Still Breathing

Sunday Morning and Beyond

After a year or two in ministry you probably know the drill: you attend a conference, hear some really exciting stuff, come back all fired up, use what you learned a time or two, and then get sucked back into the undertow of meetings and budgets and organizing files and bad habits and cleaning your house and all those little everyday things that you got to leave behind while you were away continuing your education. And while many of our conference and seminar experiences are valuable if only because of the time away, the time to reflect, recreate, and recharge, there are some times when practical things stick with us, when we find that our preaching or pastoring or even paper-shuffling is impacted and improved by what we learned.

Not 12 hours after I arrived home from this August’s Young Women
Preachers Conference at the College of Preachers, I was in a pulpit
preaching (yes, my flight was delayed, and yes my colleagues spent an
anxious Saturday night wondering if one of them would have to pinch hit for me).
Now here was a test…would the things I had learned in the past week
shine through my fatigue from a airport evening? Based on responses
from little old ladies in my congregation and my Dad (also a pastor, a
long-time member of my group of preaching roadies, and my most loving
but fiercest critic), I was preaching differently…as my Dad said, “I
don’t know what they did to you last week, but after 10 years, you
finally slowed down.”

What “they did to me” that week was introduce me to Ruthanna Hooke, assistant professor
of homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary. As our leader for the
week, Ruthanna introduced us to the main ideas of her forthcoming book,
Real Presence: Preaching as an Embodied Event. She mixes good theology
about the body and the place of the preacher with Linklater acting method, deep
breathing and relaxation exercises, a bit of yoga, and memorization of
text. Out of that comes a sense of preaching that flows from one’s own
sense of embodied self and one’s own authentic voice. (This description
cannot do the whole justice…I’d encourage you to look for the book.)

After that first sermon back, I’ve been curious if
the lessons of the week would stick. As an infrequent preacher in my
current call, I can’t be sure since I’ve only preached once since then.

But a small sample of responses from others who attended the conference
confirms that how it has impacted us has varied from person to person.

Some of us appreciated the experience, but also find that it’s been
hard to integrate into the rhythm of our back-at-church lives. One
woman writes: “I haven’t used the breathing stuff, mainly because when
I get in on Sunday morning, I’m trying not to fall behind schedule.” I
second that sentiment: there are so many things to juggle on a Sunday,
from last minute Sunday school disasters to a malfunctioning zipper on
a robe, that it can seem indulgent to lay on the floor in my office
breathing deeply for 5 minutes.

At the other end, one pastor found that she can integrate the practice
not only into her own Sunday morning routine, but include members of
her congregation as well. “I’ve been doing the breathing exercises
before the service with the lay ministers, and I think there’s
something grounding about sharing that experience.” What a wonderful
way to acknowledge that breath is the elemental ingredient for prayer,
and to share the simplicity of breathing as a way to pray leaders into

Some find that it’s not just a matter of their technique or preparation
changing, but also a changed sense and awareness of self. One woman
describes how using techniques she learned at the conference—breathing,
memorization, even where she places her feet—result in a different
sense of herself while preaching: “The conference enabled me to hear my
voice in a new way. I will not say that I won’t doubt my voice again,
but I do have a deeper connection to the voice, the voice of God.”

Another woman sums up her experience of preaching post-conference in a
way that acknowledges the changes and the difficulty of implanting them
in the real-life of congregation and colleagues:

After the conference, preaching has become harder. And easier.

I now demand from myself to be touched by the text. I try, though don’t
always succeed, to learn the text by heart. I take the moment to
breathe after climbing into the pulpit.

I believe my sermons are better, more truthful and personal (though not
private). I can’t really tell whether my congregation agrees. I think

I miss having the group to discuss with, having that safe harbor where
it is comfortable to shout and whisper Scripture. Life in the
congregation is so different, for good and bad, and even if my
co-workers listen and are happy for me, I am still alone. Even when the
sacristy is full of people before the Sunday worship, I carry this
experience alone.

Maybe the ultimate truth is that it is not the conferences we attend
that change our preaching, but the way that these things we learn merge
with the trajectory God has already set us on in our preaching lives.
My Dad’s comment about it taking ten years for me to slow down might
have been even more insightful that he realized. Even if one particular
conference gave me the push to slow down, it was something I had been
moving toward for a decade. And one of these many women I gathered with
last summer, my friend and companions on the road with me and my
sermons, said exactly this: “This has all been in process since I first
started preaching, really, but I think the conference experience
accelerated things.”

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6 replies
  1. Susan O
    Susan O says:

    I can’t wait for the book to come out!
    I’ve found myself “warming up” in the car on the way to preaching gigs—evoking some strange looks from adjacent cars, but getting a more grounded sound. I’m so grateful for the conference’s content, and really encourage those that couldn’t be there in person to pick up the book when it comes out.

  2. Sarah McQueen
    Sarah McQueen says:

    I’ve found myself changed in two ways.
    1. I used the exercise where I stretch up tall, stetch out, and then stand tall again. That had made a big difference in keeping my energy up through all three services!
    2. I’m better about just standing and being stared at – even while not wearing vestments. When I don’t preach I lead worship and find myself going slower and waiting more knowing that people are just looking at me. This change came from standing in the circle of chairs and sharing information about myself – and then waiting while that soaked in…instead of just moving along quickly.
    I look forward to the book coming out as well! 😀

  3. Jeez
    Jeez says:

    Yup, still breathing with you! I don’t do the excercise, but it’s there somehow. The inner pool of huh… and I also try to learn the gospel by heart -and it really helps the creative process! /Jenny

  4. Jennifer C
    Jennifer C says:

    I’ve started a weekly lectionary group in my congregation and it’s been going really well. I’m just waiting til the right time to do something with them like block out the scripture, or memorize verses of it, or something else we did at the conference. It will be so powerful!
    Erica, thanks for articulating all of this. It’s also comforting to read that there was something unique happening at the conference that we won’t be able to carry home with us. I’ve been feeling a little guilty about not incorporating more of what I learned, but now I think it’s been just about right–some of that wonderfulness will just have to stay in Washington, and some of it has moved into my congregation to stay.

  5. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    I feel like I finally have permission to make deep personal connections with the text and also to share them in my preaching… if only through the practice of breathing and groundedness. I, too, am less consistent than I would like to admit about applying what I experienced and learned in August. But what a gift to have such rich, PRACTICAL ideas and methods to work with! Perhaps it will take me ten years to incorporate them as thoroughly as they deserve… if only because it might take me that long to discipline myself to get up early enough to breathe as well as completing all the other prepwork of Sunday morning! 🙂

  6. Melissa St. Clair
    Melissa St. Clair says:

    It seems so basic, yet it does make a difference: before I speak, I breathe. I don’t often get to preach, but I always have some leadership role in worship. Whether I am praying, inviting the congregation to communion, or sharing an offertory invitation, I take a moment to look out across the congregation, to think about how much I love them and how much God loves them and I breathe. I have often been told that I have a good “presence” in worship, but I am finally actually beginning to feel present. Thanks Ruthanna. Thanks sisters. Thanks Holy Spirit.


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