When A Sermon Flops: 10 Ways To Diagnose a Dud

“Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy,” said Pat Riley, the former NBA coach. Likewise, preaching a great sermon never feels as good as preaching a bad sermon feels lousy. My worst attempts at preaching have given me far more pain than my successes have brought me joy, and here are some of the factors that contribute to a homiletical flop.

  1. Why does a flop hurt so much?

One study found that experiencing failure (compared to success) makes people experience unrelated physical pain more intensely, and that failure even reduces your ability to tolerate physical pain.[1] Other research found that emotional pain sticks with us longer than physical pain, meaning that you have an easier time replaying emotional pain that remembering physical pain.[2]

Failure hurts. Even the most thick-skinned, self-confident pastor can be rattled by delivering a lemon in the pulpit.

  1. Did they heckle you?

In the first church I served as lead pastor I had people in the congregation who heckled me while I preached (next time you have a bad Sunday just tell yourself, “At least they didn’t heckle me”). Jesus said, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17, NIV), and sometimes no matter how great the sermon is, a congregation just will not respond appropriately.

Preachers ought to examine themselves first, but there are times when this is the case. If they heckled you, or if their hearts were hard, then maybe it’s a good Sunday to kick the dust off your feet, have lunch, and find your favorite couch for taking a well-deserved nap. 

  1. Did you get a different response in a different service?

Once this year I was speaking in a church with three services (one service on Saturday night, and two on Sunday morning). When I got in my car after the Saturday night service, I turned to my wife and said, “Well, obviously I need to totally overhaul this message overnight, or figure out something else overnight altogether.” She completely disagreed and said the sermon was great, but the group of people gathered that evening were just not responsive. Eventually she conceded one or two minor tweaks for the morning services, but said, “Don’t you dare change anything else. Watch and see – it will be different tomorrow,” so I reluctantly conceded to my wife because of her persistence. The next morning the response was entirely different, so much different that a man walked up to me after the first service and said, “I’m 50 years old and that’s the first time in my life church has made any sense. Thank you.” I have known many other pastors who have had the same experience. My wife was right (as per usual).

Maybe you don’t get to preach the same sermon in multiple services or multiple locations and therefore don’t get to write off a lackluster response in one service because the next service was more positive, but sometimes a sermon that flops is just a matter of different strokes for different folks.

  1. Were you prepared to preach?

I put hard work and long hours into sermon preparation because I want people to understand scripture in a clear and life-changing way. I also put so much time into preparation because it bothers me so much to preach a sermon that flops. A well-prepared sermon can still bomb, but it is a blessing to both pastor and church when a preacher is adequately prepared. If you did not feel as prepared as you could have been, maybe you could set aside more time to prepare this week, or block out an extra afternoon to prepare this week, and see if a little more preparation makes a difference.

  1. Did you fumble the delivery?

You can have a great sermon prepared, but stumbling in the delivery can overshadow your content. There are many professional athletes who possess extraordinary skill, but struggle to perform in a critical moment of a game. Likewise, having something worth while to share is a key to good preaching, but the ability to actually say it is equally critical. If your flop was a problem of delivery, you might find it helpful to spend some time rehearsing your delivery, including your gestures (or lack thereof). Maintaining good volume, while also varying your volume and pitch at appropriate times can go a long way in improving your preaching.

  1. Were you sick, distracted, or otherwise not at your best?

It happens to all of us. You have done everything in your control to be ready to preach well, but something happens beyond your control. Did you:
…wake up with a headache?
…experience technical difficulties?
…have an emergency or other disruption interrupt the service?
…get blindsided by one of those “Pastor, I just need to let you know how much I was hurt by…” conversations right before you had to preach?

If it was beyond your control, then it’s good to be able to adjust and fight through a less-than-ideal situation, but cut yourself some slack.

  1. Did you take a chance on something but it turned out to be a mistake?

Terry Pegula owns my beloved Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres with his wife Kim, and in a 2013 interview he said he told the hockey department, “Make mistakes. I love mistakes. I want to see you make mistakes because the day you’re afraid to make a mistake is the day you stop taking chances.”

I think that’s true for preachers, too. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and it might just improve your preaching. Sometimes a creative idea or an illustration goes better than you even hoped. Other times, not so much. It’s the preacher’s responsibility to make every effort to separate the good ideas from the bad ahead of time, of course, but if the problem with your sermon was an idea that didn’t pay off, then this is an easy fix. You learned a valuable lesson: don’t waste it (but don’t repeat it, either). As Tim Fargo said, “Analyze your mistakes. You’ve already paid the tuition, you might as well get the lesson.”

  1. Were you clear?

One friend told me recently on a Sunday morning, “I know I’m on the board, but I’m not sure if I’m hitting the nail.” I picked up the habit a few years ago of summarizing my whole sermon in one sentence when I think I’m done working on it. If I can’t preach it in one sentence, I know I’m not ready to say it with 20-30 minutes. If you aren’t sure whether your hitting the nail or not, chances are your congregation won’t even know which nail you’re aiming for in your sermon.

  1. Are you sure it flopped?

A small church near our college campus was without a pastor two years ago, so I went to preach for a Sunday, but it did not seem to go well. They could not have been more disengaged while I spoke, and when the service was over the congregation was cold and aloof. I kept thinking, “Was I really that bad? Guess I won’t be going back there!” A lay leader from that church called the college a few weeks later to see if more people from Houghton could speak at their church, and much to my surprise he asked for me by name, hoping I was available to preach there every Sunday. Go figure. I thought the message had flopped, but apparently I had totally misread the response of the congregation.

Maybe it was fine, or maybe it was neither your best nor your worst. You can’t throw a touchdown on every throw, and some sermons will just be satisfactory, but not particularly memorable. Perhaps, it went even better than you think, though.

  1. Can the Holy Spirit still use a flop?

Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was an ordained minister, and when he was a seminary student he attended a different church each Sunday so that he could hear an assortment of preachers. On one of those Sundays, he heard what he described as the worst sermon he had ever heard in his life. When he looked to his friend that day, however, she was in tears. She told him the sermon had been was exactly what she needed to hear that day. “That’s when I realized,” Rogers said, “that the space between someone doing the best he or she can and someone in need is holy ground. The Holy Spirit had transformed that feeble sermon for her—and as it turned out, for me too.”

Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy, but we who preach would do well to leave the wins & losses to the Lord. The Holy Spirit can transform a feeble sermon into a timely message for someone.
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Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is an ordained pastor in the Wesleyan Church, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches of New York State for 12 years. Steve also serves as director and primary instructor for Houghton College’s Equipping for Ministry program, which provides non-traditional classes for adults seeking ordination and personal enrichment. Steve is married to Tammy, and they have four children. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire

© Steve Dunmire 2015

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I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page.  Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

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[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/11124005/?i=2&from=/8233549/related

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201307/10-surprising-facts-about-rejection

10 Ways to Keep the Pastor You Love

“Being a pastor was SO much easier than what I’m doing now,” said no former pastor ever. Not one.IMG_9464c Instead, I meet pastors every month who say to me, “I thought I knew what this would be like, but being a pastor is so much harder than I expected, and most people have no idea.”

I am not writing this for pastors. This would be a very different article if pastors were my intended audience, but I am writing this for lay people, board members, district superintendents, and anyone who loves his or her pastor.

Here are ten simple things you and your church can do to help your pastor feel fulfilled and appreciated in pastoral work, and to try to hold on to your beloved pastor.

  1. Think Twice Before Criticizing

Someone is always mad at your pastor about something. Seriously. You cannot please all of the people all of the time, but having some people mad at them all of the time is the harsh reality many pastors live with. And it can wear a good pastor out. There are angry emails, scathing remarks in the church foyer, and people who will snub you in public once they have left your church.

On the night I was ordained, Dr. Earle Wilson said to us, “If you fail, you’ll be criticized. If you succeed, you may be even more criticized.” Some studies have shown that 40% of pastors experience significant conflict with someone in their church at least once every month. In my years as a pastor, I cannot think of a time when at least one person wasn’t angry at me about something. Many pastors have said it’s a death by a thousand cuts. To say “pastors just need to have thick skin” is both flippant and it fails to take into account how stress makes a person more likely to suffer from depression, more susceptible to temptation, and also makes a person more vulnerable to illness. Every time someone chooses to leave your church, or complains about a sermon, or ignores you out in the community, or sends an anonymous letter, or feels the need to “speak my mind,” it takes a little bit of the air out of your pastor’s tires. Every week I meet with pastors who carry wounds from years of serving cranky Christians, and I look in the eyes of good pastors whose souls bear the cumulative damage of the relentless criticism and anger vented toward pastors. I can assure you that having a callused pastor is much worse than having a pastor who takes criticism and attacks personally.

Do you love your pastor? Think twice before criticizing, and if you are going to be critical about something, make sure it’s for good reasons (and be calm and kind as you do so). Assume that your pastors’ critics are taking shots at them, even if you don’t see it or hear about it.

  1. Housing: Be the Best Landlord in Town.

If you provide a parsonage, be the best landlord in town. I facilitated a Clergy Tax Event last year where we were talking about how to determine the “Fair Rental Value” of the parsonage, and one person in the group asked, “Do you take into account the fact that no one else would actually want to live there?”

As a rule of thumb, keep the parsonage nicer than is necessary. Never let “good enough” be the standard. Most pastors I know are shy about asking for work to be done on the parsonage, but if you want to keep the pastor you love, you won’t wait for the pastor to ask for work to be done on the parsonage. The parsonage is your pastor’s home, but it is the church’s house. You cannot control everything that happens in the life of the church, but you can make sure your pastor has a comfortable home – a haven to which your pastor can retreat at the end of every day.

Of course, pastors who own their own homes tend to have longer pastorates than those who live in parsonages. Homeownership provides the chance for a family to live where they want in a house that suits their needs, and a mortgage has a way of “encouraging” people stay in one place longer. If you have a pastor you love, be an advocate for helping them move from a parsonage into their own home.

  1. Care for the Pastor’s Family, and for your Pastor as a Person

In some ways, caring for the pastor’s home is a big way of carrying for his family (see point #9), but it can go beyond that. Whenever I hear that a colleague is leaving a church, I always pray that their spouse and children get to hear how much their spouse or parent has meant to the congregation as pastor. When I left my last church, I was so touched by the number of people who said they were going to miss watching my kids grow up, and the people who gave gifts to my children. The gifts and cards people gave my children meant twice as much as the ones they gave me. One family gave my kids money for college every year on their birthdays, and became like surrogate grandparents for our children. It makes it harder to entertain leaving when people in the congregation have truly become like family to you … and especially to your children and spouse (I’ll write more about this in my next post).

  1. Vacation Time & Weekends Off

Most full-time pastors work 6-7 days per week (yes, I know of a few lazy full-time pastors who work 4-5 days per week, but those are the exception, not the rule). So if a pastor has a 6-day workweek and only gets 2 weeks off per year, the pastor will work 302 days per year. By comparison, a person working a 5-day work week with 2 weeks off who will work 250 days per year. That is an extra 52 workdays per year for your pastor! If you give that same pastor 4 weeks of vacation, the pastor will still work 38 more days than the person who has a 5-day workweek and two weeks of vacation!

I am a big proponent of hardworking pastors getting AT LEAST three or four weeks of vacation not because they deserve MORE time off than their lay people, but because even with “more” vacation time they will still work more days per year than the average lay person.

  1. Salary: Give Your Pastor Raises

Finances are always a factor, and every pastor would be able to work for free in an ideal world, but you can’t afford to do your job for free, and neither can your pastor. People often have the idea that a pastor ought to make sacrifices for the sake of the ministry, and therefore they ought to make less than they deserve. Many pastors, likewise, know the financial needs of the church better than their lay leaders, and will decline raises or even voluntarily take pay cuts for the sake of the ministry. Even if the pastor declines the raise, it is important for morale that you are generous in what you offer. A cost of living increase (at the least) should be offered as standard operating procedure every year for your pastor.

As I was writing this, I realized something: the only way I ever received anything more than a cost of living increase in my years as a pastor was by moving to a new ministry. I never thought of it that way until now, and I never went looking for those moves, but they always found me. Again, I’m not writing this as career advice to pastors, but as a word of advice to congregations who want to keep the pastor they love: if you don’t give your pastor a raise, someone else will.

What can you do when there isn’t money in the budget for a raise? In the current financial climate, many workplaces and institutions have experienced years when raises weren’t an option, or even years when painful cuts were necessary. Your pastor will understand better than anyone (and sometimes before anyone else) if a raise isn’t possibly because of the budget. I have heard of churches who told their pastoral staff, “There isn’t room in the budget for a raise this year, so instead we are giving everyone an extra week off this year.”

Pastors enter the ministry for the call, not for the money. Pastors pay the same price for milk, gas, and coffee as anyone else, though. Make it happen, somehow, someway, and be creative if you must. If you don’t give your pastor a raise when it is deserved, eventually someone else will.

  1. Give Your Pastor Tools To Get the Job Done

Your pastor’s reimbursement account is not part of the pastor’s compensation: it is the tools the pastor needs to get the job done. Reimburse the pastor’s ministry mileage, provide a pastoral expense account, and a budget for buying books. An adequate computer, office space, books, mileage, and reimbursed expenses is not a luxury – it is the tools your pastor needs to be effective. Don’t ask your pastor to make bricks without straw.

  1. You Want Your Pastor to Be Flexible, so Give Your Pastor Flexibility

Take in to account how much of a pastor’s ministry conflicts with family life on weekends, evenings, and holidays. Free your pastor up to attend school functions, and to use the flexibility of the pastorate to be there for family during “normal work hours” because weekends and holidays are so often crowded by ministry responsibilities.. The old saying fits some pastors who are “invisible for six days and incomprehensible on the seventh,” but most of my friends who are pastors work too hard, not too little. Flexibility is a free benefit your church can afford to give your pastor.

  1. Be Dependable

When a pastor leaves a church, the hardest people to leave are the dependable ones. Make it hard for your pastor to think about leaving by your actions: be dependable, be consistent in your attendance, and be the type of person of whom your pastor can say, “We’re building with people like that.” When workers are not dependable, and members are sporadic in their attendance, it doesn’t take much for the grass to look greener somewhere else. Do you have a pastor you love? Then be there, and be dependable.

  1. Send Compliments Over Your Pastor’s Head

Your pastor probably reports to a board, elders, a bishop, or a district superintendent, so make sure you tell them that you love your pastor. And do it now, before those types of people ask you what you think. The chronic complainers will not hesitate to go over your pastor’s head with their criticisms, so you should not hesitate to go over your pastor’s head when you have a pastor you love. It will be refreshing to everyone involved.

  1. Send Specific, Handwritten Notes to say, “Thanks.”

In an age of tweets and text messages, a hand-written note is a lost art, and a rare treasure. Here’s a little secret: many pastors have a file of handwritten notes they’ve received over the years. A handwritten note is most likely the sort of thing your pastor will not quickly discard. Express your appreciation in writing and it will stand out.

Research has shown that possibly the greatest predictor of career satisfaction for pastoral ministry is for pastors to know that they are making a difference. Don’t be vague when you say thanks. Be specific. Don’t just say, “Thanks for all you do.” Say thanks for things your pastor does, or characteristics your pastor has, and ways your pastor does things.

Did you learn something you didn’t know during your pastor’s message, or find yourself thinking about it days later, or did God speak to you in a powerful way through a message? Then tell your pastor what it was, specifically. Tell your pastor, “That sermon helped me understand ….” or even, “That story your shared in your sermon really helped me see ….”

Other examples are:

  • “Thank you for taking time away from your family to be with ours in a difficult time.”
  • “I know that situation was difficult, and I appreciate the way you handled it.”
  • “I can tell you put a lot of time and preparation into your messages, and I just wanted you to know that it shows.”

Pastors are willing to endure a lot if they know they are making a difference. So show them. Tell them. I have never once heard a pastor say, “My congregation expresses too much appreciation to me.” Write it out with pen on paper and put it in the mail.

My Point

I spend an average of almost 30 hours per week with pastors and ministry leaders. Believe me or not, but if any of these ten things seems like “too much,” or if you neglect these ten things, I guarantee the pastor you love will leave sooner or later. On the other hand, I don’t know of any pastor who would casually leave a church that does these ten things consistently.

What do you think?

What did I miss? Anything you would add or take away from this list?

© Steve Dunmire 2014
Photograph also © Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.