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Personal disclosure in preaching

How much should I share of my personal experience in the context of preaching? This is a perennial question facing anyone in ministry in the local church. My first encounter with the issue arose when I was a teenager. I remember one of the lay preachers in the church I attended making some point and illustrating with reference to his habits of shaving. When I made reference to this a few weeks later in conversation, he seemed very annoyed—and I don’t think it was just because I was an irritating teenager! It does show how any kind of personal disclosure makes the preacher vulnerable, sometimes in ways we cannot predict.

So what can we say about personal disclosure? Here are my reflections.

1. You need to do it

As part of teaching preaching, I used to go and listen to ministers in training to hear them preach, and usually aimed to have a conversation with them beforehand about what they are planning to say. Once when doing this, I met with the person preaching, and had read the prepared script. My observation was that the sermon seemed well structured, was rooted in good engagement in the Scriptural text, was well expressed—but did not give much away about the preacher’s own experience.

In the light of this, the preacher added two short comments from personal experience, and an already good sermon was suddenly transformed into something powerful that touched people’s lives.

Aristotle’s classic account of rhetoric talks of the three elements of logos (the rational content of the message), ethos (the credibility and engagement of the one speaking), and pathos (the emotional or affective appeal of the message). If we avoid personal disclosure, it is not so much the pathos that we miss out on, it is the ethos. Our listeners need to know that what we are saying is real for us if it is to have credibility.

2. …but don’t overdo it

One of the reasons why the preacher I mentioned above was hesitant about personal disclosure was that the experience was a family bereavement, and he was concerned that this could distract from the message—and quite rightly too. So his mention of it was brief and factual, which was enough.

Most of us have experienced that awkward sensation where the speaker is laying it on thick in terms of his or her own personal story, and it has come to dominate our listening experience. This does not mean we should avoid disclosure, but we should beware overdoing it.

3. Use your experience to bridge from the world of the text to the world of your listeners

There is a sense in which this is the purpose of all preaching—to close the gap between the world of your listeners and the world of the text, so that the text might speak afresh today. Illustrations have a key role in this, but for all illustrations, they must function not to take the listener into the world of the illustration itself, but to explore how what is happening in the text might engage with the issues and realities they themselves face.

This is particularly important in illustration by means of personal disclosure. My aim is not to tell my listeners to be like me (or even to avoid being like me), but to show how things might work in a contemporary life.

4. Stick with the facts

When talking about significant personal experience, it always pays stick with the facts and play down the emotion.The preacher above simply said at one point ‘We came out of the funeral service—only to find the car had been broken into.’ It elicited an audible gasp of sympathy from the congregation—and the impact would have been lost if the preacher had articulated his feelings.

Often in personal disclosure, less is more. As long as the situation is clear, you can allow your listeners to feel with you, rather than telling them how you felt. It is a good exercise for them to generate their own feelings of empathy, rather than have them generated by you on their behalf. Earlier this year I preached on the subject of sacrifice, and use the sinking of the Titanic as an example. I read the statistics of those who had survived: ‘Of the children on board, 48% drowned. Of the women on board, 26% drowned. Of the men on board…’ (after a pause) ‘…80% drowned.’ It needed no further comment; the same is often true when telling personal stories.

5. Beware emotional leakage

This is a really useful term that David Day uses in his writing on storytelling in preaching. You need to beware of the unintended emotional consequences of personal disclosure. A few years ago I heard of someone who said from the pulpit ‘I have committed adultery many times…in my heart.’ He was of course trying to communicate the importance of Matt 5.28—but there was enough of a pause after the first half of the sentence to make the shock of his listeners drown out anything else that was said.

Preaching is not the context to disclose serious personal issues, be that addiction, abuse, or anything which will trigger major issues—unless that is the focus, and there has been a warning beforehand, and there is follow-up afterwards. Neither it the place to disclose family secrets, or the amusing habits or inner thoughts of your children. They won’t thank you for it.

6. Make sure the the focus remains on God

Illustrations from the lives of others and from our own experience are important aspects of our communication. But there is always a danger that in doing so, we focus on what we have done or what our listeners ought to do, rather than on what God has done. This is part of a wider issue, but we need to be careful to use personal disclosure to say ‘This is the reality—God understands it’ or ‘This is what God can do in this situation’, offering our listeners the hope of possibility and not the burden of duty.

7. Remember that Jesus did it

When on his own, Jesus was tempted by Satan, conversed with a man at night and a woman by a well, cried out to God in Gethsemane—but how do we know this? One answer, from a particular school of biblical study, was that it was made up. But a more convincing, and perhaps challenging, conclusion is that Jesus was in the habit of recounting his personal experience to his disciples.

Personal disclosure is an important part of teaching, discipling and Christian leadership, so we need to make it part of our preaching.

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10 Responses to Personal disclosure in preaching

  1. Angela November 29, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    dont think the word is more powerful
    through personal disclosure always , rather i think it can do the opposite and weaken it. If you think about God as “parent” you dont share very personal things with your children. There is something about the “mystery of god” the word shered in the right way says “theres a quiet understanding” But there are times when it might be appropriate. The thing is the vicar has the privilidge of disclosure to a wide audience but it needs to be remebered that the audience/congregation does not have that same privilidge. They may have to go and sit with it alone!

    • Ian Paul November 29, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Angela. There are some interesting examples of God pondering whether to disclose, such as before Abraham, with Job, and to Moses. Interesting that Jesus clearly does.

      But are preachers in quite the same parental role I wonder…?

  2. Will Cookson November 30, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    Ian, I think that there are a couple of other reasons why people don’t always share personal stuff. Firstly, there is still the hangover from the days when clergy were told that they mustn’t make friends in the parish – leading to a much more detached relationship with your church. Secondly, if there is a culture of criticism or people looking to criticise in the church/ parish then that can also be a significant reason not to. Otherwise, I think that it is important to bring in personal experience every day stuff in to preaching – otherwise we can all too often end up with intellectual detached preaching. Too many Christians don’t appear to engage their faith with their life!

    • Ian Paul November 30, 2012 at 8:27 am #

      Will, I think that is very true, and surprising that it is still quite widespread. We still get ordinands returning from curacy saying they have been told that they should not be ‘friends’ with parishioners. There is more to be explored here–perhaps another post!

      There is another reason for holding back on personal disclosure, which I have not touched on, which is more theological. Some take a ‘Barthian’ approach to preaching which says that the preacher should not apply teaching, but leave application to God. I am not at all persuaded that this is right.

  3. Angela November 30, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    Yes paul in some instances Paul I think they do, depending on the area that is being ministered in.Preachers are teachers and teachers often find themselves teaching basic social and economic standards. We get back to this family of God issue with God as the patriarchal head. Who is then represented by the Preacher. Jesus did share, BUT the famous but he shared with a selected audience at selected times. one always has to be mindful of the way what is shared is received. Jesus shared in a limited way really if we think what do we know of the missing 18 years we summize he was studying and learning his trade, but he never shared those 18 years which in reality was over 60% of his life.
    But what he did share was invaluable, and right.

  4. Martin Howard November 30, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    Absolutely. It gives a rootedness to the Word and enables people to make the jump from theory to reality, even if it be just from one person’s life. In a local church it is a blessing when there is a preaching team because you ensure that the examples and types of story shared are varied. Examples should always aid the message of the Word and not suffocate it or replace it. We’ve all no doubt heard many sermons that are just personal story and nothing else. When I have dared to share my own vulnerabilities as a person, or even just humorous stories, then God has often spoken more powerfully. I think that’s because most people need the sermon or its message to land and touch base with our lives now. An incarnation approach I guess.

  5. Veronica Zundel November 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    One illustration of the downside of personal anecdotes in preaching: when still Anglican, we had a vicar who referred to cricket in almost every sermon (he was the chaplain to the England cricket team). We almost started to play ‘sermon bingo’ with his sermons! I guess this wasn’t exactly personal disclosure, but it certainly was displaying personal interests. Those of us not interested in cricket began to zone out…

  6. Angela November 30, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    The Barthian approach in this instance is difficult, for how can a person apply if they have not learnt first what to apply?. That is where personal disclosure is helpful ,ie “the what did Jesus do” and how can we emulate or immitate, to be “christlike”. Then we are left with the issue of the impossibility of being immitators of Christ because we are not divine. I get the sense i am digging myself a deeper hole, BUT another but we can have the aim and aspiration to be all that we can be in the name of and led by the guidance of Christ teaching imparted to us through the preacher or the bible. Application of the word can only be done when the word is understood.

  7. Paul Seymour November 30, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    Enjoyed reading the article, I agree that a limited amount of SELF disclosure is fine and helpful, I disagree that emotions should be kept out on rare occasions it can be very powerful. What is important that ether type of disclosure must illuminate the message and not be the message, clearly this can be difficult if too emotional. The gravest mistake i have made was to disclose one of my childrens thoughts without asking or explaning why first, it cost the offspring a lot of personal discomfort even though ot was barely revealing of anything important.

  8. Ian Paul December 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    Paul, that is a really important observation about family and children–thanks. I might edit the post to include that.

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