The Ministry of Lector

Introduction

On this page, I would like to share a few thoughts on reading the Scriptures during community worship. The experience of the author is within the Roman Catholic tradition, but most of the points would be applicable to other traditions. The aim is to help those lectors or those preparing to be lectors with their mission of sharing God's Word.
The first consideration is to understand the difference between reading in Church during Mass or Eucharist and other types of reading. During the liturgy, the reader is fulfilling a mission to his or her fellow community members. It is a sacred duty that involves a sharing of one's own faith. This does not mean that a reading should be stiff or formal, but rather the realization that we are continuing Jesus's mission of sharing the Word with God's people. It is something special and requires adequate preparation.

Because it is Scripture that is being read does not mean that the skills of public speaking (adequate loudness, good phrasing, proper emphasis, etc.) are not required or are to be downplayed. Rather, it means that these skills which are picked up through training and experience are used in a context in which God's Word can speak to God's people: a Word that has power and that challenges, comforts, and builds up a community. It should not be a task that is being performed: a good lector allows the community to sense the presence of the living Jesus in that community through him or her without focussing too much attention on the lector himself or herself.

To put it simply, the readings from scripture have been chosen such that there is a spiritual message readily apparent in almost every passage. The reader's goal is to allow the congregation to hear that message.

Reading within the Liturgy: Some background points

1. The readings are part of the Church's Liturgy. They should be part of the sacred rhythm of the liturgy. The lector should not take too long to be in place, nor exit in a jarring fashion. He or she is a member of the worshipping community, assuming for a moment a leadership role within that community.

2. The beginning of the reading should not be rushed. One of the most common faults is to begin before the congregation is seated and attentive. To do this loses not just the beginning of the reading, but the sense of the reader ministering to the community. After the community is seated and quiet, the reader looks at the community and then begins.
Eye contact is important thoughout, but especially at the beginning of the reading and at the end. The Word from God is being shared between people of faith.

3. God's Word is holy and the documents of all the main Christian Churches speak of its proclamation as a moment of grace, of God's presence in the community. Reverence for this would suggest that reading Scripture in public from missalettes or scraps of paper is something to be avoided except in very informal settings. The General Instruction to the Lectionary calls for the Scriptures to be read in Church from books that respect the worthiness of their content. Missalettes were introduced in the Catholic Church at the time of the introduction of the vernacular and were intended as a temporary help until people learned the responses in English, or for those who are hard of hearing. Their continued use should be seen as an imperfect situation that eventually will be overcome. It reinforces the idea that community worship is not really worship of a Christian community (the sign is important!), but people just "following the Mass", individually fulfilling obligations or engaged in private prayer.

4.The congregation (and this includes the priest or minister) should be looking at the lector during the reading. With attentive listening, they are receiving the Word of God from one of their fellow pilgrims in faith. This means of course that the sound system should be adequate, and especially that the readings be done in such a way that the missalette is not needed during the readings by anyone other than the deaf. The sense of God speaking to us in the scriptures read is usually lost through the total lack of visual communication between lector and community and by the distractions of rustling papers.
Of course, we are a long way from this ideal. A small start would be to insist that all readers whenever possible use the lectionary for their readings. It is much easier to read from anyway, with a larger typeface and the verses of scripture are usually formatted according to their meaning. It requires only that the lector check before the liturgy to make it easier to find the right ribbon or marker and to glance at the page making it familiar enough that he or she can look up now and then.

5. There should be a pause after the first reading so that this presentation of God's Word can be received, and thus allow the Responsorial Psalm to be truly a prayerful sung response to God's sharing in the first reading rather than the next thing to be done. The Alleluia, on the other hand, is part of the gospel acclamation and the reader of the second lesson should not linger at the lectern too long. There should be no long gap between the end of the Alleluia and the proclamation of the gospel.

6. The Prayers of the Faithful or bidding prayers should also be read meaningfully and not as if by rote. They should be read at a pace such that the congregation can make the prayers their own. Exactly who is reading which prayer should be carefully worked out before the service begins so that, as always, the overall experience can be prayerful and not give the impression of a jumbled fulfilling of tasks. "Canned" prayers should be avoided as much as possible or, at the very least, adapted to the prayer concerns of the community that week.

7. Besides concrete preparation and the learning of the techniques of public speaking, the lector should deepen his or her understanding of the messages of the individual books in Scripture so that the meaning of a particular passage becomes easier to understand.

Some concrete techniques for public reading

When most readers begin, they read as if they have been asked by a teacher in a lower school to fulfill a lesson: they read too quickly, without emphasis or phrasing, and without eye contact. They are often not loud enough.
Whenever we read in public, we are communicating a message with our presence, mostly in our voicing the words, but also in our body language which also should be given some attention.

Body Language: Eye Contact is the Start

Eye contact is the most important part of this body language. It reflects a care for the hearers of this Word. Among other things it is a sign that we are pilgrims together in receiving it. Eye contact is made possible when the lector is thoroughly familiar with the reading and doesn't need to see the lectionary for every word. The beginning lector has a fear, I think, that they would "take too long" if they purposively looked up now and then. Rather, by looking up now and then throughout the reading, they are making possible the necessary pacing that gives the reading meaning and enables it to be remembered. At the beginning of the reading, one helpful hint is to put one's finger on the first line in the lectionary, refresh for oneself the first sentence in memory, and then look up and proclaim at least the first half of it while continuing to look up at the people. In the first part of this simple practice, you probably have also given the people the chance to get settled and ready to listen to the reading.

In a church where there are people not just in front of the lector, but also to his or her sides, keeping eye contact is more difficult. One suggestion would be to alternate glances during the reading to one side, then the other, rather than attempting to do a 90 or 180 degree "scan" which would be distracting. I would not ignore the "side wings" altogether: they are part of the community which is hearing this word and the eye contact brings them into it. At the end of the reading, our eye contact, along with our voice, is part of the sign that it is coming to a conclusion. It is very important that a phrase such as "This is the Word of the Lord" is not said into a book or pile of papers, but is proclaimed as it is meant to be: toward the people, inviting their prayerful response.
Our general body posture is also important. Do we give the impression through our standing that we want to flee as soon as we are finished? Or are we clinging to the lecturn as if we are terrified? Or lean on it in the casual manner of an after-dinner speaker attempting a joke? I would describe the proper posture as: alert, relaxed, with a gentle purpose ... In this way the message of the words can be heard and the people not distracted by our nervousness or perhaps some other even less helpful attitude. Here nothing is as insightful as videotaping a lector in practice and then showing her or him the videotape afterwards. It helps anyone to catch the little "ticks" that we all unconsciously have, such as starting out by leaning on one leg and then shifting a few seconds later to the other and maybe then back again. Or weaving toward the microphone at the beginning of a sentence and then drawing back away as one comes to the end of it. This does not mean that we should become motionless statues. But rather it suggests that the body gesture is relatively restrained and connected with the overall meaningful expression of a passage. For example, there could be a slight shift in position for a new "speaker" within the passage or a shift in tone or argument.

Using our Voices

The main part of this human communication of the reading will be through our voices.

To start with what seems obvious, but is often overlooked: we must be 100% sure that we can be easily heard. Make friends with the microphone. It is not just the direction toward which the microphone is aimed that is important, but also its distance from the speaker since many microphones also have an ideal separation distance from the speaker. This depends on how the amplifier and other elements of the sound system are set up and needs to be respected. With practice one senses when the volume of the amplified sound is right and also how much the lectern may help reflect our voices. Where there is no microphone, or it is not working, the classical techniques of public speaking come in. There is no room here to give much guidance other than to say that strength of voice comes from projecting from the diaphragm, not from one's throat (i.e., think of projecting from your "gut", not your head).

Another practical aspect is to know the acoustic characteristics of the church or the "space" in which you are reading. In a large church where there is a good distance between the reader and the last pew (or between the loudspeakers and the farthest person), the reader may needs to speak more slowly to allow the words to be more easily heard. (One could add that the size of body movement and of gesture should also be adapted to the size of the liturgical space. The bigger the space and congregation, the more pronounced the gestures should be.) Another aspect to consider is how much the sound is absorbed by the materials of the building as well as by the people themselves and their clothing.To read in a church filled with people in winter clothing requires more sound energy than for the same number in summer!

Practical wisdom is also important: learn how to turn on and off the amplifier system in your church, in case those regularly in charge are not present at your service.
Another point is to be aware of "feedback", the annoying, howling sound that occurs when previously amplified sound is fed again through the microphone system. It usually is caused by setting the microphone amplication level too high, or having a loudspeaker too close to the microphone or too directly behind it. When it occurs, you should not ignore it. Try first to reduce it by stopping speaking for a moment and moving back from the microphone before starting again. If it continues, try turning off the microphone or covering it with your hand until the feedback resides.
In general, it disturbs the rhythm of liturgy less when, if things go wrong, you stop and calmly try to fix things and then restart, rather than ignoring the disturbance and continuing on with what you are doing.

Another important point is to try to proclaim the reading slowly enough for the meaning of the passage to be received. Paradoxically, long passages of Scripture that are read very quickly and without meaning, though shorter on the clock, are more burdensome and thus seem longer than the same passages when they are read with a varied pace and full of meaning, even when they take a few extra seconds. (This is especially true of the Passion narratives or the Johannine miracle stories.) Liturgy is about sacred time and a liturgy poor in communication and meaning is the one that drags, both in one's terms of one's perceived sense of time as well as one's spiritual need.
To respect the scripture as something holy does not mean that we cannot bring meaning to the words through emphasis or dramatic pauses. The Bible is full of sacred drama, and to be faithful and reverent to it means to allow that this drama be shared with the listeners.We should not be afraid to allow emotion to be expressed in our voice (as long as it is not "over the top") if it reflects the emotion that is in the Scripture passage. This is a challenge for the beginning reader at first, for, because of our cultural backgrounds, it seems "irreverant" to bring emotion into the reading. Yet, to take an example from the gospels, something basic in the Christian message is lost if the passage in John's gospel about the death of Lazarus is read in such a way that the sense of pain and care and love in the action of Jesus responding to the death of his friend Lazarus is lost through a flat reading without emotion. We need to hear the message that the Lord of the Universe is a God who is able to mourn the loss of one person He loved, that God loves us as individuals as well.
Another example of a poor reading because an essential emotion was missing would be a "wimpy" or weak — rather than a strong, forthright — reading of 1 Cor 15. If there is no emotion at all in our reading, we are reading words, but not God's Word. Obviously, one needs to temper the expression of the emotion to the passage, but there is almost always more "sinning" on the side of too little emotion in reading the Scriptures in Church rather than too much.

Another danger here is to assume a false emotion of stately dignity that suggests that one has been invited to substitute for a television announcer of the old school. In doing this one gives the impression: "I am more than pleased to be reporting to you from a service in Westminster Abbey which the BBC is proud to present."
If there are different voices in a scripture passage (e.g., a narrative voice as opposed to dialogue or within a dialogue between the different characters, such as disciples or skeptics), then these differnt persons or roles should be "heard" through a change in the lector's voice and emphasis. A pause or mini-pause in our pace and / or a different tone of voice are usually part of this expression of different voices.

To read with emphasis does not mean accentuating every word or phrase. A very rough rule of thumb suggests giving more attention to verbs and then meaningful phrases while being careful not to overemphasize adverbs and adjectives. A beginner's mistake is to try to emphasize all or almost all of the words of a sentence. But then the "thread" of meaning can be lost. What is most important is finding the sense of the passage, the "story" being shared, or the spiritual insight that an apostle wanted the community to hear. And then through the right rhythm and use of pacing, allowing that story or insight to be heard and remembered. Pauses are very important for they allow an expression or idea to be distinctly heard and they help to mark a change in speaker or emphasis in a passage.

A good lector, having read beforehand the passage several times and having prayed over it, will find himself or herself drawn to one or two lines in the reading that may be the "highpoints". There is often more than one way to read a passage and still be faithful to it. Another reader may highlight different elements of the reading. A good lector would be close enough to the reading so that none of the "main themes" would be lost and the whole would be read such that a meaningful message from God can come through.

Preparation includes reading the passage aloud, and more than once, if only to yourself. This is really important. There is a need not just to let your mind become familar with the ideas and words, but also to let them "get around your tongue" as you practice the rhythm of the phrasing of the words. Otherwise even if you think you have prepared the reading, you will find yourself sometimes "off-step" in your verbal rhythm in the middle of a sentence when you read before the community. This is especially true for the longer sentences which are often found in the New Testament letters. To be honest, many of the sentences in the Pauline or other NT letters have to be studied and read very carefully and with a lot of emphasis in order for their meaning to be fully grasped by the average congregation.

Part of studying the lectionary passage is discovering what genre it is and letting that be expressed in our reading. In storytelling (and much of scripture uses this genre), repetition of phrases is a important part of allowing the story to be remembered. There is often a rhythm built up in the way the words are used. The lector needs to find that rhythm and pass it on so that this reading this day in Church can also be remembered.
Pastoral exhortations (found in most of the epistles of the NT) are read differently than one of Jesus' parables. They should be read "pastorally", i.e. with care and concern, and not as a list of evil things to be righteously condemned: lest what is heard be not the real need of correction and growth that all Christians share, but "zingers" which are "obviously meant for someone else."

[Content: Copyright Peter P. Kenny, 1999-2003. Suggestions are gratefully received.]