Rev. Dana Allen Walsh admits it sounds like a Seinfeld episode: a preacher who is afraid of public speaking? The comedian once said on his TV show, “you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Walsh, an associate minister at Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, Mass., can identify with the paralyzing feeling of stage fright. “I used to start to lose sleep on Wednesday nights, knowing that Sunday was coming,” said Walsh, who as a seminarian at Princeton University, had a lot of fear about going into the ministry – and much of it had to do with standing at the pulpit and preaching. Her faith was instrumental in helping her conquer her anxiety, and now, after giving hundreds of sermons, she still feels a bit nervous but “it reminds me of the importance of the work I’m doing – and helps me to prepare really well.”
Walsh, 25, says she wasn’t called to the ministry by a proverbial burning bush but rather came “kicking and screaming.” She had planned to be an attorney and earned a degree in international affairs but through her involvement in a local congregation, started realizing what a powerful force for change the church could be. “I believe that the church can be a source of transformation, support, and social action,” said Walsh, who talks to young people at Theology on Tap pub nights, hosts women’s retreats, and leads service trips to the Appalachian mountains.
As a young woman, Walsh says sometimes people get confused when they hear she’s a minister, especially if they’re accustomed to seeing only male clergy. “Frequently, they’ll also start going into confession mode, and start saying, ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t been to church in three years.’ But I’m not there to judge them.”
Q: What are some other common misconceptions about your job as a minister?
A: People will wonder if I get paid (I do), and whether I can get married (my husband, Sean, is a teacher). And others will think it’s a very monastic life, and that I spend all my life meditating, when really, often it’s a 60-hour work week.
Q: How long does it take you to prepare a typical sermon?
A: About 15 hours. The lectuary is set out for the entire year, with four scripture passages for each Sunday. I read those two weeks in advance, then pick one text and read and research it through different Bible commentaries and books. I also try to reflect on how God has been working in the church and in my life on this passage. Images and stories start coming to mind, and I put them all together and create a draft to make a unifying and cohesive theme. There’s a lot of writing, rewriting, and prayer, and then practice it three times before I go up and preach.
Q: Did you attend church as a child?
A: I grew up Catholic, but my dad was Protestant. When I was 16 and had my driver’s license, I decided I wanted to find my own church, and every Sunday, would try different churches in town. It scared my parents, who didn’t know where I would end up, but as a form of rebellion, I guess it was pretty mild.
Q: What personal characteristics do you need to become successful in this field?
A: You have to love working with people. It helps to be thoughtful and reflective, with good organizational and administrative skills. Being extroverted helps as well, and your faith has to be a vital part of life. You should feel as if God has called you to this work, and that call is affirmed by others around you.