REVIEW: The Art of Speaking Workshop

The Art of Speaking Workshop

by Fr. John A. Peck


Having returned from the “Art of Speaking” Workshop, I find myself happily surprised.

In the two decades I’ve been listening to Orthodox homilies, in many parishes in many states, I’m quite confident in saying that (in my experience) most Orthodox preaching is generally poor.  By most I mean a good 90%, and by poor I mean it’s just plain weak. I’m sorry to say it, but this is my experience, and my opinion, of course, and you are free to disagree, but by and large this is because homiletic training for clergy is abysmal. The lack of care, thought and preparation in most sermons which I have heard (and some I have myself delivered – ouch) betrays a poor priestly formation. This is best remedied in three ways:

  1. By teaching, preaching and example by our bishops;
  2. A massively heightened requirement for homiletics training in Seminary;
  3. A devoted cadre of clergy committed to improving their own preaching and raising the bar of Orthodox preaching through the roof.

The necessity for an Orthodox preaching workshop seems, therefore, plain and evident to me. This is precisely why we launched the Preachers Institute website earlier this year. Also, I’m happy to report that I met many clergymen intensely interested in their preaching, and how to improve it. This was invigorating – to be in the midst of men, priests of God, who have a strong commitment to raising their skill level in preaching. So here is the breakdown of what we experienced.

Introductions & Kickoff

Fr. Stephen Tsichlis, president of the GOA Archdiocesan Presbyters Council, and Fr. Chris Metropoulos of the Orthodox Christian Network welcomed and introduced the program. They were both very busy, but the workshop went off well. Fr. Nicholas Triantafilou, the always-busy president of Holy Cross Seminary, then welcomed everyone warmly. We counted 57 total participants, almost all HCHC graduates who were happy to return to their alma mater. Most were from the east coast, but west coast participants (including yours truly) were well represented.

Though he could not attend the entire workshop, Archbishop Demetrius gave the primary address/first presentation. He spoke on the importance of communicating, and the significance of the workshop.

The Presentations

Harakas3The second presentation was offered by Fr. Stanley Harakas, well known and well beloved speaker and teacher. The topic of his talk was “Making Sermons Interesting.” I was very well pleased to see that the very first point he made in his presentation was “Always preach the Gospel.” Such things should go unsaid – and, sadly, often do.   His talk was exceptionally practical, set an excellent tone for the workshop, and in the style typical of a concerned teacher, he provided all participants with a handout covering the important points of his talk.

JuanCarlosOrtizThe third presentation was by Dr. Juan Carlos Ortiz, pastor emeritus of the Crystal Cathedral. Though being 74 years old, his vigor and energy were contagious and he delivered his message, entitled “You can preach, you can preach well, or you can Preach with Excellence!”with the same vigor, in spite of the long day, his advanced age, and struggling with illness. He then proceeded to preach with excellence and verve. His methodology was wonderful and I was particularly happy to hear of his own preparations for preaching, which include a day of prayer pretty much alone (ala my article the Preaching Pyramid).

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barnabaspowellThe fourth presentation was by Barnabas Powell, senior at Holy Cross Seminary, and member of our PI Forum! His message was “I came not to be served but to serve: Servant Leadership in the Church.” You might know him as Chuck Powell, formerly of Family Life Radio and OCN. I had to leave early on Thursday, so I missed what I know was an excellent presentation. I first began my association with Barnabas after my Incarnation Broadcast Network days (before Ancient Faith Radio or OCN were broadcasting online). He’s a southern gentleman with a fire in his belly for the Gospel, and a clear vision of the future of the Orthodox Church in the USA.

The Work of Preaching

FrJohnTBetween the daily presentations, we broke into smaller working groups to preach, and have our preaching recorded, and evaluated.

Our group was lead by Fr. Stanley Harakas and his influence was exciting and comforting for our group. The workshop brought some excellent professors from nearby Emerson College to evaluate our work as well. This was exceptionally valuable. We were given instructions to preach a 6-8 minute adult sermon, and the next day a children’s sermon. The priests in our group would evaluate our work, and make comments when we reviewed our messages. We watched the first two minutes and the final minute of each sermon. What I found valuable about it was this; things are often interpreted differently by speakers and listeners.

In my own case, for the children’s sermon, I watched my first two minutes noticing that I looked like I was wearing a body cast. My feet didn’t move, my legs didn’t shift, and I stood like a stump throughout the entire thing. I found it terribly distracting to myself, and found it awful. When I readily offered my critique of my stiff presentation, I was sharply corrected! Several of the brothers said that far from looking stiff, it looked authoritative during the presentation, and this sentiment was supported by other viewers as well. (Thanks for that, guys) I didn’t perceive it that way at all, but they did.

All in All

I can only speak for the group I was a part of, but I must confess what I said publicly at the end of the workshop: I was happily surprised by the quality, tone, voice and delivery of the participants in my group. Far from being unprepared, dull, repetitive or dispensing ‘Peter Pan’ advice, they were thoughtful, thought provoking, complete and well delivered. Each very different in delivery and voice, but each effective. Some of the brothers even told us that they had no formal speaking or homiletics training at all. However, their devotion to raising the quality of their work was evident, both in the sermons they preached, and in their presence at this workshop.

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In fact, when we were watching the playbacks of the sermons, I was drawn into each sermon quickly, and couldn’t believe how abruptly the replay ended. Two minutes was never so short!

The Wrap-Up

SavvasandPeckThe schedule was pretty intense, and by the third day, many of the clergy attending did not show up early. They were just worn down. Future such workshops should probably include quiet time and free time as a part of the experience. (We’ll do this at our winter 2009 Preachers Retreat in December).

I also had the chance to meet up with a few folks I’ve corresponded with online, such as Bishop Savas, a Facebook friend.  I think my conversations with him, and Fr. Nick, made me feel most welcome (especially as a non-HCHC grad!). His iPhone photo of the two of us was better than my Blackberry snapshot. When it was all done, there was some feedback and discussion of the workshop itself. Participants wanted to know if this would be repeated annually. The answer, though not stated directly, clearly was ‘not likely.’ This was disappointing.

It was at that time that I had the opportunity to announce that the Preachers Institute would be hosting a Preaching Retreat this December, picking up where this conference left off.

What I would like to have seen

I would like to have seen a few things we didn’t get. First, I would like to have  seen and heard from some our outstanding Orthodox homiletics teachers, like our own Fr. Sergius Halvorsen (who has a Ph.D. in homiletics and teaches it full time), or Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth (whose book we have in our bookstore, and himself is an accomplished preacher and teacher of homiletics).

Second, I would have liked some recommended reading; books, articles, websites, sources, possible subscription services. There are many good works out there on contemporary preaching, and it would have made a good follow up for the workshop. We have many recommended texts in our Preachers Institute Bookstore.

Third, a way to follow up with each other, perhaps online. An “Art of Speaking” forum or listserv. Since one was not offered, we will create one on our Forums page. Check the link at the bottom of this page.

Finally, I would like to have had a formal survey for immediate evaluation and feedback, quantifiable for the hosts of this workshop, so that those who put it together could have accurate feedback while things were still fresh in participants’ minds and hearts. I think this would have been very valuable to those who labored to put on this workshop.

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Would I go again? Yes, absolutely.

If you missed it, or could not attend because of distance (you were on the West Coast), join us for our December Preachers Retreat in Arizona.

What I learned

Don’t take a cab. No one in Boston, or in Brookline for that matter, seems to know where the Seminary is. I was told later (not surprisingly) that all the pizza places deliver there, but when you fly in early in the morning, pizza places aren’t answering their phones. One thing is certain, cab drivers do not know where Holy Cross Seminary is. Get a ride from the Seminary, unless you can afford an hour in a cab that doesn’t know where it is going.

The Chapel at Holy Cross was beautiful. Though I had been told that about 30% of the service was in Greek, in reality, 80-90% of the services were in 4th century Greek, which made me feel sad for all present, but especially for visitors like Dr. Ortiz, who loves the Scriptures, and would have benefited mightily from hearing them prayed, chanted and sung in the Chapel by very capable readers and chanters. He closely watched every service, following along in the book, and I can only wonder at what it would have been like for him to hear the theology of our faith being gloriously sung so he could perceive it.

Hearing is active. As I mentioned in the above example, things which I thought bothered me didn’t bother everyone else. Also, things I hoped to convey were not always conveyed in the way I intended. The value of signposting, for example, made much more sense to me when I saw it clearly in action by other successful preachers. Their methods brought new insights into how to expand my own repertoire.

I learned more than that, of course, but why spoil it? Check with one of the brothers who did attend. They will certainly fill you in.

What next? Preachers Retreat 2009

If you are interested in joining the next Orthodox Preaching workshop, we will soon be launching our Preaching Retreat page. Sign up for our 2009 Winter Preaching Retreat.

We are limiting it to 12 individuals, so sign up early.

I believe that good preaching by Orthodox clergy will get better and better, and soon training for future preachers will take on a new and powerful part of priestly and diaconal formation in the Orthodox Church here in America.

As it should be.

Fr. John A. Peck is the priest of St. George Orthodox Church in Prescott, AZ, and the Director of the Preachers Institute.

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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