What I Learned from Hiring 3 Preaching Coaches

A development plan can help you learn and grow as a preacher and church leader. Here’s what that might look like.

Aaron Buer

Digital giving apps and tools

Do you have a development plan? If you don’t, consider asking your supervisor or board to help you craft one.

I have found a development plan to be helpful in growing me as a leader and pastor. Also, I have found development plans to be similarly helpful for just about everyone on our church staff.  

Part of my development plan called for me to hire several preaching coaches. The goal for this project was to broaden the sources of feedback.

I found the experience to be incredibly helpful, but of course time consuming and challenging. It’s not entirely fun to hear about the weaknesses in a sermon you’ve poured 20-30 hours into, but pain is often a pathway to growth.  

Here’s how I did it. I hired three different preachers with three very different styles and ministry contexts.  One taught homiletics in seminary. One preached at a megachurch for decades, and one preaches with a very different style than me.

I asked each of them to watch three of my sermons, either online or in person, and to give me feedback after each sermon so that I could attempt to implement some of their feedback in my next sermon. If you’re wondering, this process took close to a year to complete.

I thought I’d share four of the themes I walked away with from these three preaching coaches. 


"I Didn't Feel It"

 A common thread in all three of the coaching experiences had to do with emotional connection. Two of the coaches in my life have walked through very painful parenting situations.

Something I heard from both of them was that the application I was bringing was accurate and clear, but it just didn’t hit them because of the depth of pain they have walked through. The application is essentially not emotionally connected to their experiences.  

The specific direction I was given is to officiate more funerals. Maybe that sounds crazy, but my pastoral path has taken me from youth pastor to preacher pretty quickly and I sort of skipped a lot of the pastoral care that most pastors experience around grief, loss and painful family challenges.  

If you are a preacher or teacher and your sermon application is too light or emotionally disconnected, perhaps what you need is to spend more time with people who are walking through pain and difficulty.  It’s also possible that this is coaching that is specific to me.  


Pull Back the Curtain

One of my preaching coaches encouraged me to pull back the curtain on my interpretation methods and strategies during sermons so that I can help our congregation grow in their own ability to interpret scripture. I think this is important feedback for all of us who teach and preach from the scriptures.  

One of the simple ways that I try to do this is by pointing out the footnotes in the version of the Bible that I preach with. Another way is by pulling the congregation into questions I ask of the Scripture when I’m studying:

  • Why is this repeated?
  • Where else does this word show up in the Bible?  
  • Where is the first place this concept shows up in the Bible?  

I try to use one of these strategies in every sermon so that my congregation might begin to ask these questions in their own reading.  

One of my goals is that my congregation would not view me as the expert that they need to understand the Bible accurately, but that they might say something like, “Oh. I could have figured that out too, if I had asked a few simple questions.”


Pausing for Effect

Verbal pacing is important for any form of public communication—not speaking too fast or slowly, pausing at key moments, etc.  

What is funny/depressing is that if you watch a video of yourself preaching, you will undoubtedly discover that when you think you are pausing for dramatic effect, you actually aren’t.

This is because what feels like 10 seconds when you are speaking is probably 2 seconds in reality. Why? Because standing in front of a crowd during silence is an incredibly vulnerable and uncomfortable place to be!

This was feedback I received from my preaching coaches. I’m not actually pausing like I think I’m pausing.    

So, how do you actually pause for dramatic effect without freaking yourself out or losing your train of thought? Two strategies I have been using lately:

First, physically move away from the space where you made the last statement.  For example, say the line you want people to think about and then physically step backward as if you are letting that phrase stand on its own for a minute.  

Last weekend I used a phrase that I thought was pretty good: “Don’t expect that you’ll be able to make the big God-honoring decision then if you are unwilling to make the small God-honoring decision now.” 

After making that statement I physically stepped back from about three steps. The time that it took to physically move helped me create a longer pause than what felt natural in my head.  

Second, sometimes I actually count to five. I do this by tapping my finger slowly against my leg.  It’s imperceptible to the audience, and again, it forces me to remain in silence for longer than I feel comfortable, which is exactly what is needed to create a dramatic pause. 

I have not copyrighted either of these strategies. Give them a try.  


Personal Stories

One of my preaching coaches was emphatic that I don’t tell enough personal stories. In his opinion, personal stories are what most effectively helps the audience emotionally connect with and trust you as a preacher.  

His strategy with personal stories is this:  Start with humor.  End with heart. 

In other words, tell a funny story in your introduction—self-deprecating is perhaps most effective because vulnerability creates trust—and then use a story that moves the heart and is well connected to the Biblical ideas you were preaching on to help drive the application home.

I told him, 

“I can’t tell all my best stories. I grew up in the town where I am a pastor. I went to high school with a lot of these people! My parents watch online!”  

His answer, 

 “Get a dog.  That will give you all the stories you need.”  

So I did.  

Anyway, I have been focusing on telling stories from my life—rather than stories about other people, movies, or observations from culture.

I have noticed an increased level of connection and retention with the congregation. I think there is wisdom in the “start with humor and end with heart” approach.  


Wrap Up

Unlike some of my posts, this one has been more about what I’m learning, specific to preaching.If you need some sermon series ideas, I've written a post on that here. I hope that some of the learning might be helpful for you.

Also, I would encourage you to think through your own development. I wonder if this would be a good season for you to hire a preaching coach, a leadership coach, or just think through a plan to help you reach your potential in ministry.  

Thanks for reading! 

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