I walked into the room with my nerves running like a racehorse inside of me. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I don’t have the right answer? What if I fail? There were several people sitting around the table. They smiled, and I introduced myself. I smiled and shook their hands one by one. I sat down with what I could muster up as confidence. I looked into their eyes. I sat with what I thought was an attempt at ease, and the interview began. This was the first real time with people who weren’t a part of my organization and who had no idea who I was. I was in a different state hundreds of miles away from home. These weren’t people I grew up with. These weren’t people I went to church with. They were strangers. And now was my chance to make my case, to integrate the skills of public speaking into a small address, and to speak with my own voice. Now was my chance, but I was scared out of my mind.
Since that interview, I have interviewed nearly six times. I still get nervous when I speak in front of people, but I’ve learned to redirect my nervousness. I’ve learned to feel the anxiety, but not to let it control me. I’ve learned to be a little courageous with myself. I’ve learned to steer my confidence, and direct my words with intentionality and purpose. Each time I preach, speak to a crowd, or stand in front with something to say I practice these skills. Last month I was invited to speak on a panel in the hospital in front of all sorts of professionals (physicians, social workers, case workers, nurses, chaplains, psychologists, and more). I felt some nervousness, but prepared my words to present. When asked questions, I answered honestly and with clear plain words. I was also invited to speak to a few medical school student classes. I sat, mustered up myself, and spoke with what I knew. I didn’t make up answers, or pretend to know it all. I was simply me, and guess what, that was good enough. I’ve spoken to a few congregations this year, and each time I get more practice as a public speaker/preacher/teacher/speaker. However, the best practice I get is each day when I meet people and listen to their stories. It’s amazing how the one-on-one conversations teach me how to love people and how to speak to people. It has become about the one rather than about the millions. If I can speak to one person, and hear their story, I have fulfilled my call.
My public speaking skills have best been honed in the personal encounters I experience with patients each day. I am honored to listen to their stories. Sometimes these stories have never been told. Sometimes I am the first one to hear these deep heart confessions. The stories don’t always have happy endings. There are moments of holy and transparency, which cannot be experiences in other settings. Every time I am honored to be the one to hear the story. Why do I get such an honor? I am constantly privileged to have the “I, Thou” relationships theologians talk about. For small windows and moments of time I am invited into families and stories I have never invested in. I am invited to share in these holy moments. I am invited to offer spiritual leadership in the lives of many who have no faith community. It’s kind of incredible, and it helps me practice public speaking. Each day I speak into the lives of those I minister to. I have learned to listen with intention, and to hear the story which might be hidden.
One important lesson I have learned is to speak when it is necessary. There are many times, words cannot express what I want to convey. There are times when silence is more appropriate. There are times when I must speak with boldness. The gift is to be able to feel the flow of the environment, and learn to speak when a word is needed. If someone needs an advocate, be their advocate. The prophetic voice can minister to one or many. We aren’t all general conference speakers. Some of us are Bible Study teachers, chaplains, writers, and everyday ministers who don’t need to speak to thousands. If God opens the door, I will step through, but until I will be content with what the Lord has provided. Some of us are called to preach and speak to only a few, but what an honor. One question you can ask of yourself is, “Lord have you given this word to me or for the people, is it for now or for a later time?” A mentor once told me this, and I’ve never forgotten it.
So, yah, I still get scared when I speak, but I know now that speaking takes intentional practice. I’ve learned I can control my anxiety and fears of public speaking. I can reroute my energy. I can prepare for speaking. I can be intentional with my words. I can present myself with clarity and purpose. I can fail, and it will be okay. I can be good enough. I can speak, preach, and teach to one or many. It’s okay to be scared.
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