In the Spring of this year Kerry Kind and Lenny Luchetti asked me to consider taking over Wesleyan Sermons as Lenny focused his life on other things. We are very grateful for Lenny’s devoted work in getting this site started and delivering some great sermons and content to our community. I agreed to assume the responsibility for the site, and in the Summer, Russ Gunsalus – in his new role as the executive director of education and clergy development, confirmed the transition.
Though I had planned on giving you a video introduction following in the footsteps of the founder, I have had some unexpected life situations cut in on my normal schedule. In short, I am transitioning into two new positions at Indiana Wesleyan University, watching my kids all week while Holly is away, and preparing a new sermon for Sunday morning among other things. Surely that sort of juggling of life sounds familiar to you.
I hope you will enjoy the offering of an article in the place of a welcome video. I am confident these four practices can substantively reduce preaching anxiety in the moments before preaching. That confidence is born from personal practice (I do get scared every time I preach) and the joy of watching students reduce their preaching anxiety through these practices even early in their preaching journeys.
1. Recenter the Burden of Effectiveness in Preaching on God
We do have a place in preaching. Certainly we have all met preachers we wish would hold up their end of the bargain a little more diligently. However, any adequate theology of the Word will remind us that the Spirit of Christ is the primary proclaimer in the sermonic moment – not us. See if you can recall an experience like this:
I walked out of the sanctuary with slumped shoulders and a shrunken confidence. I just preached one of the worst sermons of my life. The thoughts were disjointed, the outline thrown together, and I needed something more interesting in almost every move. I knew that it didn’t connect well with the congregation. My usual standard was well above this sermon. Then she stopped me, the old saint of the church. She looked at me with tear moistened eyes and said ‘When you said…it was exactly what I needed to hear. That was God’s word for me today.’ I smiled and thanked her knowing full well that I never said those words. I never said anything close to it. They were wonderful words proclaimed by some Other voice than mine.
Have you had that kind of experience? Most preachers have. It reminds us that God is the primary preacher even in our worst moments of preaching. This does not shirk the burden of faithfulness we must carry as preachers. Do your due diligence in questioning and analyzing the scriptures, pray through the process, carefully craft a tailored message for your people, and then surrender it to God trusting his “grace will be sufficient.” I think this is especially true in the weeks when two funerals and a board conflict pinch your sermon time. Don’t apologize for your lack, just trust God to fill in gaps when God chooses to do so.
2. Practice Breathing Prayer Every Time Anxiety Rises
No other practice that I give my preaching students has been more broadly and enthusiastically embraced in the last eight years than breathing prayer. Breathing prayer simply connects the patterns of breathing with basic concepts of prayer.
Breathe in (3 count) – Recognize God’s presence
Hold (3 count) – Enjoy God’s presence
Breathe out (3 count) – Release anxiety to God
With each breathing pattern release your stress and anxieties to God in prayer, wordless prayer is possible. Stop right now and practice that with your eyes closed for sixty seconds. Right now.
This practice makes a lot of sense to me given that great verse “Be anxious for nothing, but in prayer and supplication make your requests known to the Lord. And the peace that transcends understanding will be yours in Christ Jesus.” Anxiety is our trigger to prayer. Prayer is our key to peace as we remember we live in the presence of Christ.
You can add these (or any) scripture verses to this pattern if you like:
- Be still/and know/that I am God
- I am/the Lord/who heals you
- Only/one thing/is needed
Try the first verse (Psalm 46:10) for sixty seconds now.
3. Add Visualization of Your Sermon to Breathing Prayer
Do you have a particular way of preaching you are working on? Is there an emotion you are trying to present in this sermon? Is there a delivery goal you have for yourself? Perhaps you just simply want to preach the sermon calmly in awareness of the presence of God, or worshipfully or with prophetic boldness. As you practice this breathing prayer visualize the sermon like a movie in your mind. Watch yourself approach the pulpit. See yourself preaching calmly, confidently, or delivering the focused on emotion.
Performance and expertise theorists have studied the effects of visualization and found it to be a powerful influence on improving embodied performance. When you visualize the desired outcome your brain builds psycho-motor pathways that make the possibility for fluidly performing in the desired way more likely.
4. Keep a Calming Symbol on the Front Pew
This picture of a New Orleans guitarist goes with me whenever I preach somewhere. Often I stand it up in a folder on the front pew. In this picture I see a person totally swept up in the moment of their craft. There is life, energy, joy and focus. It is a very practiced image full of experience but also improvisational. It reminds me of two things, preaching is more like jazz than classical music. As Louis Armstrong said, “Jazz is that music which is never played the same way once.” So it is with preaching. Second, it reminds me that preaching is fun. I like to preach. I am called to preach sermons. And if I can image the preaching moment as enjoyable, interestingly enough it is.
Questions to discuss:
- What are your most treasured tricks for calming down preaching anxiety?
- What have you tried that didn’t work?
- Leave a comment below and subscribe so you can keep up with the conversation.
Dave Ward teaches Homiletics at Indiana Wesleyan University. He has served as an Itinerant Preacher for the last ten years, preaching at local churches, Christian colleges, conferences, and camps. He has also ministered as a local church pastor, ministry director, and trainer of itinerant evangelists. He received his M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary and is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dave and his wife, Holly, have three young children: Ella, Zoe, and Dawson.