I led a funeral the other day and after the service and committal, one of the funeral home staff and I were talking as we waited for people to leave so she could take me back to my car at the church building–this wasn’t a drive around graveyard, you have to go out the same way you came in. The conversation began with a discussion of the ages on some of the stones–this was an old graveyard, going back more than 100 years. Then, the conversation turned to funerals–I am not actually sure how we got there but we did.
In essence, the discussion dealt with the length of funerals and particularly the funeral message. Her comment was that many that she heard were way too long–the speaker went on and on, long after the people at the service had stopped listening. Now, I know she wasn’t talking about my message that day–I have a reputation for having short funeral messages and she had already told me that she thought what I said was very appropriate.
The conversation got me thinking about a lot of things having to do with the process of pastors and preachers speaking to people. My personal experience as a listener to such things is somewhat limited since I am mostly the one doing the talking. But I do occasionally attend other pastor’s services and occasionally attend funerals that I am not leading. I have also spend some time teaching preaching and preachers which does have some application to this blog.
My admittedly very biased opinion is that many of us in ministry talk too much. Our sermons are too long, our funerals are too long, sometimes even our grace before meals is too long. When I say too long, I am not thinking strictly in terms of seconds, minutes or even hours. I am thinking about the perception of the listener. When the listener stops listening, the speaker has gone on too long.
There are of course some realities to keep in mind. Some people are never going to listen, no matter who is speaking and what they are saying and how long or short it is. Some are going to be trying to listen but their personal circumstances will get in the way. But aside from that, there is a point for most people where the speaker should shut up and when that point is passed, people stop listening.
I tend to be fairly sensitive to groups I am speaking to and am aware of how I am being heard. I used to think that that was a normal part of the process for speaking in public–we pay attention to the audience response and stop speaking before they stop listening. But I learned early that this just isn’t the case. Way to many speakers–preachers, politicians, advocates of various kinds–don’t know when to stop talking.
On my cynical days, I think that comes about because the speaker really has no respect for or understanding of the people they are speaking to. On my less cynical days, I think that maybe the speaker is so carried away with their topic they can’t stop or that they never really learned how to read an audience and measure their response.
But whether it is a cynical day or a less cynical day, the reality is that a great many audiences of all kinds are forced to sit through a barrage of words that may have started well but which go beyond the point of being helpful and become a waste of time for the audience. I would like to say that it is a waste of time for the speaker as well but sometimes, I think some people who speak beyond the capacity of the listeners to listen are speaking because they love to hear themselves talk and so that may not be wasting their time–but it would be better for everyone if they were talking in a different place.
As a pastor, a preacher, a teacher and occasionally as a friend, I have spent a lot of time teaching preachers and other public speakers that one of the vital skills of speaking is knowing what to say and for how long to say it. Knowing when to stop is as vital a part of speaking as knowing how and what to say.
May the peace of God be with you.