From time to time, Spoken with Authority comes across presentation skills advice that we want to pass along via our newsletter for the benefit of our readers. Here we are sharing a reflection authored by Rev. Wm. R. “Mac” McKenney, the associate pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Dale City, Virginia.

When Someone Walks Out

By Rev. Wm. R. “Mac” McKenney

What would you do if you were speaking about the need for people to listen to each other and someone registered their disapproval of what you were saying by getting up and walking out? 

I am a second-career United Methodist pastor and was recently asked to pinch-hit in the pulpit for a friend—a clergy colleague who was taking a long-overdue vacation. The congregation is a small one, and I found myself speaking to about 20 people. 

The text focused on a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which he speaks of Jesus breaking down barriers and of people no longer being strangers and aliens. After introducing myself, I noted that we live in polarized times, and by way of illustration described the January 6 assault on the Capitol. At this point, a woman got up and left the sanctuary. I didn’t give it much thought—there are reasons for people to excuse themselves during a worship service—until she was joined by her husband and they left the building and drove away. (As much as I would like to think they had just remembered an overdue library book, after the service the organist told me through tears that she wished they had stayed to hear what I had to say.)

As the couple was leaving, several thoughts raced through my mind. The first was that irony is alive and living in the church. After all, I was trying to make the point that we need to listen to each other, truly listen—listen instead of preparing a rebuttal, listen without needing to have the last word.

The second was that I had a sermon to finish and needed to focus on the people who were in front of me—the people who were there to hear what I had to say—not the couple who left.

The third was that having someone walk out in the middle of a sermon is a rite of passage for clergy. Another colleague encouraged me to wear it as a badge of honor.

Finally, I remembered a t-shirt that my daughter used to wear. When she was studying theatre arts in high school, her teacher stressed the importance of teamwork, and all the kids had shirts that said, “It isn’t about you.” If I start thinking that Sunday worship is about me, it’s time to contemplate a third career.

About that badge of honor: The 19th century satirist Peter Finley Dunne said that the role of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In ministry, we speak pastorally to comfort the afflicted and prophetically to afflict the comfortable. Crafting an effective sermon involves striking a balance. Ministers want to try to avoid being so outspoken that no one would think of coming to them for pastoral care. On the other hand they don’t want to be so afraid of the possibility of offending someone that they don’t speak up for “the least, the last, and the lost.”

It seems to me that anyone trying to motivate or persuade an audience would be well served to try to achieve a similar balance. There is value in speaking forcefully and with conviction, but also in a way that engenders trust.

I have to admit that the experience doesn’t quite feel like a badge of honor. I wish that the couple had stayed to listen instead of going walkabout, because I would have welcomed the opportunity to listen to what they had to say as well. And I will admit that it stings—a little. But it isn’t about me.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I would encourage you to focus on what it is that you are there to say, rather than on people who aren’t open-minded enough to listen.

—Rev. Wm. R. “Mac” McKenney is associate pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Dale City, VA. He entered fulltime ministry after working 24 years for the U.S. House of Representatives and 19 years in government relations.