Using 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—and relevant to speaking on other occasions too. 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 to 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. A couple of years ago, 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 is 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.

(Previously posted in 2016)


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22 thoughts on “Using personal disclosure in preaching”

  1. ‘I spent the best years of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.’

    The punchline was meant to be ‘My mother!’ – but the preacher forgot the punchline.

    ‘The trouble is – I now have no recollection of who exactly she was.’

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  2. Thanks Ian

    Good topic and I agree with your wisdom – though I would put slightly more emphasis on your point 1.
    I think there is a generational factor & even a national/cultural one at play in this: my older upper class, stiff upper lip mentors never ever used themselves as illustration (positive or negative). It was just not done. Bad form. I mean, did you ever hear John Stott get vulnerable or Lloyd Jones? John Collins? David Pawson? David Watson occasionally did and was a rare exception. It was so refreshing when California chilled Wimber came and was so personal and honest and authentic and self deprecating. What a breath of fresh air.

    As a preacher I want to incarnate the message and show how it has worked in my life that week and its truths previously. Sometimes our own story is the best story to hand. People dont want numerous classical allusions or references to waterloo (which used to be rather the diet) they want the preacher to keep it real. If there is a strong challenge or rebuke, I would rather use myself as an illustration than others. I think people today want authenticity and vulnerability. It is seen as integrity and it militates against a former generation’s rather detached, patrician style.

    Always found Paul’s present predicament (at least that’s how I read it) & personal disclosure very helpful: ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

    And this has always blessed me:

    ‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.’

    We dont want to indulge ourselves and we dont want to emote in public – we want to walk to walk together with our people, and show them how God has been with us – all the while preaching Christ and not ourselves.

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    • “older upper class, stiff upper lip mentors never ever used themselves as illustration (positive or negative). It was just not done. Bad form. I mean, did you ever hear John Stott get vulnerable or Lloyd Jones?”

      I’m not sure if that’s quite fair. Partly because they preached in a different time when it was just different. But I’d suggest that, rightly or wrongly, they were people who were maybe better masters themselves or wanted to be. Emotion took second place to right/wrong “just Deal with it”

      Whilst I agree with everything that Ian has written we live in a church where, today, emotion can be the dominant experience looked for. How did it feel for you this morning?

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      • “I’m not sure if that’s quite fair” – well, its just a view.

        I did preface my statement by suggesting the lack of self disclosure in the ministry of these men reflected something of their culture and their age – the 1950’s that shaped them is another world away from today. But actually, I think, besides their faith in Christ, one major factor that shaped their personality and influenced their ministry and led to their being very circumspect in the pulpit was their upbringing and nurture in an all male environ. Packed off to boarding school when just little boys, wrenched away from the tenderness of home and family and importantly sisters and mothers, and placed in a hard and often terrifying school setting, resulted in their emotions being frozen in time and them never really learning to be in touch with their emotions. Boarding school, Oxbridge, Subaltern’s serving their National Service, curacy, camps, often confirmed bachelor culture, all this simply did not form them to be able to connect to their emotions. This emotional frigidity was seen by some, even them, to be a Christian virtue, when in fact it was a fragility, a frozen heart, caused by their very specific inculturation. Self control, self discipline and self confidence propel this generation of to leadership in the Church whose spirituality is shaped in part by the personality of those whose emotions are not healthy. Some of these leaders got involved in Frank Lake ministry et al and then the charismatic movement, and this went some way towards healing their orphan spirit. But many rejected the charismatic movement not simply on theological grounds, but precisely because their emotional matrix could not cope with the emotional wrestlings brought by the renewing of the Spirit brought.

        I have spent a couple of decades close to a number of these great men, and tried to understand their why. My life and ministry has been deeply enriched by them and I thank God for them.

        anyway, I could be wrong, and just projecting 🙂

        pax

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    • ‘ I mean, did you ever hear John Stott get vulnerable or Lloyd Jones? John Collins? David Pawson? David Watson occasionally did and was a rare exception. It was so refreshing when California chilled Wimber came and was so personal and honest and authentic and self deprecating. What a breath of fresh air.’

      – I never heard Stott etc preach, just read their books, and I always found Stott’s and Watson’s books to be excellent. I did hear Pawson speak once and found him engrossing. As for Wimber, I heard him a number f times but tbh found him pretty boring and uninspiring to listen to. Not what I would call a ‘breath of fresh air’. And whilst he may have given personal examples of his experiences with God, the problem was that many of those listening rarely if ever experienced similar (though clearly they wanted to). And ‘authentic’ means telling the ‘bad’ as well as the ‘good’. Wimber, like many charismatic preachers, tended to just talk about all the amazing things God was doing through his ministry at the time (which seems to have waned significantly in the Vineyard church since) rather than the reality of, for example, many not seeing healing etc. I liked Wimber and dont doubt his ministry, but personally i would have preferred listening to the likes of Stott or Pawson for an hour than Wimber any day.

      But each to their own!

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      • Well – we aint gonna agree brother. I once asked the outstanding evangelist and church leader, David Macinnes, who the greatest Church leader he ever met was – he said “two men, John Stott & John Wimber”. Macinnes lived with Stott for a few years as bachelors together and knew Wimber very well initially from his time when he taught for Wimber in Fuller, and through other events, notably inviting him and setting up Acts 86.

        Wimber was not perfect. who is. But he definitely did show weakness – I could offer quotes that I heard 30yrs ago that still move me – his self deprecation was one of his most endearing qualities. I dont accept that his influence has waned. His legacy lives on. A little while ago I spent time with 50 Directors of nations which have Vineyards from. I have rarely been with such beautiful church leaders. Stott, Pawson, Watson led 1 or 2 churches each, and Wimber launched what at last count was 2500 churches worldwide where the gospel is preached, Jesus is worshipped, the poor are ministered to, the sick prayed for, the outcast welcomed, the laity released into ministry, the kingdom advanced and God is glorified. So I thank God for John Wimber and his legacy. And his influence through the conferences from 1984-1990 brought renewal to many denominations, and encouragement to many weary ministers. I think he made mistakes (The errant Kansas Prophets being the main one) but I thank God for the blessing he was on my life and remains.

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  3. Adrian Plass is right that preachers often disclose only that they have *previously* struggled. But present struggle is equally likely to past struggle. Sensitivity to the Spirit does mean that they are aware that those sheep who especially need their covering will at times not at all be helped by disclosures of weakness (rather than generalisations that we are all weak and sinners), but may at times be knocked sideways and think – if even my leader cannot hack it, what hope is there for me? It is always essential to be truthful but is not always helpful to give ‘too much information’.

    Knowing that others need us to have high standards is a good motivation to uphold those standards – and that is also a good discipline for us ourselves. The training received by ministers does show that habit is a powerful thing, including good habits. Paul was on a hiding to nothing when he said ‘Imitate me’. Teachers and parents often more or less manage it day in day out, especially the former. I admire them intensely.

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  4. “Imitate me” has been stood on it’s head today to read “irritate me”, as Paul so often does to the authentic progressives, who wear their authentic theology in personal testimony and victimhood on their sleeves. Rather than the word authentic (it can not really be what you see is what you get – although Simon in your case as a long time minister than might apply with a greater degree of accuracy) I’d see some preachers keep listeners at “arms length”, lecture-like as it were, rather than drawing-in.
    I’ve heard so called sermons being nothing more than all about me, me , myself, I, and Christ doesn’t get a look in, and those are at the bottom-line “try harder” or motivational talks I could hear in the workplace, or what some could describe as a synagogue sermon, a one of morals, be like king David, don’t be like him.
    Ian get’s to the crux: the focus is to be on what God has done. Who gets the Glory is perhaps a measure. Or where is the Good News of God. To misquote Tim Keller, it’s not about seeking to impart, communicate good advice, or information but Good News. It’s knowing God. I don’t ask for a lot, but then it frequently seems that I do! Surely the “punch line”in any sermon, in any service is the Good News of God. God, the Trinity IS Good News.
    But in services where it is asked, not necessarily in a sermon , “what has God been doing in your life this week?” it is fraught with questionable motives and who gets the glory, focus of attention. The older I get, the warier I become, and I speak as one who has done some, a little, preaching but has listened to a lot.

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  5. Christopher

    “Adrian Plass is right that preachers often disclose only that they have *previously* struggled”
    ‘Sensitivity to the Spirit does mean that they are aware that those sheep who especially need their covering will at times not at all be helped by disclosures of weakness’

    Indeed, these are helpful checks – one must be very careful – one preacher at a popular summer conference a few years ago said, “I’m not going to open my Bible tonight, I’m just going to share my heart” – uh, no – open your Bible or shut your mouth!

    I still think true empathy can be pastorally helpful. In my experience few preachers are vulnerable in the pulpit and its weaker for it. Paul lifted his shirt and showed us his bruises, and he admitted to the Corinthians he came in “weakness, fear and trembling” not “wise and persuasive” – I think many preachers today could benefit from experiencing, or admitting as much.

    Incidentally, Ian’s comment about hearing a preacher confess adultery – mentally – sounds like something I might have said… Ian???? 🙂

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    • I so agree – the correct amount of vulnerability is 100% but not in all contexts.

      When vulnerability comes – like, someone states the absolute truth in repentance – that is a key key to revival. It is like something breaks in the congregation.

      I was lecturing and mentioned that Ezekiel lay on his side for over a year, Isaiah preached without clothes etc.. In the context of visual aids I asked whether these were good ideas (after all, chief prophets cannot be wrong, can they?). One brother said that we should not do such things all the time. So I said – how often? He said – well, maybe once a year.

      Something to ponder.

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      • A footnote – I classify revival as a public/social/community thing not a church-building thing.

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      • footnote – I classify revival as a public / social / community matter not a church-building matter

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        • “footnote – I classify revival as a public / social / community matter not a church-building matter”

          totally agree – renewal is when it happens in the church – revival is when it happens outside church. Been a long time coming.

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          • Yes – do it again, Lord. I like the Transformations videos from George Otis. Bring the gospel into a community and there is no knowing what will happen – my wife is privileged to work for tearfund.

  6. We spent the past few months preaching on prayer. It’s so easy to leave people feeling useless, condemned, browbeat and over-exhorted, especially on this subject. So I made a point of acknowledging from time to time: this is an aspect I’m struggling with; here’s an area where I can grow; this part challenges me and makes me uncomfortable; God has been speaking to me about this (fasting) – I’ve neglected it in preaching and practice, and need to learn mroe by actually doing it.

    As best I can tell the personal vulnerability and admissions of (current) weakness and areas fror growth have actually helped the congregation to hear my words (and, hopefully, God’s words through me!). Much less a case of me telling people “You ought to do this to improve your prayer life” and much more a case of me saying “This is one of the ways where I need to develop …what about you?”

    Admittedly none of it was radically shocking (I hope!). But it was definitely about aknowledging both biblical teaching and example, and also the genuine struggles, successes and setbacks that I personally experience …in the hope that this would lift people up and encourage them by knowing someone else (*even* the Minister!) is also on a journey of discipleship with them.

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  7. ‘Yes” to all you have written.

    I think that there is a danger (temptation?) of using our experience to get people on our side, to push them around with the preachers emotional needs. The preacher becomes the focus of the sermon rather than the word of God.

    And “pearls before swine” is relevant here. Wisdom is needed in what to share with whom.

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  8. As an emotionally transparent woman I find this aspect of preaching very difficult. I want to play to the cultural norms of how much disclosure is appropriate, but have found that each time I am vulnerable about my life in relation to the text someone will invariably come up afterwards and tell me that they found my style a breath of fresh air.
    As we move away from our stiff upper lip society I notice that younger preachers are much more likely to share from their personal life.
    What is vulnerability to one person is oversharing to another.

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  9. Totally agree, although with bereavement don’t mention it no matter how suitably until you can cope with the insensitive comment afterwards (no matter how well meant by the thoughtless counsellor).

    Sometimes a good idea to keep family out unless they know exactly what you are to say and agree.

    Not so long ago I revealed that the reason I had been off for 7 months was depression – many thought it was great that I was open and related to my comments, one thought I was looking for sympathy and another that I was still clearly ill (sick was the actual word) to mention such a shameful thing, even questioning my employment. I would do it again it was right the context was Jesus healing the demoniac.

    oh well thanks for a good article

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    • I think many still find it difficult to understand and cope with mental illness in others and indeed in ourselves. I do. But we are learning.

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  10. I have been preaching for about 25 years and wish I could have read this article when I began. You give excellent advice. As someone who is naturally rather a private person, I particularly appreciate your 1st point, ‘You need to do it’. I also found, ‘stick to the facts’ a helpful piece of advice.

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  11. I’ve always used personal disclosure as it changes one from being a ’preacher’ to a ‘person’. Also most of my preaching was as a member of a Christian Community where everyone knew what you were like in every day life so no pretence of ‘spirituality’ was possible! However, in that context, as a leader there were those who would pick up on a shared weakness as an opportunity to bring a correction (or more realistically, have a go at me): it was a way of learning the difference between positive and negative disclosure.

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