Ten Commandments for Transformative Preaching

Sermon on the Mount, by Harold Copping (1863-1932).

When people walk into church for Mass, they are searching for meaning. Psychologist William Damen, in his book, The Path to Purpose, tells us we are living through a crisis of meaning. Our superficial culture of consumption and entertainment promises meaning and fulfillment, but never delivers on that promise, creating a deep hunger for something substantial. Unfortunately, many people do not think of the church as a place where that meaning can be found. I am convinced that a chief reason so many Catholics leave the Church is because, as preachers, we fail to offer them a meaningful word from God that speaks to their needs and concerns. The potential power of preaching—to speak a word of meaning to our hungry people—is enormous. We need to maximize this potential if the new evangelization is to become real. To help in this task, I have devised the  Ten Commandments for Transformative Preaching.

For the past 15 years, I have been training men for the priesthood, knowing that their primary task is to preach the Gospel. My hope is that every priest learns about these “Ten Commandments” and puts them into practice. If they do, they will find their parish, and their priesthood, transformed by the word of God.

A great resource for transforming Catholic preaching is the work being done by experts in the field of communications, specifically on preaching and public speaking. Two important studies from this field, one by Lori Carrell, who spent a decade studying powerful preachers and the experience of listeners of homilies; and the other by Carmine Gallo, who studied TED Talk speakers, offers preachers invaluable insights into how to improve their preaching. Carrell published the results of her research in Preaching that Matters, and Gallo’s findings are found in Talk like Ted. Based on their research, my own experience as a homilist, and insights from contemporary preachers, especially Pastor Andy Stanley, I  created my “Ten Commandments for Transformative Preaching.”  

Ten Commandments

1. Make Preaching a Top Priority.
In her research, Professor Carrell found that lay people consider the homily as their primary means of spiritual growth, whereas priests ranked preaching fourth among their weekly duties. People come to Mass hoping to hear a word of meaning from God. They understand that the homily is the bridge between the liturgy of the Word, and the liturgy of the Eucharist. They know it is meant to prepare us to receive the Eucharist, and go out and live our faith. When the word is proclaimed and preached well, the entire Mass is meaningful. When the homilist has little of substance to say, and fails to connect the faith to the lives of the people, the experience of the Eucharist is undermined. If we are ever going to take the “new evangelization” seriously, Catholic preachers must make preaching on Sunday the primary way they feed the people.

2. Preach Only One Meaningful Message.
The first and most important step needed to create a homily that transforms lives involves discovering and preaching one message. Discovering what God wants to say, and not just what I think, requires that I pray with the readings, consult commentaries, consider the situation of the people, wait for, and listen to, God.

Many Catholic priests are guilty of rambling through multiple messages, or having no message at all. This often happens because they make the mistake of commenting on all three Sunday readings, rather than diving deeply into one reading, and offering the people one message from God. The result is that people tune them out. A rule of thumb every preacher should memorize is “many messages are heard by few, but one message is heard by many.” As Bishop Ken Untener taught, find one pearl, and polish it. Until you discover that message, you are not ready to craft your homily. But once you know what it is, build everything around it. This takes discipline, and requires a great deal of editing.  I was recently asked to preview my friend’s Sunday homily. After reading it, I asked him to tell me in one sentence or less the point of the homily. This question stopped him in his tracks. Unable to answer that question, he returned to his prayer and study to discover the one message God wants him to preach. When he did, he produced a powerful homily.

3. Preach for Transformation, Not Just Information.
Preachers and listeners agree that powerful preaching can change lives. When God’s word speaks to our lives and our experience, we are inspired to be faithful and active disciples of Jesus. Every homilist hopes to touch and change people’s lives in this way. The people in the pew long for spiritual growth. They want to be inspired, challenged, consoled, and moved to action.

Unfortunately, far too many homilies are crafted to provide us with information, rather than transformation. Preaching to change lives requires less information, and more application; less explanation, and more inspiration. It should lead people to experience the power of the Gospel. It should help people hear Christ speak to their lives.

4. So What?
Every preacher must realize that the people listening to him sit with one question on their mind: so what? What does this have to do with me? (Okay, maybe two questions, including: When will this be over?!) The traditional practice of explaining what the reading means, and concluding with an application to life, does not work anymore. Application to the life of the people needs to be made early and often. The more a homilist helps the people make connections between the readings in Mass, and their lives, the greater chance there is of changing lives. The USCCB’s document on preaching, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing,” describes preaching as the moment when the homilist and the people find their experience being interpreted by God’s word. Powerful preaching creates experiences in which the entire community hears Christ speaking to them through the word. It is the task of the preacher to help the people hear Christ speak by making connections between the readings and our lives.

5. Preach with Prayer-Inspired Passion!       
Passion is contagious. Dull and boring preaching is not. Great speakers and preachers know this, as do advertisers. The preacher who finds his message meaningful, and cannot wait to share it with the people, will find people listening and connecting with his homily. Boring messages, and dull delivery, kill even the most powerful message. A great preacher delivers his message with passion born of prayer. He spends the entire week praying with the readings in order to hear how they speak to him and the people. He wrestles with these readings. He soaks himself in them so they start to reveal their meaning to him in prayer, while driving to work, or in the middle of the night. The passion and meaning a preacher shares with the people is born of this contemplative struggle. When he discovers how the readings speak to him, and what God wants him to say, he is driven by the Spirit to speak, and the people listen because they know God is speaking to them.

6. Get Organized.
According to Lori Carrell’s research, the number one characteristic of a poor homily is disorganization. When a preacher rambles from one tangent to another, with no organizing structure, and no clue where he is leading the people, the people tune him out every time. The human mind craves order, and quickly grows frustrated when trying to follow a disorganized speaker. The great preacher creates an oral map, containing clear cues throughout his homily as to where he is taking his listeners, so that listening becomes an effortless, and even delightful, experience. This kind of preacher knows the people, and the one message he wants to share with them. He uses captivating first words that connect to the experience of the people, creates curiosity, and increases their desire to listen. He employs clear transitions, and compelling final words, that he knows by heart. The structure he gives the homily will vary depending on the subject and situation, but he always gives the people a map.

7. Don’t Cut Your Preparation Short. The Spirit Has More Insights to Show You!
Many Catholic priests neglect to write out their homilies during their homily preparation process.  The Seventh Commandment is written especially for them: Do not cut your preparation short. By neglecting to write (and edit) his homilies, the preacher limits when and where the Spirit of God can inspire insight, creativity, depth, and connections between the word and the people. Great preachers develop powerful homilies by putting their insights down on paper, and trying to organize them so that people can hear God speaking to them. The practice of writing out a homily is an essential spiritual discipline for great preachers. Writing is hard work, which makes it a discipline. It is a spiritual discipline because writing is a primary way the Spirit of God transforms our thoughts into the means by which Christ speaks to the people.

8. Be a Writer for Listeners.
The most revolutionary insight a preacher can gain from experts in communication is that he is writing and delivering homilies for listeners. This insight, and the practical implications that follow, cannot be overestimated. A homily involves an exchange between the preacher and the listening congregation in which the homilist speaks, and the people try to listen. Homilists must appreciate what a physically and mentally demanding task listening is, especially for people who are used to being entertained, and are easily distracted. Preachers who write for listeners compose concise sentences, filled with vivid, precise, concrete, and interesting words. They avoid abstract theological terms, pious platitudes, clichés, and churchy jargon of any kind.

They play with words, and connect the imagination of the people to God’s word through powerful images and stories. Our brains are wired to remember images and stories. Great preachers know this, and take advantage of it. They draw on stories, and develop images that serve to connect the people to their message. Well told stories, and powerful images, used in the service of the message, will be remembered by the people for days to come.

9. Edit, Please!
Once a preacher commits himself to delivering one message that connects the word to the lives of the people, and writes out his homily, he will discover how essential it is to edit his text. Like a sculptor, he must cut away every word, expression, image, and story that prevents the full message from being expressed. At the same time, he must be open to reorganizing his thoughts, and adding material in the service of the message. This, too, is a spiritual discipline. What motivates the practice of cutting away the irrelevant is the desire to be a vehicle through whom Christ speaks to the people, rather than one who speaks his own thoughts.

10. Delivery Matters—A Lot!
How a preacher delivers his message is as important as the message itself. It determines whether the people listen, are engaged, and experience the emotional meaning of the homily. Most preachers need to become far more conversational in the preaching style.  A homily is not a lecture. It is a conversation. It is not a text to be read, but a message that flows out from inside us like a great story we want to tell. This only happens when we practice and internalize our message. This demands rehearsing out loud, and knowing by heart our introductions and conclusions. It means practicing the stories we plan to tell so they are sharp and concise. Powerful delivery takes into account facial expressions, variation in volume, pauses, humor, and eye contact. Delivery is so important because it is the way we emotionally connect the people to the meaning of the message. Carrell’s research found that rehearsing the homily out loud, more than anything else, can transform a homily into an experience of God.

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. Thank you, Dcn Ed! These are great! I have employed many of these in my homily preparation, others I have stumbled upon through hard experience. I completely agree that we must connect the Word to the people’s lives and that doesn’t happen unless one prepares the texts and prays with them, etc.. Also the “one message” is so important, I can sense when people tune me out if I do not have a central message.

    Some observations: I take a little exception to #4.. in my experience I have found it helpful to include some (not all) of my exegesis before the application. It helps to make the connection between the Word of God (that I discovered through my prep) and the application to people’s lives. If I start with an application or another story then I am applying that story (whatever it is) to the message (rather than the word of God which is so much more powerful) But there can be more than one way to skin the cat…

    I have found writing out the homily to be crucial.. but I never read it… I may have some notes to help with data etc (usually I don’t use them) and I just say what I think I wrote out. This makes the presentation conversational and keeps it fresh from one mass to another. Also I have no time to practice my homily with anyone (I”m a busy priest) so my writing out is a kind of practice.

    I think we, as preachers, need to think hard about certain topics we should cover during the liturgical year, rather than rely solely on inspiration week to week. I have found it very helpful to have a list of topics that I know our people need to hear about (moral questions) then also to dip into the Catechism for points on the faith. This way there is a better chance I will use the Word of God to connect with one of these topics in one of my homilies.. which otherwise would not have happened. So I”m talking about a plan of what we want to preach on ahead of time.. It takes the Holy Spirit to actually apply that plan, though.

    Finally, a really badly delivered homily does not automatically mean it is a bad homily. It could be that the priest is shaking in his boots as he delivers a difficult message (on traditional marriage, for example) to the congregation, and his delivery is not the best, but the impact of that message is still profound. What we say does matter.

    Thanks again! Happy preaching!

    • Avatar Ed McCormack says:

      Thanks for your kind remarks. I will be using your idea of creating a list of topics that are on the minds of our people. Great idea. Regarding #4. The way it is written it sounds like I am against explaining what the scriptures mean. I think it can be very helpful to give them context and share briefly what exegetes are saying about a passage. My point is to start with where they are as often as possible then take them into the passage.

      Just last weekend I heard a priest spend almost the entire homily explaining who John the baptist was with the so what question in my head the entire time.


  2. Avatar Newly Ordained Priest says:

    I enjoy preaching but it is a challenge. These concepts are good ones, but honestly trying to deliver all these characteristics every week is not easy. I struggle with the story telling and applying things directly to people’s lives. It is also difficult for me to balance between writing every thing out vs. not. If I write it all out then it is hard for me not to get up and read it – being perfectionistic about the words. If I put together a one-page outline – my current approach – then I am preaching to the people better but not as precise and organized in what I say. It comes down to tradeoffs and being prepared but not obsessive I guess.

    • Newly Ordained, I want to encourage you in your homily prep! Yes it is a struggle.. and it should be a struggle :-) It takes time and discernment to learn what to keep in what to keep out and what kind of best preparation method one should use. I shared what works for me, and my belief it is helpful to “let go” of our written words and trust God will bring them to mind (when we write the homily out) I was kind of “pushed” into this discovery by a small homily feedback group my pastor arranged when I was a deacon. You may not have had that advantage :-) Anyway I believe there is no one way to prepare for preaching which fits all… I think it is important to be TRUE to the homily preparation you have been taught and discerned. There is definitely such a thing as over-preparation. Homilies must fit into our priestly lives, they have an important place, but still they must fit in. I believe prayer is essential.. and impacts our preaching.. I mean meditating on the word of God. My best to you, put in the effort and don’t overdo it and God will bless it!

    • Avatar Ed McCormack says:

      Dear newly ordained priest,
      You are right, preaching is a challenge! Incorporating all 10 commandments takes a long time to do. I suggest working on one for six months until it is a habit then work on another.

      Regarding writing and reading homilies. We must learn to write for listeners not readers. I write in 14 point using short concrete sentences with large spaces between sentences grouped by ideas. By reading out loud what you are writing you will internalize your message. Using images also helps.
      For an example of this kind of homily writing see the homilies Entitled Life Up Your Hearts by James Wallace et al.


  3. There is something that I think needs some attention, and emphasis – the danger of “using” Scripture toward a “professional” end, and becoming deaf to the living Word inside, oneself. And related, the danger of learning technique and method toward a positive but merely human reception from the congregation. These are two pitfalls I found myself in after some years in non-Catholic ministry. When I left that world, then and only then I discovered that I did not know how to listen to Scripture in the hungers and needs of my own soul! And I had to learn, as well, that it is the praise of God that I must seek, rather than the approval of men.

    I found it very difficult to drop the role of “leader”, in order to really become a “learner” – a disciple. Every leader needs to be first a disciple – that is very clear to me now. That which needs to be given – ought to be given – must be given – must first be received, and held very close, and given time to be tested and to grow and mature.

  4. As part of the congregation I find myself looking forward to the sermon after the Gospel Reading at Mass. For me its seeking God’s word through the readings and the priest’s homily. Sometimes its a great sermon with key words to remember. Being an older person living through the ’60s, 70s, 80s to date, I have attended many services in my past and have listened to some very powerful sermons in those days based on strict observance of God’s laws, which we don’t hear of now. What I really enjoy hearing these days is when the priests gives a bit of history or background explanation about the First Readings of the Old Testament and St Paul’s letters or maybe the Gospel reading of that day, history and cultures of that time helps us to understand the message of God for each one of us.at that moment in time.

  5. Avatar weldemariam asefaw says:

    It is good, thanks for your advice on how to prepare our homilies.

  6. As somebody who made his living as a radio newscaster and who from time to time over the years made a few extra bucks teaching public speaking in colleges, I endorse these rules with enthusiasm. I have often wished I could teach homilists (including—especially—the ones in my own parish) precisely these points. When I say precisely, I mean in the very words of this author. I have laid out these principles many times in beginning public speaking classes.

    I would, however, dispute sharply one statement in the introductory paragraphs. Important as the homily is, it is NOT the priest’s primary function. His primary function is to confect the Eucharist. But that’s not an excuse for the lazy and inept preaching we so often hear. (Often, meaning daily.)

    • Hello Gil – I think the the use of the word “primary” here might well be misunderstood, yet the Catechism clearly teaches that the author is correct in his use of the word in this article. The Catechism has this:
      Catechism 888 – Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task “to preach the Gospel of God to all men,” in keeping with the Lord’s command. They are “heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers” of the apostolic faith “endowed with the authority of Christ.”
      And note that both words “first” and “primary” can have as meanings this: “first/primary in sequence of time” (as in “the primary grades in school are the first ones that are taught”) as well as this: “of first or primary importance”.

      Certainly the Liturgy of the Word (with the homily) is first in sequence in the Mass, and is “primary” in that sense, but also in the sense of being foundational – as the author clearly states in #1: “They know it is meant to prepare us to receive the Eucharist, and go out and live our faith. When the word is proclaimed and preached well, the entire Mass is meaningful.”

  7. As an acolyte prior to my ordination (I’m a classmate of Deacon Ed’s), I stood in the back of a church with the priest and deacon. The priest said to the deacon, “What is your homily about?” to which the deacon responded, “Oh…I don’t know…I’ll think of something…” About 25 minutes later, at the conclusion of the deacon’s homily (At least I think it was the conclusion as he stopped talking at that point), I vowed that unless I had no other choice, I would never, ever give a homily for which I had not taken the time to prepare! I have to say that all of the commandments above are necessary for a truly effective homily.
    During my first year as a deacon there was a six-week period when the two deacons shared the preaching every Sunday at all the Masses. I came away with a new-found respect and gratitude for all those priests who over the years took the time to prepare homilies every Sunday.

  8. Avatar Jon M. Ericson says:

    As for what is or is not “primary”, my view is that the homily/sermon is the single most important means of evangelism for a parish and also the single most important means of spiritual growth for the congregation and for the priest or pastor. That view is based on over 65 years of adult church membership and is expressed in THE RHETORIC OF THE PULPIT, A PREACHER’S GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE SERMONS, to be published in the coming year. After a lifetime of teaching effective communication ( Stanford, Cal Poly SLO ) I view Deacon McCormack’s Ten Commandments as wonderfully insightful observations, and hope that books like THE RHETORIC of the PULPIT will be found useful for those who seek the means to follow those wise commandments. jme