Where's your heart?

How to consider public speaking requests

I remember the first time someone offered me an honorarium for speaking on a college campus. I was overjoyed, for I love teaching, and I see the podium as another means for my vocation (but without the grading). These annual occurrences quickly became bimonthly events until I found myself speaking more outside than inside the classroom. Along this journey, I have prayed with my husband, spoken with mentors who have trekked a similar road, and sought out how to be faithful with my gifts that are now my primary source of income. I’ll never forget a friend once telling me, “Sometimes there are more temptations to sin when receiving blessings than during crises.” Knowing that to be true, I share all this background in the hopes that what I have learned will be helpful for others. Here are some practices that I find beneficial for keeping my eyes on my beginning and end, while continuing to serve where I have been called.

On his way to meetings, Eugene Peterson used to pray Mark 16:7, Christ “is going before you. There you will see him just as he told you.” He’d imagine Christ dwelling in the person that he encountered in each meeting. Consider with each email invitation the people that you will be speaking to (including the person with whom you email) as a co-inheritor of the Gospel. To see in this way will mean that you do not make decisions based on VIPs who could be in attendance. You can avoid the vice of weighing people’s CVs or fashioning some other false scale by which to decide yes or no when an offer to speak comes before you.

When these invitations come, give yourself time to consider them. I’m an easily excited person, so I used to respond immediately to these requests (99% with a “yes, please!”). A wise friend counseled me to never respond before 24 hours had passed. (As I think back on this conversation, she may have advised giving it a week, but I probably shortened that based on time inflation, ha ha.) My husband and I pray in the evening before I respond to these requests the next day. He always asks me, “What’s your motivation?” Another way of saying it would be, “Where’s your heart?” If the invitation tempts me because of its notoriety or because of the income, we often decline. I consider the work itself: on what will I be speaking? To whom? Does this invitation align with my calling? No matter which answer I give the next day, I sense the Lord’s peace if I have first handed the invitation to Him. “Establish the work of our hands, Lord” is a regular prayer for me.

As these requests increase, we are also evaluating the time commitment. We have decided no more than 12 large events per year, which averages to one per month. Because of the way that some of them fall, it might mean two in one month and none the next, or something. However, I try to keep the time away from home down to once a month. If the speaking engagement is near family, I make exceptions because I can justify the time before and after by attending to my family. If the requests are professional development for schools, I do not calculate that in my count. The more time that I can give on the ground helping good educators flourish, the better. For K-12 schools, I’ll contort my schedule. But I do need to consider my limitations, else I’ll give less than my best.

            When I must decline these invitations, either because of my limited time or because of their limited funds, I often feel a nagging guilt that I could not help more. Yet, I am trying to see that my “no” opens a door for another person’s opportunity. Whenever I can, I send as many names of other possible colleagues or friends who could speak in my stead. I want to spend as much time promoting other people’s work as I can; I don’t want to build a brand but a community. My husband often asks, “Could someone else do this work as well or better than you?” If so, then perhaps I need to decline and pass it on.

            Finally, let’s talk about money. In 2011 Andy Crouch wrote an email to Amy Julia Becker that helped me tremendously in considering how to respond faithfully to these requests. Set your fee for the year and do not change it that year. Establishing my rate has helped me say “no” better. When I have accepted invitations that offered less than my fee, I sometimes feel that the work is a burden instead of a gift. We always want to remember this vocation as a gift for which the honoraria are just that—honorary—even if it is your income. If, like Andy, you want to tithe your time, then do not charge for requests within your area. For me, tithing my time means that I rarely say no to a K-12 classical school: if they can afford my honorarium, then I will give my time. But this decision needs to be for each family to determine what you can give.

            I’m hoping this post is helpful, both for those planning events and for those receiving invitations. At the end of the day, remember that Christ hyperbolically suggested we gouge out our eyes if they caused us to sin. If speaking publicly leads you to an inflated ego, jump off the stage as quickly as someone put you up there! Nothing is worth the loss of your soul. Read David French’s piece from last summer on Christian celebrity as a good warning. Or, Matthew Pierce’s parody Evangelical Thought Leader (which you should read no matter what because it is hilarious). Or, listen to Karen Swallow Prior talk about the priority of vocation over platform in this podcast.

If you would like to see where I am over this next academic year, here is my current schedule. I hope I’m coming to your area and have a chance to meet you in person.

And here’s some of the things that happened in August:

·      I was named Executive Director of Arts of Liberty at the University of Dallas. I’ll be sending out a separate Substack soon via Arts of Liberty about our plans!

·      One of our first events will be to host the fourth biennial Future of the Catholic Imagination Conference on the University of Dallas on Sept 30-Oct 1, 2022.

·      Andy Crouch sat down to talk with me about the liberal arts and the necessity of thinking outside of our comfortable, academic framework on The Liberating Arts.

·      On the Moral Imagination Podcast, I discussed with Michael Matheson Miller totalitarianism and literature, including Fahrenheit 451, In the Time of the Butterflies and other novels.

·      I make a cameo appearance in this conversation between Jenn Frey and Michael Roth: “Is Higher Education Broken?”

·      And, if you missed my debate with the “12 Books Every Thoughtful Person Should Read,” here was my counter list of 10 books from a few years ago published in Intercollegiate Review.

In March, my new book The Scandal of Holiness will be coming out with Brazos Press. I am so excited about this book! I’ll be releasing more information about it in the months to come, so please subscribe to this newsletter. If you preorder the book, it shows publishers that these are the kinds of books worth investing in—books about the stories that cultivate holy imaginations!