Getting Personal: Self-Disclosure and Preaching

June 20th, 2012

Self-disclosure in preaching refers to those elements within the sermon in style and substance that disclose the personhood of the preacher and that selectively incorporate the preacher’s life experiences, for example, personal stories, anecdotes, and testimonies, for the purpose of elucidating the gospel.

At least since the Apostle Paul, preachers have stitched parts of their personal stories into the proclamation of the larger story of the gospel. In his preaching and teaching, Paul refers to his conversion (1 Cor 15) and feelings of affection for co-laborers in ministry (Phil 1:3-11), and offers an intriguing but ambiguous self-disclosure about a “thorn” in his flesh (2 Cor 12:7). Paul lays before his hearers how faithfulness to Jesus Christ impacts his life, whether at the level of thinking, feeling, or believing. More important, he shows how allegiance to the dying and resurrecting Savior directs his ongoing commitments in the world.

Preachers since Paul (some more than others) have attempted through the sermon to align themselves, the messenger, with the message in the hope of delivering a sermon marked by integrity. In the North American context, preaching as a form of personal testimony received a great boost after the First Great Awakening and on through the 19th cent. as Protestant evangelicalism spread across the country. As Christine Heyrman documents, many preachers, both Caucasian and African American, and increasingly in the southern United States, used their personal conversion narratives as a touchstone for weekly preaching (1997, 232ff.). In various forms, the tradition continues today.

Recent homiletic theory has struggled to delineate the appropriateness of self-disclosure in contemporary preaching. In the wake of Karl Barth’s thunderous “No” to human experience as a trustworthy source of Christian revelation, even preachers within traditions that value self-disclosure from the pulpit have rightfully questioned the approach. On the one hand, David Buttrick argues that virtually no self-reference has a place within Christian proclamation (1987, 141–43). On the other, Fred Craddock demonstrates how a lively incorporation of personal experience, especially through the artful use of stories, can enliven the preaching of the gospel (1985, 208).

Within the topic, usually addressed under the rhetorical category of ethos (the character of the preacher), a number of questions—theological, psychological, and practical—merit consideration.

Theological Considerations

The primary theological question is whether the preacher’s self-disclosure within the sermon serves or hinders proclamation of the gospel. There is a theological content to Christian preaching, a kerygma, as the NT scholar C. H. Dodd identified it (1937), that lies at the center of Christian proclamation. In one way or another, Christian sermons point toward the saving grace of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that sermons based on the OT necessarily end at the foot of the cross. But there is a core theological content within Christian proclamation that coheres around the creating, redeeming, and sustaining grace of God most fully expressed through Jesus Christ. The question is, Does the preacher’s life help to illuminate or obscure that good news? Recognizing the distance between ourselves and God, and the human propensity for sin, Buttrick cautions that “all in all we are a poor substitute for the gospel” (1987, 106). Eager to connect with the congregation, some preachers are unaware that shining the spotlight upon themselves through a dramatic event in their lives can cast the gospel into the shadows. The hearers see the preacher just fine, but Jesus remains standing in the wings. Such sermons are full of anthropology, particularly the human situation as expressed through the life of the preacher, but nearly devoid of theology.

The underlying theological concern is the incarnation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed that “the proclaimed word is the incarnate Christ himself” (1991, 176). The act of preaching reveals Christ among us, palpably, truthfully. But most preachers, if we are honest about our sinfulness, recognize that our lives fall pitifully short of the glory of God in human flesh. Theologically speaking, we may hold God’s power as treasure in clay jars (2 Cor 4:7) as surely as Jesus Christ, but when the sermon places too much attention on ourselves, the listeners usually see shards and scattered pieces of clay rather than a worthy vessel. As Will Willimon says, “Thank God we preachers have something to preach other than ourselves” (1981, 61).

Psychological Considerations

Beginning in the early 1960s, a spate of pastoral literature emerged that attempted to harvest the insights of humanistic psychology for the benefit of preaching. Preachers were encouraged to be genuine, authentic, and vulnerable in the pulpit as a way to strengthen identification with the hearer and gain adherence for the message. Many seminary students and seasoned preachers got the message that the preacher needed to learn to “be himself or herself” in the pulpit. Self-disclosure by the preacher was not only acceptable but also encouraged as a primary means of creating the preacher-listener relationship.

The move was partly in reaction to authoritarianism within preaching. The goal was to get the preacher out of the elevated pulpit from where he or she delivered the message from on high and to stand in human solidarity among the people. Insofar as it checked unbridled clerical authority in the pulpit, the move provided a helpful corrective.

But several precautions ensue. As already noted, preaching is foremost a theological endeavor and an act of scriptural interpretation that reveals God with us. Sermons that emphasize self-disclosure as a means to strengthen listener identification run the risk of becoming something else entirely. Namely, the pastor may subtly or not so subtly use the pulpit as a way to gain ego satisfaction for himself or herself. Rather than a moment of gospel proclamation, the sermon becomes a moment of pastoral confession, attention seeking or, worse yet, psychological exhibitionism.

Some argue that a measured level of self-disclosure during the sermon strengthens pastoral relationships as the sermon invites the congregation to see the pastor as a human being among human beings. In this case, a limited gain may accrue for some preachers and congregations. But the risk here is still a reduction of the gospel to human relationship. It courts the real possibility that constructing preaching upon the pastor-parishioner relationship will produce sermons filled with relational planks but short on theological and biblical substructure.

So we are still left with the initial question: How does self-disclosure by the preacher elucidate the gospel, and in what ways is it a hindrance?

Practical Resolutions

The matter can be resolved through theological and self-awareness by the preacher. It requires homiletical discipline and restraint. In one sense all sermons involve the self-disclosure of the preacher. Style, delivery, content, and organization of the sermon all say something to the congregation about the preacher. Studies by Mary Alice Mulligan and Ron Allen verify the significance of self-disclosure for sermon listeners (2005). It is not a matter of whether the preacher discloses herself or himself to the congregation, but how. When it comes to selecting and editing the specific content of the sermon—biblical and theological interpretation, stories, examples, analogies, and so forth—preachers may find the following considerations helpful:

  1. If the sermon includes personal material, evaluate who is the focus of the material—the preacher, another character, or God? As Barbara Brown Taylor points out, Jesus “did not star in his own stories” (1998, 76).
  2. Before including personal material in the sermon, no matter how compelling, consider whether another story or example will accomplish the same homiletical goal without directing attention to oneself.
  3. Avoid using the pulpit for achieving pseudo-intimacy with the congregation as a proxy for the lack of intimacy in other parts of your life. In other words, create and sustain healthy emotional relationships outside the pulpit so that the sermon event does not become a substitute.
  4. Avoid revealing pastoral confidences or including others—spouse, children, and friends— without their knowledge and consent.
  5. Most important, consider who is being served. What is the intent of the self-disclosure within the sermon? Is the personal story self-serving, gratuitous, or being used for some other purpose than directing the listener toward service of Jesus Christ?

Awareness of these and similar guidelines can assist preachers who recognize that occasionally our modest and restrained self-disclosure may reflect, however dimly, the full self-disclosure of God through Jesus Christ.

Bibliography: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Worldly Preaching: Lectures on Homiletics. Edited by Clyde E. Fant. (1991); David Buttrick. Homiletic: Moves and Structures. (1987). Fred Craddock. Preaching. (1985); C. H. Dodd. The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments. (1937); Christine Leigh Heyrman. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. (1997); Thomas G. Long. The Witness of Preaching. (1989); Mary Alice Mulligan and Ron Allen. Make the Word Come Alive. (2005); G. Lee Ramsey Jr. Care-full Preaching. (2000); David Switzer. Pastor, Preacher, Person. (1979); Barbara Brown Taylor. When God Is Silent. (1998); Richard Thulin. The “I” of the Sermon. (1989); William Willimon. Integrative Preaching. (1981).


This article is adapted from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. The complete digital edition of the NIHOP is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.
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