Clergy develop and deliver roughly fifty-two sermons (fifteen to thirty minutes in length) year after year. National surveys typically rank preaching as the number one reason people attend a congregation. So, the pressure is on, and clergy know it.
Effective preaching is both skillful and artistic. The context of preaching is the community. Without an awareness of the underlying relationship system of a community, the skill and artistry are lost in an emotional process. Therefore, the three keys to effective preaching are:
- Effective preaching is based on core principles, values and beliefs.
- Effective preachers stay in good emotional contact with their members especially members who don't agree with their preacher or when the preacher disagrees with their members.
- Effective preachers work on self-regulation.
Most clergy make use of online and printed resources to prepare their sermons. If clergy approach the process of developing a sermon with a clear set of principles, values and beliefs then a good resource can spur the preacher’s thinking. Sometimes preachers use a resource to find specific content for their sermon. But some use a resource as a substitute for thinking and may end up preaching someone else’s sermon.
How a preacher makes use of a resource is connected to their level of clarity about core principles, values and beliefs. Preachers become clear by sifting through their core principles, values and beliefs to determine which ones represent their best thinking and which ones represent the thinking of other people. The core principles, values and beliefs that are sifted out from this process become the basis for the preacher's preaching. I’ve come to a place in my preaching where I know when I’m preaching a sermon based on my thinking and when I’m preaching a sermon based on the thinking of others. There is a notable difference. And given the feedback I’ve received from congregants over the years, I know the congregation can tell the difference as well. There is a difference in the way ideas are communicated when they come from self and when ideas are coming from someone else.
As congregations and the larger society become increasingly polarized, preachers are preaching to congregations that are divided over major issues. In my tradition, the United Methodist Church, on any given Sunday my preaching will resonate with some and conflict with others. Some will experience a sermon as supportive and encouraging and feel a connection to the preacher. Some will experience a sermon as challenging and feel at odds with the preacher. An awareness of this underlying relationship process can be useful to a preacher.
The challenge for today’s preachers is developing the capacity to articulate a solid belief without perpetuating an already present polarization. Preachers are at their best when they preach a sermon based on core principles, values and beliefs without permanently disrupting the relationships in the congregation. It requires an effort of staying in good emotional contact with members or key leaders (depending on the size of the congregation) when they disagree with you, or when you disagree with them. The opposite is also true that a strong, positive togetherness between the preacher and congregation can make it difficult for the preacher to articulate their core principles, values and beliefs.
The best way to manage tension in the relationship system is to do a better job of managing self. Self-regulation is at the heart of Dr. Murray Bowen’s concept of differentiation of self. The forces for togetherness and individuality creates tension in the relationship system. As people move away from or closer to others, anxiety goes up and down. This process of managing anxiety by moving towards some or away from others at an emotional level can influence what a preacher says, does and feels.
During the development of a sermon, preachers are likely to experience their own worry and fears about what might happen if they actually preach what they are thinking. An internal debate ensues about what to say, how to say it and what the consequences might be. It’s not the case that preachers should always say whatever they are thinking. What leads to more effective preaching is an awareness of the emotional process in the relationship system.
The ideal place to become aware of the emotional process is in one’s family of origin. There, one can begin to “see” the process of individuality and togetherness, and anxiety and tension in the system. The more I work at this in my family, the more courage I have in my preaching. The extent to which preaching has improved my ability to define a self in my family of origin is also worth consideration.
Here are some ideas to think about as you prepare to preach:
- What ideas are you clear about? What questions do you have?
- Present your thinking without the need for others to agree.
- Present your thinking without being defensive.
- Always consider how your congregation will respond. Who will react to your thinking? How will they react? What will you say or do without reacting back?
- Develop a plan for relating to with those who react negatively and positively to your thinking.
- If you greet people after the service, what does it look like to be emotionally neutral towards those who react negatively or positively?
- How will you do a better job of self-regulating your reactivity to the reactivity of others?
Remember, the overall goal is to represent one’s best thinking while staying in good emotional contact with the congregation, and to regulate self as anxiety and tension fluctuate in response to the counterbalancing forces of togetherness and individuality in the relationship system.