The Blue Jays recently announced they will not be re-signing Jose Bautista next year. The Toronto fans who saw Jose’ final game as a Blue Jay gave him a stirring and sustained ovation at the Roger’s Centre.
When Jose first arrived in Toronto, very few expected he would become the face of the franchise and turn into one of baseball’s best hitters. Jose was picked up by Toronto in 2008 after being a backup player in Pittsburg. He was a good utility player, for sure. But a starter or a superstar? Highly unlikely.
What made the difference? According to Dave Schoenfield’s ESPN article, How Jose Bautista became Hose Bautista, the difference was made by a batting coach.
Dwayne and Jose
Jose’s emergence as a premier power hitter came when the Jays’ batting coach, Dwayne Murphy, started working with him. Murphy watched Bautista closely and noticed Jose generated great torque with his hip rotation but was slow in bringing his hands around. Murphy had Bautista relax and start his swing earlier “by moving his top hand in a small semicircle almost a second earlier than before.” This small change would make a big difference.
Granted, it took weeks for Jose to get comfortable with this new swing. But when he did, the results were stunning. He hit twelve home runs in one month and developed into one of the best hitters in baseball.
Here’s the point I want to make for us as preachers. If professional ballplayers need coaching to reach their potential, why should it be different for us as preachers?
In my role at Heritage, I listen to many preachers—both at the school and in churches. I’ve never heard a preacher yet (including yours truly) who wouldn’t benefit from coaching. Many preachers have strong, God-given gifts; however, all of us have specific habits and systemic patterns that keep us from hitting our potential. Like Jose Bautista before Dwayne Murphy, we swing hard but don’t connect as often as we’d like. In short, we would benefit from some coaching.
A preaching coach doesn’t have to be a better preacher than you are. Dwayne Murphy only hit half as many home runs as Jose Bautista. Yet a good preaching coach has two qualities that make them so useful. First, they know what a home-run sermon looks like. They understand the mechanics of sermon construction and sermon delivery. Second, they can spot exactly where a preacher is a bit off in his sermonic swing. They can identify, in specific terms, strong points and weak spots in a sermon. As a result they can give customized counsel that goes far beyond the “Good sermon, Pastor” we sometimes hear at the door.
So let me ask you, preacher to preacher: Who gives you wise, knowledgeable feedback on your sermons? Who roots for your success as a preacher by helping you root out the bad habits in your preaching? Who is your Dwayne Murphy?
It’s great to read books and blogs on preaching. It’s wise to watch sermons from those who excel at biblical exposition. But nothing will bring more help than personalized, wise input from a coach.
Why We Don’t Have a Dwayne
Many preachers would agree a coach could help, but most will never get any coaching. Why not? There are likely many reasons, but two stand out in my thinking: we don’t really want the feedback and we don’t know whom to ask. Think with me about these reasons.
First, we don’t really want feedback. We feel uneasy about having someone scrutinize our sermons. Deep down, we live with a low-grade insecurity about our preaching abilities. We know we aren’t hitting home runs most Sundays, but at least we usually get good wood on the ball. So why should we invite criticism? Who finds joy in finding out the flaws in their sermonic swing? On top of that, most people in the congregation seem generally content with our level of preaching. They may not be cheering, but they aren’t booing either. At least not loud enough for us to hear. So we play it safe and choose not to seek out an informed analysis of our preaching.
Second, we don’t know whom to ask. Where do you find the preaching equivalent of a batting coach? Do you ask a pastoral peer who may not be any better at preaching that you are? A homiletics prof at a local seminary? How about an all-star preacher you’ve heard preach but don’t know personally?
Here’s what I’ve discovered about these two objections. The first one is harder to overcome than the second. In fact, once you get past your internal reticence to being coached, you’ll discover it’s easier than you think to find one. Once you decide to open yourself up to receiving personalized feedback on your preaching, you will have overcome the greatest obstacle to getting coaching.
Finding a Dwayne
How do you go about engaging a preaching coach? Let me answer by telling you about an assignment I give to couples when doing their pre-marital counselling. I tell the engaged couple to identify a married couple whose marriage seems strong and satisfying. Then they are to approach this seasoned married couple with a request: “We want to develop a solid marriage and admire what we see in you. Could we take you out for coffee one time and talk about building a strong marriage?”
In my years of pre-marital counselling, I’ve never known an engaged couple to be turned down. Even when they don’t personally know the older couple. In fact, the seasoned couple is generally delighted to be asked. They’ve worked hard on their marriage and are eager to see others flourish. While they initially only agree to meeting once, the relationship between the couples often turns out to be long lasting. The young couple now has a marriage coach!
My advice to preachers looking for a preaching coach is similar: prayerfully identify a preacher in your circle of relationships (geographical, denominational) whose preaching ministry you admire. Approach him with a request: “I want to grow as a preacher and appreciate what I hear in your sermons. Could I take you out for coffee one time and talk to you about becoming a more effective preacher?”
Most preachers you ask will be encouraged by your affirmation and willing to have a conversation about effective preaching. Come to the conversation with a list of questions: How do you approach your preparation? How do you move from exegesis to exposition, from study of a text to structuring a sermon? How has God shaped your soul as a preacher? What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?
Over the course of the conversation you will sense if this preacher could be a helpful coach. Is there good chemistry? Honesty? Candor? If so, ask him to watch or listen to one of your sermons and give you some feedback. Invite him to point out what he sees as strengths of the sermon and ways it could be strengthened. Make sure to thank him for investing time and energy into your life and ministry.
So far, I’ve written about coaching as if you had only one preaching coach. While one coach is one more than most preachers have, I think it’s wise to think of a coaching team. I’ve read that PGA golfer, Phil Michelson, has a team of coaches who help him with various aspects of his game. Over the course of my ministry, I’ve received coaching from professors, peers and my wife. Each has provided a blend of encouragement and challenge, helping me to get a better sense of how to improve as a preacher.
When Paul wrote a letter to give Timothy some personalized coaching, he told him to work hard at preaching and teaching. The outcome, Paul said, was that people in the congregation would see his progress (1 Timothy 4:15). They would be able to say, “He’s a better preacher this year than he was last year.” If you continue to grow as a preacher, getting some coaching along the way, the people in your congregation will be able to say the same thing about you.