Periodically I am asked by students how much of one's personal life should one disclose while preaching. It's an important question that is worthy of serious consideration. Telling personal stories and relating important experiences can be a great way to connect to the congregation and offer one more way for the congregation to come to appreciate the humanity of its pastor. But, as most things in life, one can take things too far and share too much. As the old adage goes, there is a fine line between disclosure and exposure.
When I was in seminary one of my professors in a pastoral ministry class said one day that to share from one's personal experiences during a sermon is a helpful way for the pastor to communicate that she or he is indeed made of flesh and blood like everyone else. The problem, he went on to say, is that some pastors have a tendency to bleed all over the pulpit. So, when is opening oneself publicly in the pulpit helpful disclosure and when does it cross over the line into obscene exposure?
Prior to offering my own thoughts, I need to state the obvious that all congregations are different. What a pastor might be able to share in one congregation may be quite problematic in the pulpit of another. I've know a few pastors who were drug users or dealers prior to their conversions. Some congregations who are very open would have no trouble with their pastor offering testimony as to how Christ transformed her or his life in sharing such a truth, while in other churches people would find such public confession of their leader in the pulpit to be quite scandalous. So, discernment is necessary on the part of the pastor. Nevertheless, while every congregation is different, let me offer some general observations about the motivation for what one shares as well as what not to share.
First, every pastor needs to ask why he or she wants to share something of a personal nature. Does it really relate to the sermon in a way that the congregation will be illumined? The reason I bring up motivation is that some emotionally needy pastors have a knack for turning the sermon time into one big therapy session where they are the patient and the rest of the congregation is the therapist listening to their anguish. If the motivation is of a nature where the pastor just needs to get the problem off her or his chest, it is best to keep silent.
Second, when it comes to sharing personal experiences in the pulpit, I follow Bevere's time-tested rule, "When in doubt, chicken out." Failing to tell a story will offend no one. Telling one you are not sure of may. I want to be clear here. The task of the preacher is not to tickle the congregation's ears. St. Paul reminds us that the gospel is an offense. But if we are to offend in our preaching, let it be based on the substance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not on account of an embarrassing personal experience.
Third, keep family out of the sermon unless it is a harmless story or one that will truly make the point without embarrassing anyone. Years ago, I knew a pastor who regularly made fun of his wife's terrible cooking in his sermons. What's the point of that? Moreover, pastors need to refrain from speaking of marital and/or financial problems from the pulpit. They also need to keep their children's issues out of the sermon as well. To speak of these things in such a public venue will not only not help the situation, it may in fact make things worse. (By the way, this also applies to what pastors share about other people who are not family. Many years ago at a funeral I attended the officiating pastor shared how the deceased' second marriage was the reuniting of the man's first and true love with the family of his former first wife sitting right there!)
Fourth, while sharing appropriate personal experiences can enhance a sermon, it is the better part of discretion not to share personal experiences too often. People who talk about themselves too much not only give the impression that they are self-centered, they reveal that in fact they are self-centered. I do share appropriate personal experiences during my sermons, but such disclosures are not often. The purpose of the sermon is not to focus on the preacher, but the One the preacher should be speaking about-- Jesus Christ.
Fifth, it must be remembered that in every sermon pastors share something of themselves as they express their convictions and what's important to them as they focus on a particular text of Scripture. I reveal something of myself when I refer to something I have read that relates to my sermon. In other words, pastors do not always have to share personal stories to share of themselves. It is impossible for us to keep our narrative experiences out of the sermon, even if we never share anything autobiographical in the proper sense. Autobiography is not required for personal disclosure.
I am sure there are other important considerations I have missed, but the point is that especially as we in the West now live in the reality TV culture, where it is fashionable for people to share all their failings and foibles without shame, the last thing we need is to bring reality TV into the pulpit. Parishioners need to know that their pastor is a human being; they don't need to come to the conclusion that she or he could be a guest on The Jerry Springer Show.