Speaking in Church: Lectern or No Lectern?

Church Lectern - Should you always speak behind it?

What do you do when you prefer not to use a lectern, but its use is implied by the nature of your speaking engagement?

Do you follow convention and stand behind it?

Or, do you go with your gut and break free?

Ask Six Minutes

That’s the question posed in a message I recently received from a Six Minutes subscriber. He writes:

I am planning a speech to about 2,000 people where I will be asking for a significant donation. The venue is a pulpit where clergy perform their work from behind lecterns.  As a speaker, I am more comfortable moving around but do not want to appear too casual or disrespectful to the clergy.  Any thoughts or coaching will be appreciated.

Lectern or No Lectern? 8 Factors to Consider

There’s no definitive answer here because every church is different.

So, let’s examine 8 factors you might consider if you were faced with this situation.

  1. The Elevation Advantage
  2. Sound Amplification
  3. Symbolic “Weight” of the Lectern
  4. Your Height
  5. Sensitivity of the Clergy
  6. Expectations of the Audience
  7. Visibility of Gestures
  8. Vulnerability and Audience Connection

1. The Elevation Advantage

Speaking from the lectern usually means you can be seen. Sometimes, the area around the lectern is raised higher than its surroundings. Sometimes, there is a step or two to ascend. The lectern itself is usually placed in a location with clear sight lines to most of the congregation.

Stepping away from the lectern may not provide the same elevation advantage. If it doesn’t, you become harder to see, particularly for people farther away.

2. Sound Amplification

There’s usually a microphone at the lectern that allows you to be heard without straining your voice. With an audience of 2,000 people, you definitely need help to reach people in the back of the church.

If you step away from the lectern, you may put yourself at a disadvantage:

  • If there is a portable microphone that can be worn or held, you can probably compensate.
  • If there is not, I would definitely advise staying at the lectern. Even with a very strong voice, it would be difficult for you to be heard, particularly if you speaking longer than a minute or two.

3. Symbolic “Weight” of the Lectern

There’s a reason that lecterns are used in many religious settings, as well as by CEOs and politicians. By its nature, a lectern carries significant weight (both real and metaphorical). When you speak from behind the lectern, your credibility can be heightened, provided your message and delivery is dignified and respectful.

In this particular context (asking for a donation), credibility is critical.

4. Your Height

Can you see the audience? Can they see you?The “weight” advantage afforded by the lectern is maximized by speakers who have the physical presence to match it.

Tall speakers have an advantage in this scenario. Shorter speakers, on the other hand, may find themselves overwhelmed by the size of the lectern. In a worst case scenario, a very short speaker may appear to only be peeking over the top of the lectern. It is definitely worth swallowing your pride and compensating with a step stool if necessary.

Of course, stepping out from behind the lectern eliminates this entirely.

5. Sensitivity of the Clergy

If the presiding clergy member would take offense to you stepping out from behind the lectern, then you would be ill-advised to do it. Remember that you are a guest in this setting, and it isn’t a good idea to offend your host.

The best (and only) way to assess their sensitivity is to ask them beforehand. (In general, you should always include questions like this as part of your audience analysis.) Explain where you’d like to stand, and why you’d like to avoid the lectern. I think this is a case where it is better to ask for permission rather than beg for forgiveness.

6. Expectations of the Audience

Shocking the expectations of your audience may be to your advantage.

Depending on the culture and accepted practices within your congregation, you may be expected to speak from the lectern. If nobody ever speaks away from the lectern, some may take offense. Again, the only way to gauge this is to talk with members of the congregation ahead of time.

Having said that, shocking the expectations of your audience may be to your advantage. If nobody ever speaks away from the lectern, they will certainly notice if you do! For a bit of (appropriate) drama, you might consider starting at the lectern and then moving away during your delivery. Perhaps this “breaking of convention” ties into your core message? Maybe the visual shock of moving away from the lectern complements your desire to shock your audience to abandon their preconceived opinions about the cause to which you would like them to donate?

Whatever you choose, be respectful.

7. Visibility of Gestures

Provided there is no extreme elevation disadvantage in moving away from the lectern, there’s no question that you can employ a wider range of gestures if you free yourself.

Standing behind a lectern hides a significant fraction of your body. Depending on your height, the only gestures that are visible are likely those made at or above the level of your chest. Further, the “weight” of the lectern will tend to diminish any gesture you deliver.

On the other hand, being free from the lectern makes your entire body visible. (Again, this depends on sight lines.) You will have a wider range of gestures at your disposal, and they will appear larger and more effective.

8. Vulnerability and Audience Connection

Eliminating barriers — physical or symbolic —  makes you more effective.

Stepping away from the lectern enhances your vulnerability. As mentioned by Nick Morgan, moving closer to your audience often aids your attempts to connect with them. In addition to moving physically closer, you will also be free of the symbolic barrier which the lectern creates between you and your audience. Eliminating barriers — physical or symbolic —  makes you more effective.

What Do You Think?

Do you have experience speaking in church? What did you do?

If you were in the congregation, would you encourage the speaker to step away from the lectern, or expect them to stay behind it?

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Comments icon7 Comments

  1. Max Atkinson says:

    I’m all in favor of lecterns, especially in churches – for reasons outlined below. All this stuff about ‘barriers’ to communication is one of the dubious myths put about by ‘experts’ who routinely overstate the importance of non-verbal factors in communication – and who don’t seem to realize that they’re arguing against 2,000 years of church architecture.

    My position on the issue is made clear in Chapter 11 (‘Physical Facts and Fiction’) of my book ‘Lend Me Your Ears‘ as follows:

    The claim that folded arms are ‘defensive’ is partly based on the idea that putting your forearms in front of your chest places a barrier between you and your audience. As such, it’s part of a more general theory to the effect that anything that can be construed as a barrier between speaker and audience is a bad thing.

    I spent five of my teenage years at a school where daily attendance at a church service was compulsory. A lectern stood between the person reading the lesson and the congregation, but it never once occurred to me during all those years that it was a barrier, or that it was somehow reducing the effectiveness of the reader’s impact. As far as I know, I was not alone, as I never heard anyone else worrying about it either. Nor do I remember any of us ever complaining about our teachers’ desks being barriers that made it more difficult for them to communicate with us.

    Many years later, more and more of those who read lessons in church have taken to standing next to the lectern in full view of the congregation. They then struggle to read the tiny print in the Bible they have brought with them. Often, this is made even more difficult by the fact that they are so nervous that they can’t hold it without it shaking in their hands. A similar trend is evident in more secular settings, where more and more presenters are reluctant to stand behind tables and lecterns, preferring to move to one side or in front of them. Like readers in church, some of them also have trouble holding their notes in trembling hands, while those who leave them behind on the table have to keep turning awkwardly around to see what comes next, sometimes even losing their place altogether.

    Whether or not audiences regard the lectern as a barrier, church architects have known for hundreds of years that it’s an extremely efficient device for making it as easy as possible to read from a text. It positions a Bible with large easy-to-read print at a height and an angle that suits most adults. Readers can glance up at the congregation and down to the text without even having to move their heads, and without fear of losing their place.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Hi Max:
      Thanks for sharing your detailed thoughts.
      If there is significant reading to be done (from a Bible, from notes, etc.), I agree that tips the scale heavily toward using a lectern.
      If, on the other hand, the speaker does not intend to read and is “more comfortable moving around”, then the lectern becomes less of an aid and, possibly, more of a hindrance.

  2. I’m a Pastor, but I don’t like pulpits. I’d chop ours into firewood but for this one factor – people in my church like it, expect it, and may not respect what I would have to say if it were gone. The distraction of its absense would certainly diminish my impact.

    So while I don’t care for pulpits, I’d recommend sticking with them unless there’s some purpose behind alienating some who hold dear to the traditions of the ancients.

  3. Victor Lloyd says:

    I was a Catholic priest for a little over ten years. For almost all of those years I did not use the lectern. It helped me connect to the audience. I would add a 9th consideration to the list: DON’T mobve out from behind the lectern if 1. you are not prepared or have every thought and idea ready and 2. if you are uncomfortable doing it. Nothing will make it look worse if you are unprepared (just winging it) or if it looks like you are scared to death out there. I have seen people take their notes out with them and then stand in one place and read their notes. Why go out there??? I also agree with the 8 points especially the “weight” that the pulpit has. I would often use the ulpit ofr weddings or funerals or more serious homilies.

  4. If you want to reach people’s hearts, get out from behind the lectern. You may be breaking tradition, but just think of the last time you talked to somebody with feeling with an imposing object between you and the other person. Bring your own microphone, make sure you are dressed appropriately for the group you are speaking to, and then do the best possible thing… connect with your audience.

  5. Kris says:

    I have done a fair amount of public speaking in churches, both with and without a lectern. I’ve found that my preference depends upon my subject.

    If I’m a guest preacher or fulfilling some other official religious role I prefer to stand behind the lectern. It gives me a place to set any notes I have, as well as any other materials I may need (Bible, bulletin, etc). The lectern also provides a ready-made place for a water glass; something that many a lectern-less sermon could well have benefited from.

    On the other hand, if my material is of a more personal and less formal nature, I prefer to leave the lectern behind. I am quite tall, and I can use every inch to my advantage.

    Were I in the position of the person asking this question, I’d look at what my requested donation was to be used for and base my lectern decision on that. Essentially I’d ask myself how I’d give a presentation about the recipient of these donations. If I’d be more comfortable giving a talk on this subject from behind the lectern, I’d ask for donations from behind the lectern. If I feel I’d be better served talking about the cause away from it, so too should my donation request.

  6. awart says:

    That’s interesting – so according to what you have here is that you’ve got, increasing speaker’s vulnerability has its effect in increased effectiveness of what he has to say, right?
    For me, and from my personal experience, it’s handy to avoid heavy lecterns, as the barrier becomes stronger BUT leaving it altogether – that’s only for true professionals.

    Nevertheless and in short – this link is definitely interesting.

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