I took my first course in preaching long after I had actually started preaching. But I didn’t find the course annoying or frustrating because of that. I enjoyed it and learned some important stuff that I have been using continually as a preacher and a teacher of preachers. But one of the things that stands out from the course happened during one of the practise preaching sessions.
Everyone had to preach in front of the class. It was–and is–probably one of the most challenging sermons a preacher will ever have to do. We stand in front of our peers, all of whom are primed to critique our work. There is a professor sitting there with a paper, making notes at seemingly random intervals. We strive to produce an “A” sermon so hard that we probably end up with a “C” sermon. In that sort of tense, anxiety producing setting, we all fall back on what we know works because we have seen it work.
So, one student approached the pulpit for his practise sermon. He wasn’t the greatest student but he had some powerful stuff working for him, he thought. He moved into the pulpit with his newly purchased black leather-covered floppy Bible held open to his text in his outstretched hand. When you realize that this happened in the early 1970s, you will recognize the style–this was Billy Graham’s classic preaching pose. This student was going to wow us by borrowing some of Billy Graham’s mojo.
But I can’t really condemn the student all that much. All of us end up borrowing stuff from other people. I have been told now and then that some of my mannerisms in ministry remind people of some of the mentors I had along the way, something that doesn’t upset me all that much most of the time. The whole purpose of mentors and examples is to help us develop the skills and abilities and even mannerisms that we need along the way.
There is, however, a balancing act here. If I adopt too much of the mentor, I become a flawed version of the mentor. But if I don’t work on changing some of the things about me that need to be changed, I become an even more flawed version of the me God meant me to be.
One of my mentors was a great preacher–but rarely if ever made any kind of hand gesture in the pulpit. Occasionally, he would lift a hand to waist level, at which point all of us who knew him knew he was really engaged with the topic and we paid closer attention. But while I have tried to copy his preparedness, his deep understanding of the Scripture and his strong pastoral compassion, I simply can’t copy his lack of gestures in the pulpit–if I can’t use my hands, I can’t talk. Shutting me up is simple–tie my hands.
To follow his example would take away from who I really am. I needed his lesson on study, his example of showing compassion in the sermon, his teaching on the seriousness of what we preachers are doing. All those things touched on areas of my life that needed work so that I could become the person God intended me to be. I don’t do any of them exactly as he did them but his example and his mentorship were important in forming those areas of my life. But his lack of gestures would have been a serious mistake for me to try and follow.
The balancing act is to learn what we need from others in order to become more ourselves as God planned on us being. Taking too much from others puts a veneer of otherness on us that hides who we are really meant to be–but not taking enough leaves the holes and empty spots that need work glaringly obvious.
Billy Graham had his floppy Bible. One of my mentors had his occasional small hand movement. I, well, I have my tablet on the pulpit and wave my hands like I am trying to fly. What the Holy Spirit taught me from others is both what I need to do and what I need to not do to become more what he means for me to be.
May the peace of God be with you.