The Case for Personal Story

[1] Reactions to the use of personal stories in the pulpit are easy to come by. Many of these reactions, it must be admitted, are strongly negative. They vary from mild hesitation to outright rejection. Such reactions, informed or otherwise, must be taken seriously. Even those that seem overstated signal a potential danger. Traps await those who choose to share an autobiographical tale from the pulpit.

[2] Many who warn against the use of personal story in the pulpit rightly focus on the purpose of Christian preaching. We are in the pulpit to preach Christ, they insist. If stories are to be a part of Christian proclamation, they assert, such stories must be about Jesus and about what God has revealed and accomplished through him. Such a warning recognizes the inherent power of narrative to engage the listener in a unique way. It also points, however, to a danger inherent in the use of personal story for preaching. Unless it is used appropriately, the personal story can dominate the sermon in such a way that it obstructs Christian proclamation. It is possible for a personal story to call such attention to the preacher that he or she becomes the center of focus. If this happens, the preacher is proclaimed and not Christ. And that would constitute narcissism at its self-aggrandizing worst.

[3] Critics of pulpit autobiography also point to the fact that Christian preaching is always a word to others. It must be a word that places its hearers under the judgment and grace of God. In essence, it is a dialogic word and not a monologic one. It is clearly possible for the personal story to fall into the trap of privatism. The tale shared may be so idiosyncratic that the listener finds it impossible to make connections between the preacher’s story and his or her own. If this occurs, the preacher is no longer preaching. The sermon has become nothing more than a public form of self-expression. The listeners are placed as eavesdroppers to secrets they did not want to hear and about which they do not know what to do.

[4] The isolation of the preacher’s story from the stories of the congregation is a very real danger. So is the isolation of the preacher’s story from the rest of the sermon and from the biblical text that provides the basis for the sermon. Complaints against pulpit autobiography often focus on this isolation: “What in the world did that tale have to do with the rest of the sermon?” “Where in the world did that story connect with the biblical story?” What really bothers those who level such complaints is that the rest of the sermon and the biblical story usually suffer from such isolation. Listeners remember the isolated tale and forget what was to have been the main point.

[5] The dangers of narcissism, privatism, and isolation are real. To fall prey to any or all of them is not a matter of indifference. Each militates against the nature and purpose of Christian preaching. Some preachers may be unaware of these dangers, but others are so aware of them that they refuse to even consider personal story as a sermonic option. Still other preachers are aware of the dangers to the extent that they are inhibited from acting on the attraction they feel for autobiographical narrative. As real as the dangers are, however, they should not keep preachers from exploring the possibilities of personal story. Nor should such dangers be allowed to ban personal story from the pulpit. The traps are not inevitable-they can be avoided. It is possible for personal story to proclaim Christ, to place its hearers under the judgment and grace of God, to be an integral part of the sermon, and to accurately express the biblical text. The traps are not inevitable. They can be avoided through awareness, skill, and practice.

[6] Gaining even partial mastery over the use of personal story for preaching is well worth the effort. Some of us have learned that pulpit autobiography offers dividends far beyond what we ever imagined. A personal tale can do far more than add a note of human interest to the sermon or arrest the straying attention of an audience. The use of pulpit autobiography can help bolster the sagging authority of the pulpit. It does so, in part, by placing the preacher where she or he needs to stand in relation to the tradition and community of the church.


[7] I learned something crucial about a preacher’s authority as far back as my intern year as a seminary student. For twelve months I served as an assistant in a five-church parish and as an associate chaplain in a small church-sponsored hospital. My first visit to a patient was to an elderly woman confined to the bed of a private room. I had not had formal training in pastoral care and felt somewhat uneasy, yet I was sure that my youthful exuberance would carry the day. Enthusiastically I entered the room, introduced myself, and asked the woman how she was feeling. Her answer came in two words: “I’m dying.” I was not at all certain how to respond and I did the only thing that came to mind. I asked her how she knew that she was dying. Again, her answer was brief. “My doctor told me,” she said. I think I mumbled, “I’m sorry,” because I could manage nothing else. Suddenly, the woman asked me a question. “Son,” she said, “do you believe that there is life after death?” My mind raced and my tongue did its best to keep up. I quoted the Bible, bits and pieces from what I could recall from a course in dogmatics, and just about anything else that popped into my head. In the middle of my rambling, the woman took my hand. She said, “Son, that’s all very nice-but that isn’t what I asked you. What I need to know is whether or not you believe that there is life after death.” That woman contributed to my understanding of ministry and its authority more than she could ever imagine. She gave me one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. She forced me to speak out of my own Christian experience, out of my own tumultuous life of faith and doubt.

[8] In that hospital room I discovered what I have repeatedly discovered in the pulpit. In preaching, as in other forms of pastoral ministry, the preacher cannot hide. People demand a clear and honest word from the one who speaks. That demand will not be met by a barrage of Bible verses or by a host of brilliant quotations from recognized theologians. That demand will be met only when the preacher speaks the truth out of his or her own life.

[9] I do not remember exactly what I said to the hospitalized woman who asked me to speak out of my own belief. I am sure that I did not share a well-crafted story from my life experience. No doubt I spoke in bits and pieces. I am almost certain, however, that I was working toward an autobiographical narrative. I remember, for example, telling her about the death of my grandmother-the telephone call in the middle of the night, the hushed voices of my mother and father, my child’s reaction to the simple words, “Grandma is dead.” I know that I told her of my prayers thanking God that “Grandma is with you forever,” and of my lively expectation that Grandma and I will be together again beyond all separation. And I remember that when I left her room the dying woman said, “Thank you. You told me what I needed to hear.”

[10] From that woman I learned the crucial fact that a preacher’s authority is a personal authority. This may not always have been as obvious as it is in the contemporary world. People will not listen seriously to what a minister says simply because he or she is ordained and speaks with the authority of the church. Nor will people be receptive to what a minister says simply because she or he quotes from the Bible or from the writings of some significant theologian. What catches the ear and urges response is the voice of a living witness. What is needed is the voice of one who can testify to the accuracy of what he or she speaks. Not because it has been read somewhere or because it has been overheard, but because it speaks the truth about one’s own life, and because it speaks the truth from the details of one’s own life. It is a voice of conviction supported by a life story.

[11] Authority is more readily granted to preachers who attempt to honestly connect personal life with the biblical and theological tradition. Authority is less readily granted to preachers who simply talk about their lives per se. It is granted to preachers who can talk from their own lives in terms of the presence and activity of God attested to by Scripture and theology alike. Such a granting of authority is not strange. Preaching is the self-expression of the church. In its preachers the church becomes conscious of itself as the inheritor of a tradition and as the living witness to that tradition. The preacher represents both the tradition and a present community of the faithful. On behalf of the tradition, the preacher introduces, clarifies, amplifies, and asserts what it is that the church believes. On behalf of the congregation, the preacher examines the tradition and questions the experiential grounds for continuing to believe the church’s faith. When this happens, the church is most clearly part of a living tradition. When this happens, the church is at its self-conscious best.

[12] By using personal story, a preacher can effectively fulfill his or her task as representative of both tradition and congregation. Personal story enables one to show what is believed and to demonstrate why this is the case. To be sure, this means sharing a personal opinion about the inherited tradition. Personal opinion, however, does not necessitate privatism. Indeed, if the preacher serves as representative of the congregation as well as of the tradition, her or his voice will not be idiosyncratic.

[13] Part of the preacher’s responsibility to speak as a representative of the congregation is met by examining the tradition and providing clues for the experiential basis for its claims. Another part of that same task is to speak from the common life to the common life. Many preachers have discovered that personal story is a fit vehicle for such speech. Personal story can effectively demonstrate that the preacher knows what it is like to be human in that time and place. Personal story can assure a congregation that they have been listened to and heard, that their hopes and their fears, their successes and their failures, their faithfulness and their neglect are placed firmly within the church’s tradition. Personal story can lend a unique credibility and thus establish a preacher’s authority as one “who knows what it’s like.”

[14] Personal story can constitute an authoritative word and thus assist effective pulpit proclamation. In addition, the process by which personal stories are selected and crafted can offer substantial benefits to the individual preacher. For example, the process of connecting life story with church tradition is a theological activity. The preacher who struggles to establish such a relationship is functioning as a theologian. She or he is working to make sense of inherited truth, to find reciprocal access between the faith and experienced human life. Theological thinking involves more than repeating crystallized statements of doctrine. It involves sensing the human experience out of which doctrine arises and for which doctrine should serve as a catalyst. An attempt to interweave personal story and church tradition enables preachers to actively engage their theological task.

[15] Some years ago a student in one of my classes preached a sermon on justification by grace through faith. He repeated all the right concepts in a nicely structured presentation. Both he and the class felt that he had fulfilled his theological task with distinction. During class discussion of the sermon, I asked the student preacher if he could tell us what it felt like to be justified. “I don’t understand what you mean,” he said. “Well,” I responded, “you have just spent twenty minutes telling us about God’s justifying act. We assume that you have experienced that act. Simply tell us about it. What difference, for example, has it made in your life?”

[16] Only after considerable reflection was the student able to give an answer. He did so by telling us of a violent breakfast argument between himself and his wife. He left his home so angry that he did not care if he ever saw his wife again. During the day he came to realize that he had provoked the argument. His mood changed from anger to fear. He grew fearful of going home, certain that his wife would not be there or that she would be withdrawn and beyond reach. It was after dark when he nervously opened the front door. His wife heard him and came running. She threw her arms around his neck, kissed him, and said, “Welcome home!”

[17] “Is that,” the student asked, “what you had in mind?” I did not have to say a word. The class was overwhelmed. “Why didn’t you say that in the sermon?” someone asked. “That’s what I call bringing the theological truth to life,” said another. Both were right. The student had talked theology in the sermon. He did not do theology, however, until he began to connect God’s gift of undeserved grace with that gift of grace offered him by his wife.

[18] When preachers do theology by connecting life story and church tradition they receive a benefit beyond the satisfaction of performing an essential task. Week by week, for an entire lifetime, they can work at retrieving their own stories and seeing them in the light of God’s work. For many, this has been the major spiritual discipline and the center of their growth in faith. They understand that the very nature of the preaching task calls them to notice their own lives, to evaluate them in light of the judgment and grace of God, and to reshape them in line with what God has revealed.

[19] For several years, I have required students in my preaching classes to focus on their personal response to biblical texts. I ask them to share with the rest of us their emotional, intellectual, and behavioral responses. I invite them to share recollections, incidents recalled by association with what the biblical text says and does. I am always surprised by the variety and range of the recall. I am more surprised, though, by the blessing that such a simple exercise seems to be. Some students claim that they rarely receive such an invitation. Few people seem interested in what sense, if any, the students are making out of their lives in terms of God. Thus they are delighted by the chance to remember and share. Most of all, though, the students are amazed by what the texts release to their consciousness. Events long forgotten are remembered. People and places long out of sight appear. Words long muffled are heard once again. Such anamnesis is a blessing in itself. But the texts that serve as catalyst for the memory also interpret and contextualize what is remembered. The texts provide eyes and ears by which the recalled can be seen and heard in a new way. The texts invite rememberers to comprehend their daily lives as places where God actively works. And the students find themselves blessed again.

[20] There are preachers who carry out this kind of dialogue between text and personal life week after week. They do it in preparation for preaching. They also do it as a way of centering themselves, of keeping themselves alive to the presence and work of God in their own lives and beyond. Attentive to their own stories, they become more attentive to the stories of others. Aware of the presence of God in their own lives, they become more aware of God’s presence in the lives of others. Many preachers have told me that this kind of dialogue is so important to them that they would continue it even if they were to stop preaching. It gives them back their own lives and connects them to others. It reveals God as the center of every life.

From The I of the Sermon copyright © 1999 Fortress Press. Reproduced by special permission of Augsburg Fortress Publishers.