Seminaries and divinity schools offer frequent doses of advice on how to preach more effectively. When Lillian Daniel showed up for the first of three Cammack Preaching Lectures at Campbell University Divinity School March 26-27, she brought advice on how not to preach.
Daniel, who is senior minister of First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illionois and an accomplished writer, devoted her first lecture to 15 “how not to’s” on the subject of preaching. I won’t list them all, but here are some representative thoughts.
“Don’t tell CPE stories,” Daniel said, referring to the hospital encounters that many students have during Clinical Pastoral Education. While students often find the experience to be intensely meaningful and highly educational, members of the congregation lack the context to appreciate them.
If you break the first rule, Daniel said, “don’t admit that you didn’t know what you were doing” while visiting a critically ill patient during your CPE training. That doesn’t inspire confidence in members who may later have you standing at their bedside, she said.
Rule three for Daniel was “Don’t tell us how the sermon sausage was made.” In other words, the congregation doesn’t need to know how long it took you to decide on a text, how many times you started over, or what struggles you had in writing.
And by all means, she added, if you didn’t get it done until 3:00 a.m. that morning, don’t say so. The congregation deserves better. If you need to confess and repent, she said, do so by starting earlier the next week.
Noting a common error of preachers who drag a sermon out and can’t seem to land it, she said “Don’t circle Laguardia.” Sermons only need one ending, she said, and the first one is almost always the best.
On a similar theme, Daniel said “Don’t worry that each sermon must contain the sum total of all theology.” That’s one of the advantages of being in a regular pulpit, she noted: the pastor knows that he or she can say more the next week, and the next. “Say one thing well and stop,” Daniel said. “No sermon can say it all.”
Preachers may have favorite authors or spiritual heroes that they refer to time and again, but Daniel advised preachers to “kill your superheroes” lest they lose their effectiveness, and to not quote anyone at length “unless they’re saying something you are incapable of saying yourself.”
Daniel also advised against quoting children “who say cute things about God,” including the preacher’s own children. Too much of that gives the congregation permission to think about theology in simplistic terms, she said.
“Don’t serve uncooked food,” Daniel said. Blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts may get preachers into the habit of tossing out unprocessed thoughts, she said, and “too many sermons are like an unedited blog, not adequately cooked.”
An interesting encounter that could make a good sermon illustration doesn’t have to be used right away, she suggested: “Don’t think you only get one shot to tell a story.” A story can be more effective if allowed to simmer for a while and used at a more appropriate time.
Preachers shoudn’t think of themselves as solo artists. “Don’t do this work alone,” Daniel said, suggesting that preachers ask a few trusted others to review their manuscript before preaching it.
Input from others could help preachers avoid the cardinal mistake of telling a confessional story that leaves the congregation more worried about the pastor than focused on God. There’s a thin line between a personal narrative that helpfully points people to God, and one that leaves people thinking the pastor is troubled, she said.
Daniel concluded with a thought that she explored in more detail in a later lecture: “Don’t forget that no sermon can be perfect,” she said, but God delights in using our brokenness to get across the message that people need to hear.
That, for all of us who have the privilege of preaching, was a note of good news.