Saved from a Deacon’s Nightmare

Preaching That Changes Lives

Detail from Jesus Rejected in the Synagogue, by James Tissot (1894).

A Nightmare

Not long ago, I experienced a deacon’s nightmare. I was serving the 7:30 AM Mass on Sunday morning, and just as the lector stood up to do the first reading, the presider turned to me and said, “You are preaching this morning, right, deacon?” Although I was not scheduled to preach until next Sunday, I looked at him and asked, “Do you want me to preach?” Patting my arm, he whispered, “That would be good.” I gulped, knowing I had about five minutes to put together, and preach, a Sunday homily.

Trying to keep my panic at bay, I realized I needed to come up with just one message from the three readings. The Gospel reading was that of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well from John, chapter four. Luckily, I knew this passage well, so I concentrated on that passage and ignored the other readings. I was always struck by the fact that the Samaritan woman did not know who she was talking to, nor did she appreciate what Jesus could give her. As I thought about the passage and prayed for help, the one message I would preach came to me: God always wants to give us more than we expect. The entire passage illustrates this insight. But how was I to develop and organize my thoughts around this one message in four minutes?

I began my homily by speaking about our common experience of the Gospel reading, announcing, “That was sure a long reading!” which generated laughter. But I qualified this comment, by talking about how much I loved this reading. Moving from my experience to the desires of the people, I asked, “Who would not want to sit with Jesus, like this woman did?” “Who would not want to be able to talk with him and listen to him?” Drawing their attention to the woman in the story, I pointed out how she did not know who she was speaking to, and what Jesus could do for her. “How often do we underestimate what God wants to give us?” I asked. “Do we come to church with low expectations? Do we approach our faith, not expecting much from God?” I then announced my theme: God always wants to give us more than we expect. Turning to the Gospel story, I showed the people how Jesus gave this woman far more than she expected from this man, sitting at her community well without a bucket at midday!

After leading the people into the Gospel story, I turned to their experience, speaking about how God always wants to give us more than we expect. I spoke about Christ offering us his life, in and through our relationships, through the Word and sacrament, and our care for others. I concluded by giving them something to do. I asked everyone to take a minute each morning during the coming week to ask God to show them what he wanted to give them that day, and to ask for the grace to receive this gift. I repeated this twice so they would remember it. The response I got from this homily, that morning and days after, was amazing. If only they knew, I pulled it together in the time between the first reading and the time I proclaimed the Gospel!

One Goal, One Message, Please!

What saved the people of God from hearing an awful homily that morning was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, my previous study of John’s Gospel, and a book I recently read by Pastor Andy Stanley. His book, Communicating for a Change, saved me that day, and since then, has transformed my approach to preaching.1 Stanley begins his book by discussing the purpose or goal of our preaching. Some preachers consider teaching the faith or the Bible to be the goal of preaching, but Stanley suggests that the real goal is to change lives.2 Professor Lori Carrell, author of Preaching that Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons, conducted a national survey of homilists and parishioners and found both preachers and those who listen to homilies agree that the purpose of the homily is change.3 She found that what 95 percent of listeners wanted from a sermon was spiritual growth. However, while the people hunger for inspiration and spiritual transformation, Carrell found that 95 percent of homilies inform, rather than transform!4 As I sat in the sanctuary thinking of what to preach about, I decided I wanted to transform their lives, rather than fill them with information from my studies.

Professor Carrell and Pastor Stanley agree that, in order to create a homily that changes lives, the preacher must find and develop one message.5 When we preach one consistent message, the people can follow us, remember what we say, and make connections to their lives. Unfortunately, the practice of finding one message and developing it is rare among homilists. The common practice is to say a few words about all three readings. Like a butterfly hopping from one flower to another, we never drink deeply from God’s Word, leaving the people thirsty and frustrated. Instead of sharing one rich message, we bombard the people with multiple messages that are not connected. The result is that they quickly tune us out. In an age of distraction, many messages are absorbed by only a few. One clear, consistent message can be absorbed by many. The chief reason a homily is scattered, hard to remember, and shallow, is the practice of offering multiple messages, asides, and stories that are not on point.

What saved me that Sunday was the realization that I only had to find and preach one message, based on the Scripture readings of the day. The practice of finding and developing one message is even more valuable when you have time to prepare! It relieves the pressure many of us feel each time we preach. It makes reading and praying over the readings even more important, because we must listen for the one message God wants us to share with the people that Sunday. After I have discovered my one message through prayer and study, I write it out in one short memorable phrase. It is the one thing I need the people to know. Recently my message was “there is no Christian life without the Holy Spirit.” By focusing on one message, I can explore and reflect on this theme in depth, and consider what it means for the people I serve. This allows me to avoid the superficiality of the butterfly approach, while producing insights and images that help the people remember the message. Focusing on one message with one clear goal also makes editing essential and much easier. Any story, aside, or insight, that detracts from helping the people hear my one message, is cut. There will always be another homily. At the same time, I may add material that supports or develops my one message. By preaching only one message at a time, I find the people hear and remember what I am trying to share with them. They regularly report, days after Mass, the impact the homily had on their lives.

Connecting with the People

After finding my one message, I wrestle with the question of why this message is important for the people to hear. This is the question of “so what?” The surest way to gain an answer to this question is to first discover if, and why, the message is important to me, the preacher. If the message is not speaking to me, challenging me, and causing me to see things in new ways, then it will not speak to the people. If, and when, it does, I am ready to consider the people I will be preaching to, and how the message speaks to them. Who will be there? What is their age, their gender, and what are their concerns? But the real question is, why do these people need to hear this message? By asking the “so what?” question with the people in mind, I will begin to hear how God wants to connect the message to their lives. By connecting the message to my life and their life, great power and meaning will be generated when you preach.

Organized for Memory

Recently, I stumbled into another deacon nightmare. I was serving at the 7:30 AM and 10:30 AM Masses on Sunday. Although I was not scheduled to preach, I prepared a homily for the 7:30 AM Mass, knowing that Fr. Louis wants me to preach every time I serve with him. The pastor was scheduled to preach at the 10:30 AM Mass, so when I returned home after the 7:30 AM Mass, I left my homily on the kitchen table. During the 10:30 AM Mass, after proclaiming the Gospel, I stepped away from the ambo to meet the pastor at the altar, when he said quietly, “I thought you were preaching.” So I stepped back to the ambo and began to preach, hoping I would remember my homily from this morning! Much to my relief, I was able to remember it. The homily I delivered was even better than the one I preached earlier that morning.

What enabled me to remember what I wrote, was the way I organized my homily. I used a method suggested by Pastor Stanley that has transformed my preaching. Stanley offers preachers an approach to organizing their homily, so the people can follow what you are saying and remember what they heard. This approach also makes it easy for the homilist to remember what he wrote, especially when he has no notes! After Mass, many people told me how much the homily made the Gospel speak to their life experience. I was amazed at how many people heard the message I wanted to deliver. The approach Stanley suggests revolves around five words: Me, We, God, You We.6

By starting with a brief statement or story about “Me,” I introduced the topic while finding common ground with the people. People tend to be more receptive when they know something about you. This is a good time to share a personal struggle connected with your message. For instance, I started my homily on the “woman at the well” in John, chapter four, by commenting on how long the reading was. This connected my experience of reading the Gospel with the people’s experience of listening to it. I then moved from the “Me” to the “We” section, by broadening the discussion to include the experience of the people. This can be done by posing a question, or pointing to a mystery found in the readings. This creates a tension that the people want you to resolve. This tension gives the people a reason to listen.

After connecting with their experience, and posing a question or issue that needs to be resolved, you are ready to lead the people into the Scripture to find the answer. This is the “God” section of the homily. At this point, you develop your message by drawing on Scripture. It is far better to focus on one of the readings, than to say something about all three. I devoted my entire homily focused on what happened between Jesus and the woman at the well, in order to show the people how much God wants to give them.

When you are ready to talk about what they are to do with what they have heard, you move to the “You” section of your homily. Give them one concrete task to do in the coming week, related to the message. Make sure you give them a reason why they should do this task. You can do this by getting them to imagine what would happen if “We” did this as a community or as a worldwide church.

Powerful Preaching

Every homilist wants to be a vehicle through which God speaks to the people and changes their lives. If you want your homilies to be heard and remembered, preach one message from one reading. If you want your homilies to transform people’s lives, connect their life to the message of the Gospel using Me, We, God, You We. You will be amazed at the way the people respond to your preaching!

  1. Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Communicating for a Change (New York: Random House, 2006). 
  2. Ibid., 93-96. 
  3. Lori Carrell, Preaching that Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons (Herdon, Va: Alban Press, 2013), 43. 
  4. Ibid., 45. 
  5. Stanley and Jones, 101-112. 
  6. Stanley and Jones, 120-130. 
Deacon Edward McCormack, PhD About Deacon Edward McCormack, PhD

Ed McCormack is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. He is a member of the formation faculty and Director of Pastoral Formation at Theological College at the Catholic University of America, as well as an adjunct professor of Christian Spirituality. His area of expertise is Ignatian Spirituality. His publications focus on the intersection of pastoral practice and Christian Spirituality.


  1. Avatar Vera M. Schraa says:

    I can’t comment on the article because I stopped reading it when the “presider” turned and spoke to you, the deacon. I really don’t intend to be unkind, but there are certain words and terms that recall to my mind so many years of pain and suffering at Masses officiated by “presiders”, to name just one unpleasantness out of so many I still try to forget. I admit I could not read it without a bias. I hope it went well for you.

    • Avatar Ray Burger says:

      The Mass is greater than the “Presider.” Presiders are imperfect, but the Mass isn’t. Look for what the Mass really is.

    • Avatar Ed McCormack says:


      I am sorry to hear about your the pain you have experienced at mass.
      My prayer for you is that you do not let these people from the past control your present experience.

  2. Avatar Ted Figlock W1HGY says:

    Dear Deacon McCormack: Is this your 1st message from a Ham Radio Operator? I have been a Faith Formation teacher over 6 decades and enjoyed your homily on homilies. There are over 750,000 licensed hams in the US We specialize in thrifty, effective speech.. I have lead the St. Max Kolbe radio net almost every Sunday nite for the last 16 years. St. Max was a licensed ham radio operator in Poland, and our group makes known his sacrifice as Martyr of Charity and his dedication to honor Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Not only is ham radio a medium for personal advancement in technical communication, but a great opportunity for self sanctification and sanctification of others. Our Net has the FCC licensed Club call sign KA1MDG and meets 7 PM eastern time on 3.814 MHz. The frequency numbers commemorate the date, August 14, 1941 that St. Max gave up his life at Auschwitz . Any licensed ham is welcome to join our group Sunday nights. I am 80 years old, and held an ADVANCED Class license until this October when I took and passed the AMATEUR EXTRA Class test, the highest FCC class. Ted Figlock W1HGY. St. Max’ call was SP3RN.

  3. Avatar Deacon Randy Hyde says:

    Great article…I also have been in the same spot…I am a young deacon only 8 years old!!! A 21 year old catholic…My spiritual director has now taught me…Every time you serve mass be ready to preach…Thanks for your article…Blessings your way. dreh+++

  4. Avatar anthonymixan says:

    Bless me Presider for I hav sinned? Hmm. I am with Vera on this.

  5. Avatar J. E. Sigler says:

    Thank you so much, Deacon McCormack, for this exceptionally simple, well written, clear, insightful essay. I am a doctoral student in communication who has been teaching public speaking at universities for years. I am also a convert to the Faith, and I was shocked to discover that most Catholic priests really have no idea how to preach, nor even how to speak publicly in general. As a result of this experience, I have decided to write my dissertation on homiletics education in Catholic seminaries.

    As you identify, the “one message” issue is by far the biggest. But organization is also a huge problem. I suspect that the problems generally boil down to priests simply not having sufficient time to prepare most homilies, and never having been taught how to make their lives (and their listeners’ lives!) easier through quick, basic speech preparation techniques. You circle around a very important issue, yet do not name it directly: The easier a homily is for the priest to remember and deliver, the easier it will be for the listeners to engage with it, grasp it, remember it, and apply it.

    I had never heard of Stanley’s “Me We God You We” method of organization. It makes good sense. (And I shall be ordering his book for my literature review!) We teach a basic “introduction, main point one, main point two, main point three, conclusion” model with clear transitions between all of those. In the introduction: An attention-getter, a clear statement of the thesis, a clear statement of relevance to the audience’s lives, and a brief preview of the main points. In the conclusion: a restatement of the thesis, a brief review of the main points, and a closing thought. I think that this and Stanley’s method are not incompatible.

    What I wouldn’t give to be able to reach priests with what I’ve learned about effective speaking over the years. Yet I am always so concerned to say anything to any priest, lest they perceive a well-meaning suggestion as a slight. I keep my mouth shut so as not to inadvertently offend. But I so badly want to help, and our priests really do need basic education in how people process auditory messages, what motivates them to listen, what facilitates the retention of messages, etc. I think you have gone some small way toward giving them that with this wonderful article.

    Thank you again. And God bless you!