One of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes comes from the character Polonius in Hamlet. He says “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” While I have never been a huge fan of this tragedy, I can say that these words constantly ring in my head every time I stand to preach the gospel of Christ.
Many of the churches I have served have had male pastors during their history and my seminary preaching professor was a male. The truth is I have been called to a profession that is traditionally male dominated and must find a way to authentically be me while living into the expectations of those I am called to serve. It is an exercise that often feels like walking a tight rope. In the beginning of my preaching career I believed that if I were to lean too much in one direction, it would send me falling quickly to the ground.
In my quest to develop my own voice I have had to abandon that idea. It has not been an easy task, but I have sought out women who have achieved success as great preachers to mentor and nurture the call within me. In my early days I tried to imitate what I heard from other preachers but it felt wrong and left me feeling empty. I went through a season of trial and error. Over time I found my own rhythm, phrases and style which excited me and, more importantly, connected with the intended listeners.
For about two years I have had a female preaching coach, Rev. Dr. Twana Harris. Dr. Harris is young, experienced and gifted in preaching. One of the basic things we work on is finding me opportunities to preach. If practice makes perfect then we can stand to reason that providing young preachers the opportunity to preach in various settings will allow us to figure out who we are and be authentic in our delivery.
After every sermon Dr. Harris and I sit down to talk about the things I did well and things I can do to become even stronger. For many preachers the latter is the most challenging part of the process. It is hard to be critiqued so meticulously on something we have poured our hearts into. However, the drive to continue improving keeps us humble and receptive to feedback. In the end the most helpful thing for me is knowing I cannot please everyone. Early on my fear was how I would be received. A few years later, my concern is not running out time!
Today I can say that where I am now will not be where I end in regard to my authentic preaching voice. Over time I will continue to develop, tweak and refine my approach. However, I can say with confidence that each time I stand I seek to be fully me because that is who God called to such an awesome task. There was something within me that God thought special enough to use and I must be a good steward and use it.
So my advice to any young preacher: abandon all notions of what you have heard and to thine own self be true!