SAN MARCOS — There’s something different about the Toastmasters club based at St. Mark Parish in San Marcos.
Saints Toastmasters, as the club is named, opens and closes its weekly meetings with prayer and, as the group’s members work on their public speaking, the Catholic faith frequently finds its way into their speeches.
This isn’t something that has happened by chance.
In its mission statement, the club declares: “We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills (with emphasis on our faith), resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.”
Mike Saunders, the club’s president and a St. Mark’s parishioner for almost two decades, joined Toastmasters about five years ago as a member of a different club and credits it with significantly improving his ability to communicate effectively. As he grew in confidence and competence, he saw value in helping fellow Catholics to become better communicators.
Saunders noted that there are “a lot of good stories out there,” but not enough people want to “step up” and share them with others. He said a dearth of Catholics willing to deliver brief witness talks has made it difficult to organize retreats.
In March of 2020, Saunders approached St. Mark Parish with his vision for a parish-based Toastmasters club. Its first meeting was held in early June, with members gathering virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the meetings have continued to be held every Tuesday from 7 until about 8:10 p.m. via Zoom.
Saints Toastmasters is one of the more than 16,200 chartered clubs in 145 countries that are affiliated with Toastmasters International, a 96-year-old nonprofit organization that promotes the development of communication skills. The club has about 20 members, ranging in age from early 20s to early 90s, and membership is not limited to St. Mark’s parishioners.
Each week’s meeting follows the same format, including two club members delivering five- to seven-minute prepared speeches; all members participating in an activity called “table topics,” where they practice their impromptu speaking for 45 to 75 seconds each; and evaluations are given for how the speakers did that week.
Saunders described the evaluation portion as Toastmasters’ “secret sauce,” which enables members to improve as speakers.
At each meeting, individual members also serve in one of the following roles: “Ah Counter,” who keeps a running tally of vocalized pauses and other space-fillers; “Timer,” who rates the speakers on their adherence to time limits; and “Grammarian,” who gives a “word of the day” for everyone to use during “table topics” and notes good and bad turns of phrase.
There is a different theme each week. Although they are not required to be religious in nature, Saunders said they often are. Previous examples have included “Blessings All Around,” “Having a Fruitful Lent” and “Holiness Is for Everyone.”
Toastmasters piqued Yoli McGalliard’s interest about 20 years ago when she was being trained as a lector. She recalled how one of the veteran lectors “would always rave about Toastmasters” and recommended joining a club.
At the time, McGalliard was busy with her career as a registered nurse and with raising a family with her husband. But she never forgot about Toastmasters. When Saunders invited her and her husband to join his new club, she jumped at the opportunity. Her interest grew upon learning that the club was faith-based.
“I knew it would help me become a better communicator,” both in her professional life as well as in her ministry as a lector, said McGalliard, 53, who has been a St. Mark’s parishioner for about five years. “At the same time, it would give me … an opportunity for fellowship and to speak with others that are like-minded when it comes to our faith.”
Alex Sofishchenko, who is currently going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process at St. Mary Parish in Escondido, is also a member of Saints Toastmasters.
Originally from Ukraine, the 24-year-old Sofishchenko speaks English as a third language. Thanks to the club, he is no longer as nervous or frustrated when making the frequent presentations that are a necessary part of his work as a software engineer.
The club is “not just about building our communication skills. It’s also about being part of this wonderful family of people who care about each other,” he said.
At times, when members have been unable to attend a meeting because of illness or a family situation, they have asked for prayers, Sofishchenko said, and fellow club members have honored those requests by praying together on their behalf.
He said the speeches given at the meetings, many of which involve spiritual matters, also inspire members to reflect on “how great God is, and how much we should love Him, and how much He loves us.”
“We’re not trying to impose our faith on anybody,” he said, “but yet we try to show people that this is who we are, this is how wonderful it is to be in this Catholic community.”