Chapter 166

Eliminating My Um, Um, Annoying Pulpit Mannerisms

I can't let personal quirks get in the way of the message

As a bored lad in the pew, I remember counting the number of times the pastor pushed his glasses up his nose—one Sunday more than fifty, averaging one every thirty seconds. I also remember the young pastor who said "God" as though the word had three syllables, and the pastor who pronounced "worship" as "war-ship."

Like static on the telephone line, annoying pulpit mannerisms can make hearing the message difficult. I feel responsible to remove distractions that affect how people hear the gospel, so I've taken pains to reduce mine as much as possible.

Wrestling personal demons

I've learned that I can't let my insecurities prevent me from facing embarrassing mannerisms. I struggled for years with a painful self-consciousness before I stood to speak. In college, I almost flunked a required speech class.

Something changed after I met Christ; I received the gift and call to communicate God's Word. But it took years for me to become emotionally comfortable with my gift. Every time, I feared my sermon would turn out like my speeches in college. Beforehand, I regularly doubled over with excruciating cramps. At times, I almost fled the platform for the bathroom.

But the moment I stood to speak, the pain stopped. So I've had to work hard not to look self-conscious on the platform. My hard work, however, became the breeding ground for distracting, nervous mannerisms.

Who is this guy with the goofy grin? That's what one of my (soon-to-be) best friends thought when I candidated at my second church. I had sat on the platform with a grin plastered on my face. Only a passionate commitment to communicate the Word put me on the road to overcome my insecurities.

Inviting feedback

In preaching, we need people who love us enough to tell us the truth, even if it hurts. But loving people tend not to point out to their pastor his distracting mannerisms.

I once used an interactive style of teaching on Sunday evenings. While someone responded to questions, I would lean on the pulpit and rest my chin on my hand. I had the habit of laying my index finger on the bridge of my nose. (This was definitely better than in my nose, but not much.) One day I observed the chairman of our elders leading a study and doing the same thing—on purpose. Everyone laughed, for they knew whom he was imitating. I had to admit: it looked ridiculous!

It's difficult for someone to overcome fear and be honest with me. This should be easier with my wife, but it's not. Not long ago, she asked, "Why do you always sit on the platform with your chin up in the air? You look like you are stuck up."

"Say what you mean, Dear," I replied testily.

"For some reason," she explained, "whenever you sit on the platform, you elevate your chin. You don't do it when you speak, but you almost always do it beforehand."

I didn't have an inkling of this, but I began to catch myself with my chin lifted to jaunty heights. I have had to make an effort to keep it lower. It's distressing to think I may have been doing that for years. I encouraged my wife not to wait so long to say something the next time.

She immediately said I look better when my coat is unbuttoned.

Two ways to pain

Here are two sure-fire ways to identify annoying preaching mannerisms:

Tape yourself—either audio or video. While listening to a tape, I noticed that when I began a message, I would fill every pause with an "ah": "I was thinking the other day … ah … about the nature of the media's influence … ah … " I felt the need to fill every empty space with sound, a common distracting mannerism.

Three or four sentences into the message, as soon as I got rolling, I would stop the "ahs." I wonder how many church youngsters have snickered to each other, "He 'ah-ed' 14 times today! It's a record!"

Use anonymous questionnaires. A few will abuse this, using the opportunity to criticize, so anything too negative I dismiss out of hand. One way to limit the overly negative is by giving the questionnaire only to the church leaders as part of your yearly job evaluation.

In the questionnaire, I ask for an honest response about my length of messages, issues they'd like addressed in the future, and their favorite series I've done and why. Then I add: "Because I want to be the best communicator I can be in the Holy Spirit, are there any distracting mannerisms (jingling coins in my pocket, clearing my throat in the mike, etc.) that bother you? If you have trouble thinking of these, imagine someone parodying me: What mannerisms might they exaggerate? Thanks for helping me to be the best I can be for Christ."

Taking preaching to heart

To eliminate a mannerism, I focus on one per month. Sometimes the solution is a simple mechanical change, like applying no-slip pads to my glasses. I work up a sweat just blinking. In the summer, even with my jacket off, I perspire profusely. That requires wiping my face regularly with a handkerchief—another distraction. I have threatened to preach in a sweat band. Then someone suggested an alternative—a small fan to circulate the air around me.

Voice changes are harder. I have always had a wide range of volume. My voice projects well when I'm speaking normally or loudly, but sometimes the bottom falls out; I get so soft that our sound man turns up the mike. Everyone leans forward to catch what I'm saying.

I have worked on my voice control for years with only moderate success, trying to become more conscious when the drops occur and strengthening my diaphragm. I'm learning I have limits to my God-given abilities, and only so much time; I refuse to hammer myself for not being able to communicate with the world-class preachers. Even so, I work hard to remove distracting mannerisms that prevent people from hearing the message.