Monday, August 1, 2011


Last week we participated in the Engle Institute of Preaching at Princeton Seminary. Monday and Tuesday afternoon, we took a workshop called "Performing the Sermon," in which we briefly looked at some issues around performance studies, like emphasis, use of the body, and so on. Another participant and I took issue with a dramatic reading/performance/recitation of the story of Abraham and Isaac that had been used in worship the night before. We were both turned off by it, and felt it was overly dramatic. It felt like a performance, and I found that distracting. We had a bit of discussion about "normal" range of public speaking and performance, and the instructor, I think rightly, pointed out that most of us stay so far from the edges of over-performing that most of us could ratchet up our delivery a few notches and still be well within comfortable bounds.

On Thursday, I was one of three participants to volunteer to preach in my morning workshop, and to receive feedback following the sermon. The comments that I received were quite consistent: excellent eye contact and engagement, warm presence, kind smile, very clear message, well-written sermon... and though the delivery was very good, I could use more variation in my pace and tone. Also, while the sermon was a very well written essay, perhaps it could be tweaked a bit more to be written for the ear. Both of those comments resonate with me as things that tend to be true about my preaching - I don't vary much in tone and pace, and my writing is more elaborate, my sentence construction more complex, than much verbal communication.

The professor read one of my sentences back to me and asked, "Is that how you might say the same thing over lunch with a friend?" My response, "Well, actually, I probably would, but I see what you mean." Same thing for my pace and tone, I think. I tend to be very even-keeled, less prone to speaking or communicating excitably either positively or negatively. It's kind of the calm, non-anxious presence that I bring to pastoral ministry, I think.

So here's my dilemma: I want to work more on improving my sermon delivery, and becoming a more effective communicator, but I don't want to be inauthentic, either. My voice - both in speaking and in writing - has a particular cadence and characteristics. I think I could work on delivery to be a more effective public speaker, but I wonder if that would change my "voice" in the process. My biggest concern is that it would be inauthentic. And yet as a preacher, I do need to attend to the ways in which I can improve my delivery.

When I first heard the feedback, I was excited to come home and tackle those things. But then I started to think more about questions of "my voice" and my style. Interestingly, my style is very similar to my dad's style - particularly my writing. And both of us write as we speak, including more complex sentence constructions, etc...

So, where is the balance between being true to one's voice and working on particular delivery techniques?