Preachers sin. He who claims to be without sin is a liar. Yet preachers do not want to go on sinning, for then Christ is not in us. This dialectic in 1st John is a perennially difficult one. Wesleyan categories of sin help us greatly in discussing it. Yet the truth is, many preachers this week intentionally and willfully sinned. It may not be something for which they would be judged. It might have been as simple as choosing to eat an entire bag of potato chips even though they had promised God to fast. Or it might have been an intentional sideways stare when the eyes should have returned home. Or, it might have been a very slight action meant to harm an “enemy” whose actions wounded the preacher. Preachers are after all very human.
The challenge is preachers pour their lives into their church. Their friendships are wrapped up in their church most often. Their accountability partners attend their church. Their connection with those people carry dual relationships that are unavoidable but would make every professional counselor cringe. Perhaps that’s why preachers seem to err on one side or the other in their preaching. They are too invulnerable, too “fixed”, too put together and never “in the flesh” of struggle or failure. Or they are too vulnerable, too “messed up”, too falling apart and use the pulpit as a confessional booth.
It is difficult to preach with freedom, with joy, with a tone and sense of the truly truly good news when sin rots your conscience on the side. The extra burden of a burlap bag of sin chafes the holder, and burdens the bearer. Do you have an extra load? Does it weigh on your, chafe you as you preach? Do you wish you could find someone safe, someone who would not destroy you or judge you?
Be honest. If you hear his voice do not harden your heart as they did at Meribah. The point is not to feel shame, but to admit the shame you already feel. The goal is not to beat yourself up more, but to recognize the bruises of self-condemnation that are tender to the touch. Do you need to answer yes to those questions?
If so, the sin may be “on the side” and not directly related to your preaching, but the effects are no longer on the side. They are in the center. What affects the preacher affects the preaching. There is no way around that. Frederick Beuchner states preaching is “truth poured through personality.” There are problems with that definition, but there are benefits. It helps us remember that God does allow us to flavor his water with what is in the vessel.
- Make use of confidential counseling. If your sack is unbearable, the contents unnameable, the darkness seemingly unquenchable a normal friendship with vulnerability and honesty may not do. Call this number 1.877.REV.CARE (1-877-738-2273) where you are assured of confidentiality and your confessions will not be made known to anyone else. Stop the slide of your soul in to pits and traps you cannot escape alone.
- Find a spiritual director. The difference between a spiritual director and a mentor is significant. A mentor guides you in how to be effective, or wisdom for living, or even formative feedback for self improvement. A director listens. A director reflects what is heard. A director asks questions that open doors and windows but do not shove you through them. A director is a safe place, with a compassionate presence, whose main job is to point out the gracious goodness of God and it’s concrete markers in your life. They are confidential, they are safe, they are a gift. Find one near you and take the time to meet. (Find a spiritual director list for you to vet here: http://www.sdiworld.org/maps/?map=seekfind).
- Get a real accountability partner. This may mean either firing or confronting the one you have. Accountability is not the silver bullet we make it out to be. It is only as good as we make it. If you cannot speak honestly with your accountability partner you have the wrong one. If they are not speaking honestly, vulnerably with you, you need to discern if that can change. Press yourself to confess more, directly, and without justification. There is something very powerful about someone saying “your sins are forgiven” in the flesh. Even when we know God is forgiving, it is very difficult to release shame until someone else is forgiving too. This might be for our own good. If we do not confess it, we will often repeat it. Confession is the rumble strip on the side of the road. For many, without the rumble strips we would drive right into the abyss. If not this time, the next.
- Be wise. There is a foolhardy naiveté in some young ministers (and some old) who would confess any moment of poor judgment to anyone. Year ago I had a district superintendent admit “Dave, I wouldn’t confess to me.” The pulpit is not our place to air dirty laundry or do our own personal counseling. We do need a place, but the pulpit is not it. Neither are most of our professional relationships. In a professionalized society with a professionalized ministry we have to recognize a few realities that were not there in the 1600s. They bear blessings and curses of course. Regardless, it simply “is” this way. Proverbs also reminds us to “avoid a man who talks too much.” We have no need to confess our foibles, fears, and failures to blabber mouths.
- Find faces of grace. Foster Christy was a preacher in a ministry I served. He is a wonderfully gracious, humor-filled, and down to earth Christ follower. His phrase that i have used many times is “look for a face of grace.” If the old saw is true, “after 40 every one is responsible for their face” then the face traces the tendencies of the soul. A soul bent on judgment and harsh discipline can show that at times. Yet, the face does not always show it. I’ve tended to think of that metaphor now as simply that, a metaphor. There are faces that have seemed kind when I met them who turned out to be unnecessarily destructive of others’ lives. There is a time for accountability even consequences. Sometimes our sin receives the grace of lost privileges and lost duties. At the same time, there are times when a person rescues those who could have been destroyed. Those who rescue those staggering toward slaughter are praised in scripture. Seek those. Stay close to those. Get their guidance and help. Do what they say and refuse to keep sin a secret you alone bear.