For 30 years I was privileged to preach to believers gathered as the Kentwood Community Church family. The well stayed deep and the inspiration fresh over those three decades. I thankfully avoided the burn-out viewed as an occupational hazard of long-term preaching. The 35-year milestone in full-time ministry provides a good opportunity to reflect on the vitality that consistently accompanied that longevity in preaching.
1. I didn’t go it alone.
Preaching was rarely a solo effort for me. From my earliest days I sought the involvement of others. As a young pastor a more seasoned and educated pastor met with me regularly to help me exegete the passages and mine the key points that would be shared. I participated in small groups studies focused on the section of Scripture or the key themes of an upcoming sermon series. I found a “study buddy” who I knew was planning on me to show up – even though we didn’t talk much as we worked, his presence provide encouraging accountability to not let study time get squeezed out. What started out informally was pursued more intentionally as the years of preaching went by.
At least a month before beginning a new series a “Dream Team” would be assembled – a gathering of highly creative individuals (almost all volunteers) to brainstorm the more visual, musical and illustrative dimensions of the upcoming messages. No idea seemed too crazy (though more than a few pushed the limit) as songs were suggested, visuals we envisioned, related media was identified, and possible resources were listed. Not only did this result in a more engaging series, but being around such “out-of-the-box” thinkers stimulated my own creativity and energy leading up to the series. It amazed me how the outline of the series I prepared for the Dream Team came alive as they interacted with it. Only a modest percentage of their work was eventually used – yet these times filled my well.
When our church was young and in its formative years I preached 45-48 weekends a year. As the church grew and a pastoral team developed, that number was closer to 40 weekends a year. As our church matured and we were increasingly committed to being “fully functional in our mission and vision without being dependent on any one person” a Teaching Team was developed.
More than just a random group that divided up the calendar, the Teaching Team was made up of four individuals whose gifting was affirmed by the church body. We met each week for an hour – to give 15 minutes of feedback to the previous weekend’s preacher, and 45 minutes of input to preacher scheduled two weeks ahead. I preached thirty weekends a year, while the other three each preached six…48 weekends a year were covered by the Team. That frequency, combined with consistent feedback and input from a diverse Team (in ethnicity, gender, ministry responsibility, family dynamics, etc.), kept the burden light and the well fresh.
If I was in a smaller context I would have a Teaching Team of volunteers. They may not preach as frequently, but in every congregation there seem to be people wonderfully grounded in the Word or creative in communication. That input/feedback loop keeps burnout at bay.
One more practice that at first may seem only tangentially connected. Years ago I read the book by Gordon MacDonald entitled Restoring Your Spiritual Passion. He identified five types of people – Very Resourceful People (VRP), Very Important People (VIP), Very Teachable People (VTP), Very Nice People (VNP) and Very Draining People (VDP). In ministry I’ve found you have to be intentional about seeking out VRP – you do don’t have to do that with VDP, they will seek you out! I always made sure I had those Very Resourceful People in my life – sometimes within the Church, sometimes in the broader Community and beyond. These VRP help keep the passion strong, and that passion is the fuel of preaching.
Who are the resourceful people in your life? Who might you team with to stimulate creativity or share the preaching load?
2. I found a “sacred” study space.
Having a dedicated space provided an oasis for sermon preparation. For me it was a library of a nearby Seminary. I was rarely interrupted in my study nook – and was surrounded by resources that helped me do the exegetical work on the biblical text. When people called the Church to ask for me, he’s “out of the office” and will be back at the end of the day seemed to be a very acceptable answer.
Time for full confession – it wasn’t just the academic resources that drew me to that space. The Seminary was located on a beautiful campus…so my Mondays there often included a walk around the campus to let my feeble mind recover from wrestling with more complex truths. And there was a great little coffee shop. The right variety of secluded study, physical enjoyment of nature and caffeine was something I looked forward to as a beginning of my week.
That library also has a great periodical section with a wide variety of magazines and journals. Many Mondays I’d spend the better part of an hour doing a quick read of popular secular publications as well as meatier materials. This stroll through the display cases gave me a quick overview of current events, theological themes and relevant topics.
What is your ideal study space like? It can be a room at home, a booth at the coffee shop, or a nearby library. Some like it secluded, others like it alive with social stimulus. Can that space become “sacred” for you, set apart of the demanding yet holy work of sermon preparation?
3. I sought to avoid preaching practices that created undue wear and tear.
I’m sure I’m the only one who does this…replay the message I’ve just delivered, usually from a hyper-critical mindset enhanced by the post-delivery malady of emotional fragility. I call it the “black hole” – a place of no return, often disconnected from objectivity and reality, where I beat myself up for not having prepared more fully, delivered with greater clarity or left the congregation clamoring for more.
If you don’t do this…never start. If you do…stop! I built relationships of accountability to help me suspend the self-analysis to a time when I’m more ready for it to be a healthy contribution to growth as a preacher. This black hole can beat you up and burn you out. I knew I would not go the long haul if every time I preached I played arm-chair quarterback to myself.
I have also found “cramming” for a message to result in unnecessary wear and tear. I know some people are crammers (usually they pulled regular all-nighters in college) while others prepare well in advance. Admittedly, I’m more of a crock pot than microwave in sermon preparation. If I pace my preparation it is a totally different experience than if I procrastinate with preparation until the eleventh hour. Even if the message were of equal quality, the price paid to get there would be unaffordable in the long run.
I believe there is an emotional and spiritual “faithfulness” zone. If I overemphasize its importance of preaching, I may decrease my dependence upon God and subsequently place inappropriate emphasis on my performance. If I underemphasize its importance, I may give it only last-minute leftovers of my time and succumb to the temptation of proclamation plagiarism. Both the “over” and the “under” create wear and tear.
4. I deepened the well through continuing education.
I’m running the risk of being accused of an infomercial since I’m a raving fan of Wesley Seminary at IWU where I’m privileged to serve. But stay with me…I entered full-time ministry right after graduation with my Bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry. This was back in the day where technology for distance learning was yet to develop, and providentially, I was located near a Seminary. Since I was planting a church it took me nearly a decade to complete my Master’s degree, and another half a decade for my doctoral degree. In other words, the first fifteen years of full-time ministry I was simultaneously deepening my well through increasing my capacity for theological reflection and effectively seeking deploy that learning in real-world ministry.
There was something powerful about a program of continuing education alongside full engagement in ministry during my formative years. Now it doesn’t have to be seminary (it pains me to admit that) and it doesn’t have to be in the first decade of ministry, but I have become convinced that the parallel track of education and engagement helped me to be a preaching marathoner.
5. The audience kept changing.
A final thought – yes, I preached at Kentwood Community Church for 30 years…but not to the same congregation. There were fresh converts, the unfolding of new generations, an increase in ethnic diversity, changes in environments than enfolded a variety of worshipers – a newness rather than a sameness as the years went by.
It’s energizing to preach when it requires the discipling of new believers and the bridging of new cultures. Equipping a church to reach out is connected to the ability of a preacher to avoid burnout. New people require new music and new messages – which has a renewing effect on those who feed them and lead them.
Three decades – where did the time go? While the youthful energy has moderated, the deep-down reservoir of preaching passion still circulates…which causes me to relish the years yet ahead.
After serving on the Kentwood Community Church (KCC) pastoral staff since 1979, Dr. Wayne Schmidt started as Vice President of Wesley Seminary at IWU in January 2010.