The Ethics of Self-Disclosure in Preaching

[1] The topic of self-disclosure in the pulpit is certainly worth critical exploration for the sake of honest ministry and ethical preaching. The sober reality, however, is that self-disclosure is a given in the act of preaching and cannot be helped. It just is. To say that there can be preaching without self-disclosure might be compared to those who claim that there can be biblical reading or interpretation without subjectivity or bias. There is no such thing as objectivity. We all have partialities, prejudices, and ideologies. This is not a bad thing. The question is whether or not we admit them, or, whether or not we have taken the time to figure them out in the first place.

[2] The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has two sets of double doors through which to enter the museum. After paying admission, the docent leads you to the two sets of doors. Over one set of double doors is the word “Prejudiced.” Over the other set of double doors is “Not-Prejudiced.” The docent then asks each patron to choose through which double doors to enter the museum. As it turns out, the “Not-Prejudiced” doors are locked. The docent explains that the main intent of the museum is not simply to make people aware of certain intolerances, but to effect the acknowledgement of intolerance in general. While it is one thing to recognize obvious and odious prejudices, it is quite another to admit less salient ones in ourselves. Getting to know oneself is not always an easy or pleasant task. It is risky business and you may not like what you discover. Yet, good and responsible biblical interpretation, and therefore, ethical preaching, begins with self-interpretation. The better we know ourselves, the better we will be at reading the Bible. Then the text becomes a true conversation partner and not a looking glass into our self-interests; a partner who will talk back and not lay idle as we blather on about ourselves.

[3] The key for ethical, biblical, and theological preaching is whether or not there is enough self-awareness, self-understanding, and self-criticism at work in the preacher to ensure that what gets preached is what God has to say to a particular community of faith and not what the preacher has to say about God. If preaching is re-incarnating the Word into the lives of our parishioners, then our personal predispositions and preconceptions are always part of a larger community of interpreters. Of course, how this works itself out practically in the pastor’s study, in the rhythm of the church week, and in the preparation of a sermon, is cause for considerable pause. How do we maintain a structure of checks and balances on our own agendas? How do we save ourselves from ourselves? How do we read texts and write sermons with “less” self-disclosure, and is that even possible given the certain existence of the particular set of lenses through which we view the world? Keeping the following five principles in mind can be one direction toward more attentiveness to self-disclosure in the pulpit for the sake of ethical, biblical, and responsible preaching .

[4] First, it is important to remember that the Biblical text itself provides a model for such awareness. Clearly, each writer, each contributor to the canon, gave voice to ideas, concerns, and commitments from a particular point of view. For example, there is no apology on the Fourth Evangelist’s part that Jesus’ temple disruption is situated at the beginning of the Gospel and not after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Nor is there much concern with shepherds visiting the baby Jesus in Luke and the wise men paying the same visit in Matthew. As interpreters of these stories, we marvel at their literary aptitude, their theological witness, and their bold proclamation of their faith. While we do not sit back and judge the writings on the basis of authorial intent, we do recognize the unique voice each contributes to the canon. In our own preaching, might we also strive to locate our own theological witness and commitments as they intersect with God’s activity in the world?

[5] Second, a preacher does well to recall the preaching triangle of text, preacher, and congregation. The process of preaching is a three-way interaction and dialogue. The sermon will seem out of kilter, to the preacher and to the congregation, and to God, for that matter, when even one member of the conversation is left out or one dominates the discussion. The difference is whether or not the preacher reads for or with the congregation. If the preacher reads for, the congregation will indeed feel a sense of rebuff, as if those sitting in the pew are not capable of having a say in what this text can mean for their lives. But if the preacher reads with the congregation, there is a mutuality of interpretive energy that generates new insights, new meanings, and new possibilities for how the text can come alive in the midst of worship and congregational life.

[6] Third, it is critical for a preacher to have a sense of her own “theological template.”[1] What does she bring theologically to the table? How does she think theologically? Here, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can be helpful, though certainly not exhaustive, for determining one’s own theological commitments. The weight that we give to scripture, tradition, reason, and experience determines how we negotiate through theological issues and how we engage in theological reflection. Of course, giving due attention to one’s theological template or how one thinks theologically is essential because what is at stake is one’s view of God. If we concur that preaching is about bringing God’s word to bear in, with, on, and for the lives of God’s people, then the preacher needs to take a step back and give sustained attention to the understanding of God at work.

[7] Fourth, the issue of self-disclosure in preaching can also be addressed when the preacher is aware of the difference between methodology and practical theology. That is, it is one thing to employ homiletical training, those learned techniques, the praxes of the task, or the theoretical and doctrinal concepts so as to ensure a respectable, acceptable, and worthwhile sermon. It is quite another thing, however, to remember that you are a pastor as well as a preacher. As a pastor, the preacher cannot but locate his sermon reflection, preparation, and delivery within the context of perceived pastoral needs. Self-absorbed and self-important self-disclosure will appear as it really is – vanity for the sake of the ego rather than candor for the sake of connection to the community of faith.

[8] Finally, it is helpful to remember that in all actuality, a personal story, a story that discloses something about the preacher, is no different than any other story, illustration, or image the preacher uses in the sermon. The same kinds of questions must be asked. Does it convey the sermon’s focus? Does it relate to the text? Does it get at the point in a helpful way or only in an entertaining way? If it is tangential, not on target, and if the biblical text has been eclipsed by the story, then the story should be eschewed for the sake of the text and for the sake of responsible and ethical biblical preaching.

See Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996) 38-54.