I am working on a sermon for February. (As a student, I get lots of lead time because they know I am a clueless rookie!) The topic is marriage—specifically, “now we have kids” (i.e. how to be a Christ follower, a parent and a spouse). They want me to draw a personal connection in the sermon, as in how my life experience and walking with Christ has been affected by this point.
When you are preaching, how do you use these personal examples without making your children/spouse/parents cringe when they hear you? Do you get their permission? Do you change the names and places to protect the innocent?
~The model seminarian (not)
First of all, we do have another great preacher feature (Sorry! Couldn’t resist!) It’s the 11th Hour Preacher Party and this very topic has come up in it (like here, in particular). And our matriarchs have some other tips for you.
Peripatetic Polar Bear writes:
Well, model seminarian, I have two thoughts.
First: Since “they” (I assume this is your internship church) are telling you to draw a personal connection, it seems like they are asking for a testimony, rather than a sermon. A sermon is scripture-based and/or theology-based, and a testimony is life-experience based. It may seem like nitpicking, but I feel like telling a pastor what to preach is a very, very slippery slope. It's going to affect how you read the scripture, and that makes this Presbyterian very, very nervous.
If you've agreed to this testimony, then you need to talk to your spouse and kids. You have to talk about them. Even if you don't use their names, everyone is going to know what you're talking about. Find out if there are things that are taboo. Respect those things. Try to talk in generalities where possible, and keep the focus on you—your faith, your challenges, your growth. Your family did not sign up to be sermon example A, so you need to be really respectful of that.
Second: In an actual sermon sermon, where they haven't asked for a particular experiential focus, there will be times when stories about your family feel like the perfect way to illustrate a point. If they are just what you need, I'd ask a few questions of yourself:
A) Is this story generalizable, or so unique to my situation that it's not going to help the sermon? Barbara Brown Taylor says (and I'm summarizing here, I don't have the exact quote in front of me—it was in a lecture) that if your personal story is about finding God while walking the dog, use it. If it's about finding God while single-handedly stopping a riot, don't. In other words, even though the congregation will never experience all that you've experienced, it needs to be something that can be understood as being within the realm of possibility for most people. I don't have a dog, but I can imagine walking one.
This is a tricky one, because outside of a really honest preaching class, nobody will tell you when you're doing this. They'll just say "nice sermon, Pastor, I loved hearing the 17th story about your work in Harlem," when they're thinking, "That could never happen to me. I'll never be that good of a Christian." This doesn't mean that all of your stories must be set in the mundane, but they all need to be transferable. Save the really exciting, dramatic stories for parties.
Many family stories do work for sermons because most of us know what it's like to be in a family. And really, most of us will never have the wherewithal to be missionaries or activists or football heroes, but most of us do find our faith in all that is domestic and common and lovely. In the laundry and soccer practice and tuna surprise, there is a rhythm and grace all its own, and as preacher, you get to name it.
B) Does this story embarrass any member of my family? Does anyone look foolish? If so, don't use the story. Or (with their permission and if it won't be too obvious), make it a story not about them, but about someone you know. Do this even if your family says it's okay to use the story. They need to know that you will never use the pulpit to embarrass them, that you're always their mama/spouse. (Ed. note: It’s my experience that just being their parent is enough to embarrass any teenager, so tread carefully when your kids hit that age.)
C) Does my family agree to my sharing this story (if they're in it)? The caveat here is that children that are under about 5 probably don't get a vote. But the other kids do. If a kid is uncomfortable with a story for any reason, don't use it. Really. It doesn't matter if it's cute, or if it sells your point. Don't use it. And if you do, contribute $10,000 each time to the kid's therapy fund.
And, FWIW, I think you are a model seminarian for asking this question.
When my kids were tiny (younger than 5) I might tell a story about them while they were sitting in the pews, but it would always be a story that put them in a good light. I would never share a story about anybody I know who might be easily identifiable (the neighbors, local hairstylist, much less family members) that might make them feel dumb, awkward, embarrassed, etc.
More often than not, I use stories about my loved ones in situations where they are not present, such as a class on parenting. Again, I would not disclose embarrassing things such as Junior's bed-wetting problem. They deserve privacy too.
You can disguise them by using the old "I have a friend whose daughter..." line, but frankly, if your daughter were sitting there listening, she’d recognize that the story was about her, so she would still need to know ahead of time. Simply talk with family members and ask them permission, or even "How would you feel if I told the hilarious goat story?"
Gallycat here: I speak from experience in saying that when your mom is at the front of a room and happens to be carrying a picture of you in a tutu, nothing will make you sink into your seat faster than watching her bust it out in front of your 7th grade peers. So I’m with PPB on that therapy fund. But I love talking about my faith experience with my son, who’s 14. I have his permission to share how after his first communion, he thumped his chest and gave a shout-out to his homey on high. But my son is an extravert, and one who really wants to be seen as funny. Each person in your family may have a different personality and may have different boundaries in what you can and cannot share with other people. The most important thing you can do is communicate with your family beforehand.
Need advice? Got a situation? We’re now accepting questions to be published in February! Send them to us at Ask the Matriarch. All inquiries (as well as embarrassing 7th grade pictures) are kept confidential.