Over the last ten years or so I have often lamented the existence and widespread use of email. It’s pretty much made my life miserable – except for those times when I can’t live without it.
Before email, sermon feedback was sparse. In a church I served early in my ministry, I actually started a “sermon feedback” group for Sundays after the last service. The idea was that we would “continue the conversation” in a classroom setting. I enjoyed those sessions and still think there’s a place for them. I found out pretty quickly what people heard, what interested them, or what didn’t make sense.
Then came email. And since then I haven’t had to ask for feedback. It just comes, often as early as Sunday afternoon. To be fair, most of the email I receive in response to sermons is kind and encouraging and supportive. In fact, I probably receive more words of appreciation for what I do than people who labor in other professions.
So, there’s no need to feel sorry for me (unless you would like to).
And yet, I do receive the occasional email that makes me regret opening up my laptop on Sunday afternoon. I read it and think, “Really? You needed to say that? I hope you feel better now, because I feel lousy.”
It’s on those occasions that I think back to the time when people actually had to go home and think about their response. And then they would have to get out a pen, a piece of paper, an envelope, and a stamp. After it was dropped into the mail, I probably wouldn’t receive it until Tuesday at the earliest – and by then I wasn’t nearly as sensitive and defensive as I often am on Sunday afternoon.
I can be sensitive and defensive on Sunday afternoon. And that’s because there is something vulnerable about preaching. From the first time I stood in a pulpit, I have felt exposed when I preach, open to criticism, and vulnerable to … I don’t know, something, maybe personal attack.
Early in our marriage, Susan and I reached an agreement that she wouldn’t say anything about my sermon until at least Wednesday, which was when I figured that I could really hear what she had to say. I value her opinion about what I say, but it’s sometimes hard to hear her so soon after I’ve said it. And mostly she keeps the agreement, even when I taunt her on Sunday after church with a “So, what did you think?”
Good preaching, I’m convinced, ought to involve vulnerability. When one of us preaches, we should be putting ourselves out there. Our beliefs and most deeply held convictions should be plain for all to see. But there’s a risk in that. To be exposed in that way makes us vulnerable.
Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon that life in my childhood was good and that institutions of government were respected and that things generally were better than there are today. I said it differently, of course, but that’s how it was heard.
And so – on Monday morning – I opened my laptop to find a wonderful, thoughtful, and gentle email expressing…well, profound disagreement with what I had said. Not everything back in the 1950s and 1960s, she reminded me, was good. Many women, many African-Americans, and many others do not look back on those times as good at all.
I had to agree. I told a story from my own limited perspective, and I got it wrong.
Another time, several years ago, on a Saturday night, I was visiting a church – a mega-church 20 miles from my home. I was excited to go and was enjoying myself until I heard the pastor, who is a nationally-known preacher, say something disparaging about mainline Protestants. I was so mad that I went home and (not knowing his email address) wrote him a letter letting him know that some mainline Protestants actually do believe in God and that he was a very bad man for implying otherwise (I forget exactly what I wrote).
To my surprise, he wrote back. It was a nice letter, on personal stationary, and clearly not written by a staff member. He apologized. He said, “I don’t remember saying those things, but if I did, I hope you will accept my apology. I blew it.”
Which was not the response I expected. And I decided to learn from it. I don’t always get it right either when I stand up to preach. I have been known to blow it. I hope I get the essentials right. I hope the gospel is clear every time I walk up those steps. But I’m not perfect. And I hate email.