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Hearing from the Coaches: Most Anxiety-Provoking Moments of the whole High Holy Days

Sometimes the most anxiety-provoking moment of the High Holy Days arrives well ahead of when I actually deliver my sermon. The anxiety bursts forth between the time I send a draft of the sermon off to my respected reviewers and the moment when I receive their suggestions/edits/critique.

A recent article shed light on the value of professional coaches. Top surgeon Atul Gawande wrote Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better? in this week’s The New Yorker magazine.  He explore the question: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you? 

I have long been a believer that all professionals, even rabbi – especially rabbis, can benefit from personal coaching. In fact, by the time I arrive on the bimah and begin speaking, I have already subjected myself to the critiques of at least a half dozen people. In fact, their opinions make the difference between an adequate sermon and one which has the potential to inspire and motivate. In a good year, I will have practiced delivering my sermon before a few different colleagues or friends to ensure it is “listen-able”.

In a sense, these reviewers are my sermon-writing coaches. Their help, like the yoga instructor that pushes me, often causes me much discomfort. (But out of comfort, they say, comes wisdom.)  My coaches help me say what I need to say in a way that makes sense and can be heard. They help me cut away the fat (some of which I had originally thought were gems); they push me away from frontal “preaching” toward engaging “storytelling” or “teaching.”

They remind me to envision 5-7 different listeners and to consider ahead of time how they might hear the sermon. Humbling as that exercise often is, it regularly forces me to widen my comments to minimize the number of people who are left behind. I long ago became a firm believer that good writing and good preaching emerges from the collaboration and coaching by thoughtful people.

I make a special point of thanking these people in the first endnote on my final publishable copy of the sermon. For my recent sermon, A Letter to My Sons: On Being a Man, I thanked them thusly:

This sermon owes a debt of gratitude to a series of people whose input, comments and edits enhanced this sermon. Rabbi Ronald Stern (of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Los Angeles, CA), Dr. David Rubin (Sherman Oaks, CA), and Rabbi Julia Weisz (of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA) each offered important insights. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz (of Temple Judea, Tarzana, CA) has long been teaching Jewish men how to be “good men”; he opened his treasure trove of resources via www.Dropbox.com. By far the greatest assistance comes from my wife Michelle November (Associate Director of Admissions, New Community Jewish High School, West Hills, CA), who as usual helped me translate good ideas into comprehensible sermons. This sermon also draws upon knowledge gained as a “social sermon.” On Facebook and Twitter, I asked a series of questions, including, “What should I tell my kids about being a man?” and “What should I tell my kids about sex?” More than two dozen responses from congregants, friends and colleagues influenced this sermon.

Yes, this sermon received intense going over by:

  • One colleague who currently teaches Homiletics (sermon writing/preaching) in the Rabbinical School of HUC-JIR;
  • Another colleague is one of the emerging experts on my chosen topic (the American Jewish male);
  • A third colleague is a newly ordained colleague at our synagogue; I believe that through coaching each other, we develop a learning relationship that makes each of us a better rabbi;
  • A psychologist doctor who has long been providing me with insights for sermons and on how to handle pastoral issues when they arise;
  • My wife Michelle who is a master editor, a merciless surgeon of unnecessary or toxic words, and a compassionate yet unforgiving truth-teller.

Over the years I have received coaching help from a Roundtable group of rabbis and social workers, a Spiritual Director, an executive coach, a Hebrew teacher, various yoga instructors, and a series of chevruta partners.

How about you? Where do you receive personal or professional coaching?

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