by Fr. John A. Peck
The art and craft of sermon evaluation is a necessary part of improving one’s preaching. Sadly, there are few opportunities for serious preachers to learn about evaluation and practice it.
Opportunities are even more scarce for the Orthodox preacher.
That being said, we are approaching some important holy days in the Church, and though things get busy, little is more important than sermon preparation for these important feasts. Sometimes we are preaching to someone who hasn’t been in Church for years, even decades. Sometimes we are preaching to someone who may not be in Church again – until they are buried there.
Now, the purpose of sermon evaluation is simple: To get the preacher where he wants to be. The purpose of sermon self-evaluation is identical – to get you where you want to be.
This makes the evaluation of our sermons all the more critical. In order that you make the best use of your time, I’d like to offer the following, as profitable for those getting ready to present an important sermon to an important crowd. Please note, these will take some time and work, and if you aren’t absolutely committed to your work as a preacher, you are not likely to do any of them – ever. These exercises have real value to the preacher, and provide what little self-evaluation we can give ourselves. In fact, I’d even be willing to say that without these, there is no real self-evaluation going on.
Reread Your Sermon
First things first. You have the text, or at least the outline, of the sermon you preached. Begin by looking at it again, and while sitting alone (and a safe minimum distance from someone who might overhear you) reread it aloud. Better yet, re-preach it if you can. Rereading is not always possible or desirable, of course, but I seriously recommend it to anyone who is serious about sermon evaluation, as it will give you a refresher on the text of your sermon, and a ‘once more ’round the block’ look at it. Take note with a pen of anything that jumps out at you this time. Make notes, and don’t dismiss them. These are profound gleanings of what you were trying to get across. These have real value.
Record Yourself (audio only)
Though we are seen when we preach, not everyone can see us well. Not everyone wants to! They want to hear you, though, or they wouldn’t be there week after week. Listen to your voice. Sometimes we allow wild gesticulations or pacing to make up for a lack of variety in our vocal inflection (or for a lack of substance in our sermon text – but that’s another article). You need to get in the habit of preaching as if your voice was all you had to get the message across, as if you were preaching to those bereft of sight. The key to success here is to listen, not just hear. Listen to your own voice. Again, avoid the narcissistic trap and ask yourself the right questions.
- What am I really doing that I can really improve?
- What sticks out about my delivery? (The best answer is: nothing)
- Am I mumbling? Do I appear to be shouting?
- Am I starting loud and getting quiet, or vice versa?
- Am I starting quietly and building in volume? (this is good usually)
- Am I speaking too fast, and running over my points?
- Do I have some unusual lilt to my voice?
- Do I raise or lower my voice regularly at the end of sentences? (this is usually more annoying than we realize)
Record Yourself (video)
In doing this, you’ll have to avoid the narcissism of admiring your own image, but if you have already listened to yourself preach (audio only), you may find some real value in observing (not simply watching) yourself preach.
- Am I looking on my audience with love?
- Do I look clean? Prepared? Like I know what I’m doing, and know it well?
- Do I ever smile? Ever? (I confess that this is a problem for me)
- Is smiling appropriate,when and if I am smiling?
- If I’m concentrating, do I look angry?
- Am I distracting my listeners/viewers with too much motion/too little?
- Is there any sense of the gravity of what I’m saying, by how I’m speaking, carrying myself or even standing?
Finally, ask yourself the hardest and most painful question of all: Am I preaching as one without authority? If you are, then you will find the next section the most valuable.
This means objectives which are measurable. The hardest part of this is doing it for yourself. I’m talking about what to change, adjust or improve about your sermon delivery. These aren’t hard, but if you can’t find a way to measure them, you won’t be able to improve them.
If you’re generally quiet and monotone, add some volume and inflection.
If you’re generally not good an enunciation, then articulate with greater emphasis.
If you speak too fast, practice pausing. (This is good for everyone, I think)
If you’re generally doing something that needs improvement or is not effective, then measurably add some of the opposite.
The hardest part of this part of the Self-Evaluation process is to write down specifically what your measurable objectives are – even if you only have one. Write them in your Journal, and date them.
Is your delivery too loud? Too quiet? Are you stiff when you speak? Are you all over the place? We are not looking for a golden mean here, but something which expresses your own experience and your own heart. In fact, I would recommend you avoid moderation if possible when preaching.
Everyone has their own ‘voice’ but this is not limited to our voices. We have our own way about us. It is not for us to try and preach like someone else, but we must preach with verve, excellence and conviction. Now is the time to take inventory of what we learned about ourselves, and what we have discovered needs some attention.
Take the time to review your notes. This is study, and there will be a test! It’s called ‘your next sermon.’ Have a look at those notes. Make new notes on your new sermon. Remind yourself of those measurable objectives you worked so hard to establish.
How Often Should I Do This?
Well, suffice it to say that this is a complete exercise, and doing it weekly would be a challenge right out of the gate.
Generally, I’d say re-evaluate yourself about monthly to start, and bi-weekly if an important sermon event is coming up. Give yourself some time to introduce, practice and establish the work of improving what your self-evaluation revealed. Get in the habit if self-evaluating your sermons. Then, when all is said and done and said again, have another look at yourself. Give your voice another listen.
Don’t hear, listen. Don’t watch, observe.
The regular and serious work of objective self-evaluation is tough, because none of us can be entirely objective, but it is not impossible to gain useful insights from such an exercise when conducted seriously, and regularly.
Sermon evaluation is tough. Sermon self-evaluation is tougher, but it is possible. Take a chance. Make your preaching shine.
Even the habit of serious self-evaluation will reveal a cornucopia of unexpected insights to you.