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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Ask the Matriarch—It’s All About Me! Yikes!

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.

Jan writes:
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.

Got questions?
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.


  1. I left out a couple of key words. Instead of "you have to talk about them" (you don't) I meant "you have to ask in order to talk about them."

  2. There's one other thing I think is worth thinking about here. Even though your congregation asked for a sermon about raising kids (which is honestly odd to me, though not necessarily bad), it's good to keep in mind that even that relatively harmless topic can be difficult for some people. Undoubtedly someone in your congregation has struggled with (or is struggling with) infertility, or had a miscarriage, or never had the opportunity for kids, etc. So another problem here is not just what you might mention about your own family, but the fact that family itself is such a complicated thing. I admire your question! Personally, I don't talk about my husband in sermons (though anytime I mention marriage, people automatically assume I'm talking about him). Just something to be aware of; this is a personal issue for me, so it hits some buttons. I do get kind of tired of the church acting like everyone has kids, or wants kids, or can have kids, etc. It's a tricky thing, isn't it? Best wishes on your sermon.

  3. You know--I was really glad to see this post today. Our minister's letter in the parish notes this month was about God loving all His Children, and he compared it to the love he (the minister) felt for both his son the Ivy League student and his teenage daughter, who (according to the letter) had recently gotten busted at a club for underage drinking. It's a big parish and I don't know our rector well enough to talk to him about this--but sharing this little anecdote with the entire church really bugged me. I'm glad to hear I wasn't totally overreacting on this.

  4. Sarah, that pastor should be required to deposit 20,000 dollars into his daughter's therapy fund..nothing like putting it in writing and doing a alittle sibling comparison.

  5. My family has given me carte blanche to use stories. I would never, ever tell a story that makes one of them look bad. I have discussed struggles they have, but only in the context of the struggle resolving. For instance, one story featured The Little Princess having trouble with something in school, her teacher reassuring her that it was okay to ask for help, and my thoughts about how we resist asking for help that we may really need, whether from each other or from God. It was a very easily comprehensible story that I used in a sermon at church, then in a slightly shortened version at a retirement home. In the latter case, it got a very strong positive response from one of the elderly residents who said, "Lots of people here needed to hear that. It's very hard to need the help we get by living here." You don't have to be a mother to appreciate that story, just a person who was once a child and at sometime needed help.
    I think people do respond to the ordinary. And I think you have to be aware of your ocntext, too. I share the concern about being essentially assigned a preaching topic and told to talk about your own life. On the other hand, they may just want to know you better and feel this would be an easy way for you to tell them more. (Oy! They have no idea!)

  6. Thinking out loud here....

    My inner rebel would have me preach a sermon about how sermons deal with doctrine and scripture and make it a sermon on proclamation.

    I've tried a few times to take direction like that -- I had my senior pastor try to have me preach a sermon about grandparenting and 1 Timothy. It just didn't work. It wasn't authentic.

    Now you COULD preach on marriage -- which is a sacrament, and baptism and confirmation. Keep it general. (Claim that pastoral authority!)

  7. Sarah -- Holy Cow.

    As a Preacher's Kid, I was thankful that my dad rarely used us -- my brothers and my mom -- in his sermons. And as a kid I think he only told a story of me once, and talked to me about it before hand -- and it wasn't so much about anything I had done, but about how my near death at age 2 had impacted him. In the last several years -- now that we're all grown -- he has on special occasions talked about our family, for example in the context of the blessing a place has been for us. For me, being a PK was such a struggle, it was nice not having to worry about being "sermon exhibit A".

    So, yes, definitely talk to the family before using them in a sermon, and NEVER tell anything embarrassing -- whether in a sermon or elsewhere! (And when you're a teenager, that list of potential embarassment is very long!).

  8. I agree that using family has be checked out first, but the advice of towanda as PK is where it's at.

    I wonder about a child's age in that vote. I know little children hear everything, but could easily re-construct what they 'heard' for good, or for ill.

    When I was 4 years old my Godmother tried to get my 6 year old brother to say he liked stew. After several tries he screwed up his face and said the 'words'. Tone and body language said the opposite.

    I sat watching and my 4 year old mind asked a serious question, "Why is she teaching my brother to lie?" Too scared to ask it out loud, but still wonder what on earth she was thinking.

    Children do think early on in life some pretty real careful in NOT giving them a voice especially if it may affect them.
    Talking to them before...and...after would be a good idea leaving it open if a concern arises.

  9. This is incredibly helpful and I have filed it away for future reference... (not in the Hmmmm file though!)

  10. This conversation is all so great - I dont know if I have much to add, but I think PPB's distinction about the diff between testimony and preaching is excellent. If you are really preaching, it is a creation between the scripture, you and the Holy Spirit, based on YOUR perception and intuition about what is needed for the congregation. It is not anyone else's, no matter how much of a rookie you are. In fact, if they are teaching to preach in this congregation, having an "assigned topic" is really doing you a disservice. Just my opinion.

  11. The seminarians who intern in my church often use stories about themselves in their sermons (most of them are young[er than me at least:)]) and have by virtue of having few years fewer stories about other people to draw on. The stories that work as illustrations tend to be the ones in which they poke gentle fun at themselves. The ones that don't tend to be the ones in which they use other people's behavior as an example for all of us. that I think about it, that's probably true for my sermons too. And I'm not young.

  12. This is a wonderful and thoughtful discussion.

    When I was still married to Mr. Mags I told a story in a sermon about a time I bought him a really terrible (for him) birthday present (cowboy boots. Don't ask. Shoulda known then, I guess!). My point was that some presents are great, some are not, I was using myself as an illustration of a clueless gift-giver. Though the story cast me in a mildly self-deprecating light, Mr. M. was extremely uncomfortable about it. And we came up with a "once a year" policy. I could use a story about any family member just once a year-- one for each kid, one for spouse, and all had to be pre-approved. THis was the case when they were all present for my preaching.

    Recently I found myself apologizing to my mom (who died last February) for overusing stories about her death in my sermons. I promised to give it (and her) a rest. In truth, I think that one of the reasons I've sprinkled that liberally in my preaching lately is that I've been doing supply preaching-- all over the map. If I were in one place I would certainly not bring the same event in week after week.

    One more thought: I do think limiting the stories about family members is most important when those folks are part of the same worshipping community, as well as when you do have one community with whom you are preaching week after week. When either of those conditions changes, I think some flexibility can be called for in the whole arrangement.

    Blessings all,


  13. I once attended a church where the pastor did nothing but talk about his wife from the pulpit. And it wasn't the good things, it was like "she burned dinner again" and "she's too lazy to do anything around the house". They had been married about twenty years when all this happened. They are now divorced. I'm sure his preaching had something to do about it. It made the entire church uncomfortable.


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