deep knee bends ) So good for you for practicing what you preach re: point 2!

    1. Ha. One or two of the times I stumbled Jennifer-Lawrence like up to the pulpit was after I crouched like this!


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