Six years ago I was standing at General Assembly, catching up with a seminary classmate and lamenting my lack of a sermon support group or even honest feedback. My friend said, “Have you ever been to a Toastmasters meeting?”
He then went on to tell me that it is a business-oriented public-speaking organization with local clubs worldwide. He said it had helped him.
“It’s not a big deal,” my friend said. “Just join for a year or so and work through their first book of about ten speeches. Their basic program will probably help you.”
Frustrated with the lack of honest feedback on my sermons and in need of a safe place to practice public speaking, I looked on the Internet for a nearby club. One met at a Presbyterian church across town at 7:30 on Friday morning.
It is very helpful to make short speeches and receive supportive evaluations. Toastmasters are taught to be gentle with new members. Nevertheless, the person tallying a speaker’s ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’ heard 14 in my first speech! I wasn’t aware of that verbal crutch, but I suspect my congregation was.
In my most recent Toastmasters speech I had 2 ‘ahhs,’ quite an improvement. It was my 40th speech. Six years later I’ve qualified as an Advanced Communicator Gold, the second highest award level. I have remained a Toastmaster primarily to mentor other fledgling speakers.
It was remarkable to be reminded that a speech (or sermon) needs a beginning, middle and an end. The club had workbooks to help me learn to craft good conclusions. The club has not changed my theology, but it helped me articulate it effectively.
Members take turns moderating the meeting. There is a time to practice spontaneous speaking, prepared speeches are given, and then everyone is evaluated. Members take turns counting ‘Ahhs” and listening for grammatical mistakes and well-turned phrases.
Some clubs are very formal, requiring business attire. Others are casual – often reflecting the time and place they meet. Some meetings take place over a meal and cocktails, but most are in more Spartan environments. Every city has a number of clubs to choose from. It is also a place to trade ideas with non-Christians and people of all ages.
My weakest area of ministry was teaching adults. I often avoided teaching in my congregations because I wasn’t sure how to do it. But Toastmasters has taught me to communicate effectively. I’ve given many speeches and taught seminars for fellow Toastmasters, and been gently evaluated each time. With competence comes confidence, which leads to effectiveness.
Seminarians, youth leaders, Sunday School teachers and many others in the church would benefit from a year or two in a local club.
The club I now attend meets at a local library. Some clubs that meet at local companies allow outsiders to join, others do not. In cities, there seems to be a club that meets every weekday at various times, especially before and after work.
Weekly speaking with evaluation, giving evaluations and serving as a club officer have done wonders for my effectiveness as a teaching elder. Access to a wonderful, supportive, self-help community is available for you too; it is only an Internet search away. Try www.toastmasters.org.
WALK JONES is chaplain at Westminster Towers, a PC(USA)-related retirement community in Orlando, Fla.