20 July 2010

A Preaching Quandary

I am in the middle of a theological, homiletical dilemma. Perhaps you can help me out.

I love my kids. (No, that's not the quandary) I spend a good portion of my time thinking about my kids, driving my kids from place to place, picking them up, playing with them, teaching them, cooking for them, etc. I smile when they wake up in the morning (or when they wake me up, if it's at a decent hour) and both Beloved and I breathe a sigh of relief when we get them to sleep, even though they look adorable all snuggled up in their beds.

Anything into which you pour this much energy is bound to affect your thinking, and over the last three years I've noticed that my teaching and preaching are greatly influenced by my experience as a parent. To a certain point this is all well and good, but here's the quandary: how do I keep it from becoming too much? When do those who listen to me reach the point of saturation and stop hearing the good news because of the way my voice puts it?

When I was nine years old, our church back home had an interim pastor who constantly talked about California. He'd been raised there, and obviously had a great love for his home state. After a while, though, it became a joke: whatever the gospel reading was for that week, it would have something to do with California by the time the sermon came around. From what I remember, he was a pretty decent interim but for this one thing. Our new pastor made a great first impression when someone asked him about California in his "welcome" potluck and he said, "I've heard California is the land of fruits and nuts."

I don't want to be that interim, but I'm afraid I'm heading in that direction. My students have already begun to claim the sermon isn't finished until I've made a poop reference. They say it in jest, but we all know that some good jokes are funny because they're also true.

That's just one aspect of the problem. Another is this: how does "God as parent" preaching sound to the ears of those who don't have kids? When I preach about the patience and love required to be a good parent, how do those who don't have kids hear it? How about those who can't have kids, or those who had abusive parents?

The gospel reading for this week seems a text which offers several opportunities to go off the rails into "Daddy Knows Best" territory. That was my first impulse upon reading the text yesterday, but I'm leery of developing things in that direction for fear of the problems listed above. If you'd like to join a good discussion on the texts themselves, RevGalBlogPals has a Tuesday Lectionary post that always offers fruitful discussion. But if you're willing to offer them, I would appreciate your thoughts on this in the comments section. Tell me what you've seen in my blog posts, in my sermons, in places where I've taught: am I going overboard? Can you offer helpful suggestions to keep from doing so?

There's nothing wrong with loving your kids. In my life, the order of priorities is:
  1. Child of God
  2. Husband
  3. Father
  4. Son/Brother/Family member
  5. Friend
  6. Pastor
I'd like my preaching to reflect this ranking of priorities as well. Thoughts?

Grace & peace,


  1. My perspective on this may change, since I'm pregnant with my first child - but, over the past four years, my primary experience has been infertility, and that has deeply impacted the way I think about mentioning children and parenting in sermons. I don't really have advice for you, except to say that it's always worth considering how even the simplest 'parenting' anecdote might be unexpectedly painful to someone who can't have children (or hasn't had the chance). Infertility is already a very secret shame for many people and I've found that it impacts a lot more couples than I ever imagined. On the other hand, I'm guessing that infertility is not a big problem on college campuses - more that students might not relate to parenting stories, or that they still hear that stuff more from the kid side than the parent side.

    My own rule about personal stories, in general, while preaching, is something like this: is there any other way I can say this? Is there any way to explain myself without a personal story? If so, choose that. If not, go with the personal story.

    Always worth thinking about. Thanks for the reflection.

  2. Hey, I resemble this remark! I think one of the the things that made me a fair-to-middlin preacher was the connection I saw between the gospel and real life--and sometimes real life is all about the poop.

    I sometimes found myself "using" my kids more and more and had to remind myself of the rules:
    *No story where my kid was the butt of a joke.
    *No story where my kid was Jesus. (Because, really: barf.)

    Since my kids were older by the time I was preaching (17 & 13) I usually ran the stories past them before they ended up in my sermon.

    I did find that one of my most caustic accusers at the end of my ministry at the church HATED that he knew so much about my life, my family my friends. And let me know quite vocally. He felt that I was kind of self-centered. I had to take that critique seriously, but in the end, I am the style of preacher I am. His critique did make me take a close look at whether I was taking the easy way out with my preaching, and I determined that I was not.

    So, maybe ask some deeper questions of those who made the "poop" comment. It could signal a temporary predictability in your topics, or it may be a way that they feel as though you have shown them honesty and transparency in sharing your life, even the poopie parts.

    I'm betting it is the second one. :)


  3. A lay person's perspective: I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, so I would probably find your sermons resonate pretty well (as does your prior post). However, as someone who was single through my twenties and into my thirties, I will admit stories of kids got pretty old pretty quickly. The church has so much trouble relating to singles, anyway, and it's just one more frustration.

    For what it's worth, I'd tell you about kids what I tell composition students about quotes: if you absolutely cannot find a better way to say it, then go ahead and use it, but try something else first. At the very least, never extemporize stories about the kids. My former pastor did that, too, and quite often they ended up being pretty tangential.

    I'm all about stories in sermons and my current pastor uses them, but rarely about her daughter. We had been maybe half a dozen times before we heard a story about her daughter. It was refreshing. She says she has made a deal with her daughter that she will not tell a story about her unless she has discussed it and gotten approval ahead of time. You can't do that yet, but it might be worth considering for the future.

    Finally, God as parent is important, but it is only one aspect of our multiple-faceted God. As you imply, it is important to bring out those other qualities of God, too.

  4. I totally agree that life experiences are the compost that grows us as preachers. So, make sure it's not too "fresh" when you put it out there for others to "smell."

    An empty-nester now, I always got my kids' permission to use stories about them. Some were really just too appropriate not to use. I started asking them when they were 2 years old. It's never too early. I really hope people will hear my stories as permission to take their stories seriously.

    I join Wendy in the advice to remember to regularly extend the God metaphors beyond the relationship/people metaphors -- rock, fire, breath, Wisdom, yada, yada -- you know the drill.

    And, you probably already do this, but I always use my imagination to run my sermon (especially stories and jokes) by about four people representing different demographics or particular challenges. Can a retired person relate to this? How will the parent who just lost a child hear this? What about the eight year old with the broken arm?

    Because you are asking the question and are concerned about it, I think that means you will be led to a good balance.

  5. Hey Scott. I like this question. The fact that you care is great, because you are self-assessing. Admitting there is (or may be) a problem is the largest step.

    Is there any way to relate this from the kid side rather than the parent side? We are all children, and perhaps not yet parents. Everyone can relate as a child. Just a backward way of thinking, Maybe...

    With 5 kids, I'm guessing I would totally relate to you. As an adoptive parent of 3 boys after years and years of infertility, I can relate to other posts here. And as a mom to 2 'homegrown' kids, I kinda feel that I may have lost touch with the single/no kids crowd. So that's where I came up with my answer.

    Hope that helps. I wish I was closer to get a chance to hear you preach. Would be really fun to catch up.

    Peace & Grace in your speaking,

  6. i think it is a "trap" every preacher can fall into... we use what is familiar in our stories. i think it is good to be personable.

    i think our inner voices tell us much. if your inner self is saying "uhm hey there... a little less about the girls." listen... trust your gutt on that. it's a matter of being authentic, using the gifts god gave you, resonating with your flock, and as you know... letting the gospel shine thru. you'll find your way...

  7. Many thanks for the contributions, folks. I should clarify a few things, however. I generally don't do actual stories about the girls, and will certainly ask their permission as they grow older before doing so. I learned that from FW years and years ago. I made a comment about her in a sermon which she didn't expect and hadn't vetted; she handled it graciously but at the same time let me know precisely how uncomfortable it was for her. Big mistake on my part that I hope I haven't made again.

    What I'm talking about in this sermon is more along the lines of "For example, if Ainsley asks for a cookie..." stuff. What I'm discovering along the way in this parenting journey is reshaping the way I think about God, and I think to a certain extent it's okay for that to also shape how I teach and preach about God: my question is, how would you handle it in your situation? (married, unmarried, empty nest, never had kids, what have you) How would you hear it?

    Again, thanks for the input. I appreciate it very much. And, just so Jules will rest easy, my kid is never, ever Jesus. Barf, indeed.

  8. Hee. Jules laughed. Out loud. And scared teh pup.

  9. I read your post this morning and after consideration while doing grunt work for the seminary, my response is this:

    At risk of appearing condescending (and this is not my intent), already I applaud your intellectual integrity in asking the question. The perspective of a parent is one that rarely has to be defended in any realm ("How dare you question my parenting?!"), particularly from the pulpit. In ministry settings such as the one in which you currently serve, however, it does require more consideration. As a youth minister, teaching parish student, and intern, I've occasionally heard that my life experience is insufficient "until" I am a parent (as if it were inevitable), or better yet, that my life is "empty" without them. (This last point still makes me grin, as I've found my present "lifestyle" to be exceptionally fulfilling, even if I wonder if - or when - the Peter Pan era will come to a close.)

    I question whether any one sermon will ever "reach" every single person sitting in the pews. Still, our life experience is inescapable. The question perhaps, then, is whether we are living too safely within our predefined boundaries without engaging opportunities for further experiences that will broaden our horizons and our voices.

    Still, the point at which any preacher places himself within a narrative, then continues by applying that role to the divine, I am immediately dubious. Even the acquisition of life experiences beyond parenting requires critical engagement in homiletical preparation, lest its use regress into self-aggrandizement. "I was on this 18-mile run, and I was set to PR even though it was a hilly course and I was on the brink of dehydration. But my faith carried me through! And then the panorama inspired me, which is heaven for a marathoner. With a run like this, I was really feeling set to qualify for Boston. Marathon. Marathon, marathon. I run marathons." (You know I know you're not guilty of such offenses, I'm just applying hyperbole for fun.) This level of self-aggrandizement, by the way, is not uncommon when it comes to one's own children, whether from the pulpit or elsewhere.

    Reference to God as Father is both necessary and appropriate, not to mention in alignment with orthodoxy. Refraining from its use can be sketchy at best, as few surrogate terms avoid modalism or other heresy. It seems to me that the question is whether it is appropriate to extrapolate your role as a father to God's role as Father (though I may be mistaken). While our bondage to the flesh renders anthropomorphism inevitable, I'm apprehensive of any application of one's own flesh (a la personal experience) to the Divine. It is one thing to survey the Godhead through my very human eyes; it is completely another to apply my role as plumber, pastor, teacher, parent, etc. to divine traits. There seems to be lacking in this latter approach the necessary humility, wonder, and awe of the God we worship and serve.

    I probably forgot something that I'd considered earlier today, and I'm not sure I stated myself clearly, as I've rambled long enough that I don't necessarily feel like going back and reading it...my apologies for that...

  10. For the last three years and 4 months, I have struggled with the same question. Even though I spend most of my waking hours (now noticeably fewer than they once were) thinking about my son, I generally avoid talking about him from the pulpit. Here's why:

    My grandfather was a pastor, who retired in 1974. Looking through his sermons, I see that he virtually never spoke directly about his family or even his own experience. That seems extreme. It was a different era, to be sure -- preachers, essayists and newspaper reporters routinely performed verbal gymnastics to avoid saying "I." All of us today, and especially preachers, are inclined to be more forthcoming and personal. The question is how much more personal we can get before our personality becomes a distraction to listeners.

    There is another question, as well: the effect on the kids themselves. They are complicated creatures, and may have strong emotional reactions to the way we talk about ourselves and our families. A while back, Sarah Hinlicky wrote a strongly-worded piece, based on her own experience, practically begging preachers to leave their kids alone. Her father once told a family anecdote, mocking only himself, but years later she still feels the humiliation acutely. (Here's the link: http://www.lutheranforum.org/blogs/a-pk2019s-plea/)

  11. Single person here, with no kids and not likely to ever have kids due to female issues.

    Parenting examples in sermons really don't bother me. Perhaps it is because I grew up Catholic, where any parenting examples in the sermon were either really abstract or totally rang false. If I know the pastor is a parent, though, I appreciate that being a parent is an integral part of his or her life, and faith should touch every aspect of our lives. It's inevitable that stories about your children or parenting examples would be present in your sermon.

    Besides, I might not have experience as a parent, but I do have experience as a child. Even if I can't relate from the parent's perspective, I can from the child's.

    All I really want from a sermon is for it to be coherent, for it to relate to the scripture, and for it to make me think. However that is accomplished - parenting examples, pop culture examples, military examples, whatever - is fine by me.

  12. Scott,

    I really like your question.

    As a preacher's kid, I have to begin by saying the less your kids show up in your sermons, the better for your kids.

    I also think the God as Parent metaphor, though certainly important, has been the "go to" metaphor for too long. I'm not questioning its orthodoxy, only saying we have more options than God as Father. And it is overused. In the Hosea passage, for example, I find the story to be fundamentally about unending, relentless love. Parental love is not the only example.

    As ones who did not feel called to have children of our own, I have seen how church life is often tilted towards those who do have kids, but then they are the majority in most congregations. I can understand the connections, but they aren't mine. As a preacher, part of the challenge, I think, is to give everyone a chance to feel like an insider.

    Lastly, one of the biggest challenges in preaching is dealing with the task of talking about God from my finite perspective. I'm always running into my limits and flaws. You remind me to open the discussion.


  13. Scott-

    This is a little outdated, I am now just catching up on your blog. Coming from a University student (and although I might have a SLIGHT bias towards your children and children in general) I always love when the University ministers at Salt bring their children into the sermon and judging from the reactions of the other 700 students I don't think it's a problem. Obviously, things might be different with a smaller size, but it seems to give the students another glance at who is ministering to us. Many times the pastors will use their children to talk about how much God delights in us, because of how much they delight in their children- doing good or not so good things. I personally don't think you can bring too much of your kids into your sermon, because your kids are a huge part of you and it's the overflow of your heart.

    So, in short, it's always been a way for me to connect with my pastors and see a different side and there are always teaching moments with kids about the love that God has for us.