Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Have Sermon, Will Travel

The life of a consulting, or parttime, minister is a mixed bag of developing relationships with a congregation in a matter of 40 hours or so a month, usually while living in another town. There are some advantages to not being available 24/7, but there are disadvantages too---like a minuscule income!

To offset the lack of a larger paycheck, many of us accept other gigs fairly often. I love to do weddings, as I've mentioned, and I've officiated at memorial services for people I've never met, as well as an occasional baby blessing. But my favorite thing to do, in the extra gig department, is to preach at other churches.

Out here in the PNWD, the going rate for a UU minister who preaches at a church not his/her own is $250 plus travel. It's a sweet opportunity, to meet Unitarian Universalists who are just as committed to their faith as my own congregants, who are excited to meet me, and to learn something new from a new voice.

I just sent off blurbs to two newsletter editors for their July issue, since I will be preaching at Cascade UUF in Wenatchee WA, and at Pacific UUF in Astoria OR in July. I've decided to share my "Holy Fool" sermon with them, as summertime services tend to be light-hearted, more laid-back, more casual. And both Whidbey and Vashon have loved this sermon, so I feel confident that others will too.

In choosing a sermon for another congregation, I've found it helpful to skull with the minister if I get a chance or to choose some theme that is universally applicable, with a good story in it, perhaps some personal revelation, and a beginning gambit that moves people out of their left brains and into their right brains.

For "Holy Fool", it's a joke. For "In Andy's Garden", it's the song "I come to the garden alone". For "Religiously Bilingual", it's "Swing Low Sweet Chariot". Sometimes it's a poem or a personal story. I want to engage people, pique their interest, get them laughing or give them a catch in the throat.

I confess that I have formed my preaching style by listening to bad preachers. Over the years of my church-going, I have heard good preachers and bad, and the bad ones offer better lessons than the good ones. A preaching style is highly personal and unique to an individual. Years of dissecting the techniques (or non-techniques) of boring preachers have taught me that drama is important. Not too much of it, but enough to keep people tracking on what I'm saying. I can offer drama in words or in tone or in stretches of silence. The dullest preacher never says anything about him/herself that reveals something I can connect with; sometimes, of course, the liveliest preacher shares too much and the drama is a little embarrassing!

So it's important not to do self-therapy in the pulpit, but it's every bit as important not to be pedantic, or too opaque, or too full of oneself. The best advice I ever got about preaching was the reminder to slow way down and really deliver the sermon, not just rattle it off. Pausing between sentences for effect has given my sermons punch that people seem to appreciate.

I always use a manuscript, because I know I babble if I don't have my words pretty well constructed in advance. Babbling is not an effective speaking technique; it only works for brooks. My manuscripts are always double-spaced, 14 point type, and are laid out so that I don't have to turn a page in the middle of a sentence. I learned to slide the page to the side, instead of actually turning it; thank you, Robert Latham! And thanks to Joe Willis for advising me to number the pages of the manuscript, because it is too easy to get them out of order otherwise.

Preaching is one of my favorite things to do. I am just enough of a ham at heart to thoroughly enjoy getting up in front of a crowd, offering them something juicy to chew on, and feel the connections grow. Lots of fun.


Joel said...

I've always regretted that I was born too late (or he died too early) to hear your father preach. I've always wondered what his style was like. For that matter, I've never heard you preach either. Do you find yourself echoing him at all?

LinguistFriend said...

Your comments on presentation technique include a couple of details that are useful to me even after giving papers for several decades. One point that you don't mention, perhaps because it is too obvious to you, is the importance of knowing the duration of a given text when it is read aloud, in relation to the number of pages in a given format, and to available time in the program. I have also heard a saying that no souls are saved after the first twenty minutes (the exact number appears to be a matter of opinion).

ms. kitty said...

My dad was no Martin Luther King Jr., but he spoke from his heart, his experience, and his love of God. I don't remember whether he was boring or dramatic; I do remember getting awfully hungry in church and thinking more about keeping my stomach from growling audibly as I sat in the choir loft!

I think I echo his principles, if not his theology.

And, LF, I agree it is crucial to know how long one's remarks are going to be, out of respect for one's audience and the teachers in the children's program! I usually speak between 18-20 minutes, less sometimes.