By Lindsay Peyton

Pastor Kyle Tremblay wants to make the most of Sunday worship. After all, it’s the time when church attendance is the highest. Sermons can inspire, he explained, or can feel more like drudgery for the people in the pews. “It could be something filling them with hope, something life-changing that pushes them to go and love more,” he said. “It should be something that goes out the doors of the church with you.”

Tremblay’s passion for preaching is what inspired him to seek a mentor last year. “I was looking to grow,” he said. “There were still a lot of ways I wanted to get better. I wanted to make this into a solid strength.”

He learned about the Ministry Specialist Initiative (MSI), which launched in Jan. 2022, from Rev. Robert Besser, who was then serving as Texas Annual Conference’s Associate Director of Church Leadership in the Center for Leadership Formation.

Besser explained that the program provides congregations with experts and tools needed for success. “It’s really about support and investment in ministry, the local church and our pastors,” he said.

Rev. Bonnie Osteen is now head of MSI. In the program, clergy or congregational leaders, with the help of the District Superintendent, assess their needs for improvement. Then, congregations are matched with Ministry Specialists who serve as guides.

Tremblay said there were a number of areas that caught his eye – but he decided to apply for a guide in preaching. He was pleasantly surprised when he discovered his match – Rev. Dr. Daniel Irving.

“I knew he could be honest with me,” Tremblay said. “I trust him, and I knew his criticism would be constructive.”

After all, the two pastors have known each other for years. And Irving had mentored Tremblay before.

As an undergraduate, Tremblay was active in campus ministry at A&M UMC, where he participated in a program matching ministerial candidates with pastors. He was connected with Irving, who was then serving as pastor at FUMC Huntsville.

“I would drive from Huntsville to College Station once a month,” Irving recalled.

Then, Tremblay took an internship at Irving’s church. “It was a great experience to work with him,” Tremblay said. “Daniel was willing to take me behind the scenes, and it was extremely helpful.”

Tremblay also had the opportunity to preach a couple of times at FUMC Huntsville before he headed to seminary at Duke Divinity.

Since then, the two became friends. “I’ve been following his journey,” Irving said.

Irving has long admired Tremblay’s drive for self-improvement. “Kyle is really eager,” Irving said. “He’s always excited about finding new things and bettering himself. He always asks for feedback. It’s really impressive for a young pastor who is just starting out.”

Irving said he was honored to get the call that he could serve as a mentor again to Tremblay, now in a new phase of his life.

At the time, Tremblay had a two-point charge at Reagan UMC and the former Kosse UMC.

Pastors walking alongside each other

Irving signed up right away when he heard about the MSI. “I filled out a form and indicated a couple of areas where I’d be happy to walk alongside and coach someone,” he recalled.

He finds the idea of helping others find their voice exciting. “Every preacher is unique,” he said. “I’m not trying to get them to preach like me – but it’s more about getting them to most effectively and authentically preach the way they want.”

Besser had directed Irving to develop a curriculum for serving as a preaching coach, since there was not an existing model. “I had some ideas and thoughts about what has been helpful to me, after 15 years of preaching every week,” Irving said.

It’s something Irving discovered firsthand. “For my first two years as a preacher, I felt like I was almost trying to wear someone else’s clothes,” he said. “I was trying to preach like the seminary taught me. But I wasn’t feeling like I made a connection with my congregation.”

One day, a church member told him, “You don’t sound like you when you’re preaching.”

“That was really helpful,” Irving said. “I started doing what I was not taught in seminary. I started researching strong communication and trying to find my own voice.”

He was eager to pass on what he had learned to Tremblay. The first meeting was a listening session.

“We talked about aspects of preaching Kyle was hoping to improve upon,” Irving recalled. “And I asked questions, trying to get a sense of how I could be most helpful.”

Before the next session, Tremblay sent him a video of a recent sermon. “I wanted to observe his body language, the speed of his delivery, how he told a story, all of those different nuances,” Irving recalled. “You can’t get that from reading a sermon off a page or even just listening.

Irving took notes and developed a rubric, which included evaluating technique, structure and content. He would talk to Tremblay about making one point instead of trying to cram too many thoughts into one sermon.

This thesis statement has to be carried from beginning to end, Irving explained, otherwise you can lose your audience. “Everything is built around the bottom line,” he said.

Irving talked about cutting excess from the sermon – and keeping the story simple and clear. He also focused on where the most energy is in the message, knowing where to be dynamic and how to change emphasis.

The pastors repeated this exercise several times. “Each time we met, I would have observed a sermon, we’d review it and talk,” Irving said.

“It worked out really well,” Tremblay said. “Daniel helped me notice things about my preaching that I never would have before.”

For instance, Tremblay discovered that he affected a “preacher’s voice” – one that was not conversational. “For some reason, when I got behind the pulpit, my voice changed,” he said. “It was really helpful to have someone sit down with me to work on that. It has helped me get better.”

Taking a chance to re-engage preaching 

Irving did more than work with Tremblay on specific action items. He left the young pastor with a template to assess his future sermons. “Now I can do the same process on my own, to reflect by myself,” Tremblay said.

The two pastors were about mid-way through the process, when both were reappointed. Irving is now the Senior Pastor Christ Church in Sugar Land, and Tremblay serves as Pastor at the Wesley Foundation at Lamar University in Beaumont. Tremblay is also preparing to be ordained in 2025.

“I imagine we will pick it up again soon,” Irving said. And Tremblay agreed, “It’s something I look forward to continuing.”

Irving explained that a new appointment is an ideal time to get a preaching coach – or when pastors face new responsibilities or a changing church culture. Those new to the clergy might want a mentor, and long-time experts might feel stuck in a rut as well. “Those are all great chances to re-engage in your preaching,” Irving said.

Irving likens the benefits of a preaching coach to having one in golf. A golf coach might help improve grip, stance or swing. At first, a slight change might throw off the game, but eventually facing the challenge and putting in the better work is well worth it.

“It makes you a better golfer,” Irving said. “You become a better preacher.” 

He looks forward to continuing to be a Ministry Specialist in the Conference. “I’m hoping that this is something that will be beneficial to other people,” he said.

Irving added that a one-on-one coaching relationship is an ideal way to get feedback, – far better than a seminar, workshop or class. “Where else can you get that kind of attention? Working with a coach, you’re able to set your own goals, and all they want is for your success,” he explained.

Tremblay agreed. “Having an outside perspective is incredibly helpful,” he said. “Having a fresh set of eyes to help you – and someone who can share their own experience – it’s so important.”

Trembley believes that the MSI epitomizes the strength of the United Methodist connectional system. “Instead of trying to do it all alone and reinvent the wheel, we can use these resources,” he said. “We’re not solo churches doing it on our own. There are a whole group of people who want to help and support you.”