On the Side: Words for Your Family

header_imagePreachers are not often very good matches for the stereotypes. “Preachers are lovers of words” I have heard it said so many times. Yet I have learned that many of us grow weary of words. We do not want to hear any more, and we do not want to speak any more of them. After a days work spading out words from the hard soil of truth, gathering words in baskets of leftovers from counselees, and picking out words from a lineup in meetings we may not feel like “people of the word” at home. We neither want to think deeply about which words to use, nor do we want to hear a blather of words spread like too much frosting on too little cake in every room. A little quiet might be more in order.

Our families if we have them, and close companions if we do not, deserve the careful attention to words we offer others. Have you noticed how many rituals we have to “prepare for the day” or “get the day started well” in terms of the working day? Coffee or tea to jump start our energy and help us at least act like we enjoy people. Quiet solitude for at least a few minutes poring over a passage for our soul. Planning out the day with lists lettered and numbered by importance and urgency. Professional but un-rushed greetings and pleasantries to give each person a human touch. All of these things set us up for “the day.”

A friend of mine got in the habit when his kids were young of saying “back to job #1” as he left the ministry offices each day. Whether the sappy sentimentalists want to admit it or not, there’s truth to that with two year olds. They are a job some days. A blessed one, but a job. I like the sentiment that it is “job #1” though. So, that’s the first word for your family. Consider it job #1. If you don’t like calling it a “job” it might be because your theology of work is out of whack. Give it seriousness. Find meaning within it. And find ways to set up rituals of preparedness for it. Should you take five minutes for silent reflection before going home? Would there be worth in making a prioritized list for connection and time spent with people who are closest to you? What if you did devotions every now and then just before leaving work? How about this: what if you helped those you live with discern a vision for life together that was compelling and Christ-centered? You do it at work after all. Don’t turn home into an office. Don’t turn children into staff. Don’t turn your house into a narcissistic extension of ego. That’s not the idea, but perhaps considering it’s work meaningful, and it’s engagement worthwhile would be a good “word” for us.

Now for a few words we might use with those we are closest with:

  1. If it’s important to you, it’s important to me. This little phrase has the power within it to undercut arguments, pull debates up short, and sacrifice or preserve sacred cows at the proper time. I am not sure these words should ever be the sermon our family hears from us, “That’s what is important to you, not to me.” There is truth in that statement of course. Civility is the restraint of truth for the purpose of respect and deference to another. The use of truth “bluntly” is the definition of rudeness and the end of loving words unless permission has been given. How many times might an argument be ended well with this sermonette based on principles of love “Well I love you so if it’s important to you, it’s important to me.” Your child’s middle school band concert is probably not important to you. It is important to him. So it becomes important to you, even if they cannot even “warm up” well. It is important to you insofar as it is important to him. Your spouse’s desire to eat out tonight is important to you. It may not be your desire, but if it is important to them it is important to you. The tradition of the family you would like to discard, might become important to you when you look in the eyes of your child and say, “dear, if it is important to you then it is important to me.” Now that doesn’t mean what is important to you loses importance. It simply means both desires are on the table with significance, no one’s feelings or dreams are discarded easily. And every person is important, so their feelings, thoughts, wishes, and fears become important as a result.
  2. You are fun to be with. Many pastors kids (just like any kid in general) get the feeling that time spent with them is a duty, not a joy. There are days when this is true. We do sometimes force ourselves to give quality time to those we love. That is an act of love. Of course, the success of that act of love is directly dependent on how well they sense that our time with them is enjoyable. That’s the rub. If we force ourselves to be with those we love, but do not force ourselves to enjoy it we have missed the point and wasted the effort. It might be better to take a break from our closest relationships from time to time than to always be with them and guilt them for it. We do have power over our emotional world. It is not absolute power, and we shouldn’t “knuckle under.” Instead, make the conscious choice to focus on the person not the activity, the beauty not the difficulty, the moment rather than what else could be done. And then…make yourself say often with a smile, eye contact, and a sincere heart “You are so fun to be with. Thanks for spending time with me.” Exchange this with “I like you” (which is different than obligatory love after all) every once in a while and watch your loved ones flower under that spring rain of words.
  1. I’ve never met anyone quite like you. As with any word, the delivery can mismatch the content and therefore destroy the message. This is true of this phrase as much as any other. But imagine if you grew up knowing you were the first priority, that what you thought was important was important, and that you were a fun person to be with. Wouldn’t that have made a great difference for most of us? Now add to that a sense that your life was a unique life. Not in an egotistical or self-centered way, but in a beloved and treasured way. There was something about you that no other person brought into your loved ones lives. That is a gift worth giving those you love. And it is worth giving because it is patently true! I’ve never known a person quite like anyone else. Now I have met plenty of people who seem just like other people of the same type. They fly across the novels of our lives like stock characters we recognize. “She’s a Margie Younghunt” or “He’s an Ethan Crawley” or “There go the Gatsbys” or “He has become Theron Ware.” The truth is though, they only seem that way until I know them. The beauty of all of those characters is they are so well developed that we find so many people identifying with them…without being them. Once we come to know someone they never seem quite like anyone else we have ever met. If they do, we do not know them yet. Some time soon, shake your head as you smile and laugh. Then say to the person you are with, “I have never met anyone quite like you” while you look them in the eye with truth in your heart. Then celebrate God in them as you do and your prayers of celebration will meet your words of celebration giving you deep satisfied joy.
  1. I am proud of you. It’s one thing to put up with someone, it’s another to like them. It’s one thing to like a person, it’s another thing to like them for things you don’t like others. It’s one thing to find a person unique, it’s another thing to want others to know about them, connect you with them, and to know that you take joy in being connected with them. When it isn’t a mechanism to encourage performance or finally give long-withheld approval, “I am proud of you” communicates these things. I love you, I like you, I enjoy you, I want others to connect me with you, and I hope they do. It is approval bathed in relational connection. It is love you want the world to see. Have you read the “One Minute Manager?” If you have, then you know the value of catching people doing something right. Catch your closest relationships doing something right. Then let them know in a way that doesn’t sound like a “supervisor” checking in that you are proud to know them, proud to love them, proud to be connected with them.
  1. I didn’t know that. Preachers teach. We often fail to learn. That’s a dangerous combination don’t you think? Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying “Every man is in some way smarter than me, and in that I can learn from him.” If that great president and intuitive leader could make such a sweeping claim surely so can we. Preacher deal in “indicatives and imperatives” all the time. The is and ought of our world often makes others feel intimidated, small, insignificant, and insecure. After all, owning both is and ought is like having a monopoly on truth. When we give words to our limits, give refrain to our ignorance,
  1. I am sorry, I was wrong. Gut check: When was the last time you said something like this to someone in your innermost circle of relationships (think Christmas morning or wedding party relationship). If it’s been a while, it might be time to dust off the old humility garment and wear it as the outfit for the day. I remember asking someone once to think of one thing they could say they were sorry for in the last thirty years. It was a long, awkward, painful silence. In that silence, I realized brokenness ran so deep it had fractured their core. They were not able to see the narcissistic incurvatus in se that became painfully obvious to those involved. There was nothing they were sorry for. Nothing they saw as wrong. That would be understandable in a conversation, or in a moment, or in a season, or even in an issue at large. However, for thirty years of life with the person in question they could not think of a single wrong, not one apology. I hope and pray that is not true of you. Look for something this week. Be it large or be it small, confess your weakness and own it all. Say “I am sorry, I was wrong.” Then leave it there. The sacrifice of personal pride out of love for another is important. Otherwise our “I am proud of you” moments will leave a sour taste in our loved one’s mouths. They will begin to reinterpret that as simply “I am proud.”
  1. Create your own. These mantras for our closest relationships are actually born out of theological reflection on God and our fallenness. They are not merely self help or psychological babble. God makes what is important to us (and very small these things must seem to Him) important to him. He asks us to pray after all. God enjoys us, “for the joy set before him….” God takes pride in us we know since the rest of the creation receives a “good” and we receive a “very good.” Each one of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made” and Augustine says we are loved as though “there were only of us to love” in the heart of God. And the Godness of God teaches us that only God is the one who has no apologies to make. Even sinless beings like the Cherubim cover themselves in the presence of God and declare the perfection of his Holiness compared to them, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” So certainly we can say were are sorry. These are theological truths brought into practical words for our loved ones. Create your own now. Reflect deeply and do not come to conclusions easily, about the way God loves differently and more beautifully then we do. Then seek to love like that. We do not learn what it means for God to be “Father” by being parents. Heaven forbid! We learn how to be parents by witnessing the radically different way God is parent to us. We do not learn what it means to be “friends of God” because we are friends. God preserve us! We learn to be better friends by seeking to align our loves with God’s. Mediate on the Word of God, then seek to live out that word as a living word among those you love most.

Do not forget that your greatest sermon may be the one you preach “on the side.”

On the Side: Prayer-Filled Life

header_imageA few weeks back preaching fatigue was the focus of the series. The suggestion list was rather intentionally human. It is not that we should start with the human, or that human things matter most, or that we can presume prayer is happening in the lives of preachers. We simply did not want to turn prayer into mechanism you use instead of a life to live.

I remember sitting at Doug’s kitchen table. I am a coffee guy, strong and black. He liked tea. Slowly brewed. Carefully served. The table was small and round. The kitchen simple and not exactly uncluttered. I had preached an evening service following our morning service. Doug was the pastor, I was the guest. He shared with me his story of burn out, spiritual dryness, and turning to spiritual direction for guidance and recovery during a sabbatical. He completely changed his life of prayer,  he said. He did not emphasize changing his “ways” of praying. He changed his life of prayer. He slowly sipped his tea. His words were measured and calm. His demeanor relaxed. Something about sitting with him and listening to him describe the change from spiritual desert to peace-filled streams of prayer inspired me.

prayer-walkDoug had something I did not have: a peace-filled life of prayer. My prayer life was strong and edgy like my coffee. But unlike my coffee, it didn’t restore me and I did not look forward to it. It was driven. It tired me rather than rejuvenated me. It felt repetitive. At times it was manipulative.

I read some books Doug recommended. But mostly, I sought the life Doug reflected. I think preachers lose a great deal of solace when their prayer life is primarily about asking God to do things. That includes asking God to tell us what to say.

Here are some ways of praying I have discovered along the way as I sought to follow the path Doug found. Don’t use them to make preaching better. Pursue them if you think life will be better. They will affect your preaching, but from the side.

  1. Prayers of Presence – Brother Lawrence is of course the patron saint of this concept. His only aim was to attend to the presence of God as much as possible in every moment of the day. He did not even want to “lift so much as a straw from the ground” except insomuch as he was moved by love. His peaceful presence, godly spirit, and way of being in life drew many to see him as a preeminent example of a different way of living. The different way of living primarily attended to the presence of God. Try this in your life and you will find greater peace moment by moment, hour by hour than you have likely ever experienced before. When the sun glances off your cheek, let the warmth of the love of God sink into your soul. Take the wind as a reminder of the Spirit moving all around you in ways you cannot see or feel. When rain falls, remember your baptism or the lavish love of God. As you are doing dishes remember Christ’s cleansing work. When you stop at a light, stop and remember God’s goodness in your life. This one simple experiment, seeking to remember God as much as possible, may be the most life-giving thing anyone could ever offer you. Pray the presence of God.
  1. Prayers of Enjoyment – Celebration is not just a sung-worship thing. Our lives are intended to be doxological in every wrinkle and in every tucked away corner. As I write this I am on a writing weekend getaway my wife gave me out of great love. I am sitting listening to the waves of a lake hit the shore driven by wind blowing about 5 to 10 knots. The October sun is still coaxing the grass to send down roots, and the crickets have not given up on summer. Each of these things are beautiful gifts from God, not the least of which is the love of my dearest friend who supports my work and my soul at the same time. These are from God, are to be enjoyed, and give great occasion for thankfulness. That’s just this moment. There was the pleasure of a favorite fruit bar earlier, the glimpse of a family out on a stroll, and the memory of God’s forgiveness of my worst sins. Stop for a moment. Look around in celebration of the goodness of God. You may not have small whitecaps streaming up to riprap and late fall butterflies dancing in front of your view. But there is beauty. Who in your life is God using lately to give you good gifts that touch your soul? When we pay attention to the presence of God, we can also celebrate the goodness of God. We can hold onto that goodness, savor it, and let it sink down into our soul. Pollyana has become the icon for super sappy sentimentality. Still, she was right in a way. The glad verses get short shrift from we preachers still to this day. The earth, though fallen still bears the glorious dust of God’s goodness.
  1. Prayers of Release – Breathing prayers seek to draw up the goodness of the first two ways of praying into rhythmic intentional movements we can practice in set aside times of prayer. The goal of course is for more and more of our moments of the day to be filled with prayers of presence and prayers of celebration without set aside time. It is the working person’s joy to find work a means of prayer. Breathing prayer has three movements attached to breathing in, holding, breathing out. The first is recognizing God’s presence as you breath in. The second is enjoying God’s presence as you hold. The third is the releasing movement. You release your anxieties to God. The distractions that come into prayer are often the anxieties we have not yet released. It is a difficult release to surrender to the notion that God is God. We are not. That is more painful than we think. Our anxieties are miniature household idols, tiny attempts at controlling our world. We cannot let go of them, so they have a great hold on us. Anxiety is the enemy of spiritual formation. Angst chokes the soul, cuts off the oxygen of surrender, and deafens the heart to the nudges of God. Prayers of release do not even have to have words. Simply breathing them out in a mindset of release can be powerful. Our groanings and sighs are musical to God.
  1. Prayers of Lament – We do not allow ourselves to grieve in America for long. Monday someone dies. In eight days our cultural rhythms are over, our rituals done, and our official grieving past. Prayers of presence and celebration and release do not need to number our prayers of grief and lament. Perhaps our preaching carries more tones of anger with it because we have not yet fully grieved a dozen wounds we bear. So we cover those wounds over with the heavy cloth of righteous indignation at things which have little connection to our grief, except by way of distraction. What sadness casts a shadow over your chest? Spend time holding it, like a stillborn child, between you and God. Pass it back and forth. Share your tears with him, and let him share his grief with you. We have a great high priest who knew death and loss. Where was Joseph after the move back to Nazareth? When did he disappear? What wounds must he have carried over being someone’s “natural son” as the British used to say.
  1. Prayers of Improvisation – There are so many ways to commune with God it would be silly to list them all. The key concept Doug opened for me in new ways that night over his kitchen table was that there were so many, and they each bore unique gifts. Isaiah chastises the people of God for allowing their worship of God to be “made up only of rules taught by men.” I do love to ask people what meaningful ways of worship they have discovered that no one taught them to do. From fall-peak road trips listening to Rich Mullins CD’s to prayer-versation where you seek to hear God through what your friends say each day i learn beautiful new ways to pray and worship from others. It’s the improvisation in the moment that seems to me the sign that someone has found a life of prayer, not just ways of praying. As they narrate the inner life they have discovered I hear moments of sheer freedom in knowing and being known, loving and being loved, listening and being heard by God.

The life of prayer is “on the side” only insofar as it should not be corrupted by preaching’s desperation for help in professional tasks “right now.” There are times to cry out for help in dependance to be sure. God does not despise it. Yet if that is the focus of our prayer life, asking for this and begging for that, we have missed something —the beautiful dance of life with God.

by Dave Ward

 

On the Side: Confession

header_imagePreachers 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?

spiritual-directionBe 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

On the Side: Preaching Fatigue

header_imagePreaching well is tiring. Preaching well again and again is exhausting. Preaching well again and again every week for years, well that’s a recipe for a growing church…and preaching fatigue.

Most pastoral conferences and theological classes put self-care for the minister and ministry fatigue in a leadership discussion or a pastoral care discussion. Yet every pastor who preaches each week knows that one of the primary sources of fatigue is preaching. The proverbial “studies show” statement by pastors is that an hour of preaching equals eight hours of work in the office. I have never been able to find that “study.” Boy do I wish I could (put it in the comments if you have it.)

We do not need the study to verify what we already experience. When we are done preaching two or three services back to back, we are exhausted. Most of us reading this article have at one time or another preached the three service (even five service) weekend along with the board devotional, the funeral homily, the wedding homily, and taught the discipleship group lesson all in one week. We realize that is fatiguing. And we often take extra time after especially heavy weeks. But the sneaky fatigue is the fatigue of normal ministry weeks stacked up on normal ministry weeks relieved only by normal vacation.

Instead of spending time harping on the problem. We decided we would give you a long list of ideas that you can apply to give back to your soul. Some of them will be obviously spiritual. Others, are only recognized as spiritual if we rename them. Still we believe all of them to be spiritually healthy if pursued for the right reasons.

pastors-fatigueHere’s a challenge: for the sake of your preaching, do one thing to add back to your soul every day. You have been taking out, put something back in. Here are some give back ideas:

  1. Nap. Hopefully you can take one that’s good enough to get you snoring and jerking awake later. See the list of research at the bottom of this article if you need convinced from science. It should suffice to say that naps not only restore the damaging effects of staying fatigue, they advance the creativity of the brain. While you sleep, your brains creative centers finally get past the block of your logical reasoning. Nap every day. Your preaching will be more creative. If you think you can’t find enough time for a nap try this: ditch Facebook or Twitter for the day. With the extra minute here and there you gain, take a twenty minute nap. Things will go better in nearly every way.
  1. Get out of town, way out of town. Pastors do not realize their inability to de-role in town. The longer you stay, the more people you minister to, the fewer the times are that you go to a restaurant or a park like most people do. “Hi there pastor!” is a nice greeting, but it puts your subconscious to work, and your role is unavoidable. Even if it’s just a day trip an hour away, get out of town. If you are swamped with work, rent a VRBO on the lake and work away on the water’s edge.
  1. Take a 24-silence retreat. It is a little known fact that most preachers are actually introverted in terms of energy recharging. You may fear silence because you’re afraid of the company you’ll be keeping. That is normal. Do it anyway. Monasteries can be great locations for this, so can retreat centers. A campout will do and can be cheaper. Or borrow a kayak and spend 24 hours paddling and sleeping by the river. However you do it, the daily need to produce words can wear out the mind. Save some words up in your bank, go silent.
  1. Change your pattern. Patterns help life sustain itself. They also turn into ruts. Take an out-of-the-way path to work. Walk a mile to lunch. Listen to a new music style. Type in a famous artist’s name in google images and study the works. Go home at 3. It’s okay, you’ve already paid for it in spade up front. Come into work at 10am. Do both every once in a while. Balance is necessary of course and some pastors need the opposite advice. But those pastors rarely seem to be within reach of help. And they probably aren’t diligent enough to read this far in the article anyway. If you’re still reading, I bet you could use a pattern change. Pattern changes prompt creativity sparks. Creative spurts are often forced by placing familiar thoughts into new contexts and new connections emerge.
  1. Recommit to saying no to the less important. Most of us face competing claims on our time, attention, and energy. Take 30 minutes with a legal pad to think of some of the things you might need to limit or say no to. Here are some sample “no’s” or limits preachers have come up with lately:
  • No meetings Monday morning (or you fill in the time). “I am in the preaching study, or at home resting, or out of town.”
  • No more than 6 mentees at any time, no more than 6 months of mentoring without a break.
  • Only answer email twice a day: mid-morning and mid-afternoon. “Once I’ve answered I don’t go back to it. Staff know that if they truly need something sooner than that they need to text, or better: drop by.” Too many drop-by moments from the same staff member and my assistant starts to protect me.
  • Preach three times a month. “We have great staff pastors, we can afford to hear from someone else. I thrive in the weeks where I can write sermons without the pressure of preaching them.” (For those of you without staff, consider guest preachers or lay ministers).
  • I limit my hospital time. Unless I am asked to stay longer my rules are “be fully present, make meaningful conversation, ask to pray, keep it brief, then leave.”
  1. Schedule play. Most pastors I know live by the calendar they create. It rules their hour by hour life. Then, when work is done, they are ruled by their whims or wishes. Schedule time for your wood working or quilting, your sowing or fishing, your cycling or jogging, your guys/gals night out, a trip to the art museum or afternoon at the coffee shop reading a novel.
  1. Get together with people you admire. Anne Lamott says “I simply write down every brilliant things my friends say.” She says she’s not a brilliant writer, she just keeps brilliant company. There’s something admirable about that, even if it is a falsely humber exaggeration. I have a close friend who regularly asks me “when was the last time you had lunch or coffee with” and names a mentor or admired leader. If the answer’s too long in the past they pester me until I have it on the calendar. I have never once regretted following their heckling. I always come out more confident, richer in my person, with an abundance of ideas I want to pursue.
  1. Learn to say “enough.” Whether we want to admit it or not, we have to say enough eventually. Sermons eventually have to be good enough, they are never quite perfect. we could write a longer blog post. We could reach out to one more parishioner. We could schedule one more lunch with a wandering soul. We could spend another fifteen minutes in that visit. We could always do more. The question is not “can I do more” the question is “have I done enough?” I suggest that question should always and only be reserved for the Holy Spirit whenever possible. Ask when it is enough, listen in an attitude of surrender, and when the Spirit says it’s enough, let it be enough.

Resources:

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Leon_Lack/publication/6988772_A_brief_afternoon_nap_following_nocturnal_sleep_restriction_Which_nap_duration_is_most_recuperative/links/0c960520ad639b0e2d000000.pdf
  1. Martha Teater, MA, LMFT, LPC, LCAS, John Ludgate, PhD, Overcoming Compassion Fatigue: A Practical Resilience Workbook, PESI Publishing, 2014.
  1. Maslach, C. (1982). Understanding burnout: Definitional issues in analyzing a complex phenomenon. In W. S. Paine (Ed). Job Stress and Burnout (pp. 29-40). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publication.
  1. cNicol, Bruce, et al. The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2016.
  1. Katz, Renée S., Therese A. Johnson, and Therese G. Johnson, eds. When Professionals Weep: Emotional and Countertransference Responses in Palliative and End-of-life Care. Routledge, 2016.
  1. For designing a 24 hour Silence Retreat: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2013/01/personal-spiritual-retreat:-24-hours-with-god

On The Side: Physical Well-Being

header_imageI remember the first time I preached over 8000 feet above sea level. I am a passionate preacher and my challenge is to tone myself down, not ramp myself up. This seems to be even more true when I am in front of adolescents or young adults, which at that time in my life was every week. It was the first time I ran out of breath in a sermon. I had to pause, and breath. The clear lesson I learned was that my lungs were not up to the capacity required for the strain. I was in “good enough” shape. But I was not in good shape. I had gained 20 pounds in seven years. No one would likely notice the state, since I was a fence rail when I graduated college. Still, my trajectory was wrong. My exercise routine had gone from 5 days a week plus weekend adventures to 3 days a week without much adventure. During my heavy preaching season when I was preaching twenty times a month the 3 day a week routine almost completely went by the wayside. The real kicker was the emotional state the physical lack put into my life. Preaching seemed less meaningful. Questions about my call emerged that had not been there before. In spite of what should have been enjoyable and fulfilling ministry fruit, I was disheartened. Obviously things were out of balance.

Have you ever been somewhere similar? Have you stayed in that place for an extended time?

on-feeling-fit65% of the United States population is overweight. 21% aren’t just overweight they are obese. That’s a problem for the congregation. What about clergy? 71% of pastors are overweight and 30% of them are obese according to this study by Pew. It cannot be the donut hour and potluck practice alone. There is more at play and every pastor and preacher knows it.

When you preach in front of 500 people, some of them want to spend more time with you. 15 minutes after the service is not enough time to see them all. Emails and cell phones and social media all make the pastor more accessible to those larger-than-used-to-be-normal congregations. So, the result? They want to eat with you. I remember eating dinner at a parishioners home or restaurant with a parishioner every single night of the week one particular month in my ministry. We rebalanced and re-boundaried so that we at least got one night a week for our family and one night a week for rest. Still that’s 5 out of 7 nights eating at a level that is unusual for the parishioner we are with. They are rolling out the red carpet for their pastor after all, and they don’t do this every week. We do it every other day.

That is not all of the obesity-for-pastors equation. Emotions require management and our coping tool is often food. When our preaching is good it communicates to our congregation that we understand the difficulty of life in a fallen world. We even have hope to offer that is different than helps and hints for hurting people. We have truly good news. Our beloved church attenders also want to have conflict with us and have us help them settle their own conflicts. Congregants contact you for suicides and spiritual crises as well as vocation decisions and recovery from abuse.That means we bear more burden on average than pastors did in the 1950s when they were the least often diagnosed with any disease in any category. Now, pastors often struggle more than the rest of the population. Part of the reason for that is the increasing size of congregations and the resulting increasing burden for pastoral care or conflict management. Along with that increased burden, clergy status has decreased in society. The intangible support we receive has decreased.

No wonder many pastors show signs of addiction to food. Do not be too discouraged.  The General Social Survey at the University of Chicago consistently showed over 18 years that clergy were the single most satisfied profession in the country. We love what we do. It does take a toll though.

Happy young man breathing deep

Happy young man breathing deep

Obesity is just one marker of physical well being. Blood pressure, blood sugar, energy level, optimism, confident self-image and more are parts of it as well. Most of us should drink more water, take more reflective breaks during the day, take a walk after lunch, or push for a sabbatical or longer vacation.

I would hate to spend this entire article on the well being of the pastor moralizing you on why you should be better. You know what you need. The question is how? We’re preachers after all, that’s the question we are trained to ask.

  1. Can you remember a time when you were physically healthy? What did that feel like? (If you already feel as healthy as ever, then eat your granola and yogurt and go for a jog. This article isn’t for you. You’ll probably only get smug and self righteous reading it.) A negative motivation for getting healthy (losing weight, avoiding breathless spells, etc) is not the best motivation. These negative signs wake us up. They do not usually get us moving. Human beings change best, change longest, and enjoy the benefits the most when there is a positive motivation for change. Remember how it felt? Lock it into your mind.
  1. Imagine what life could be like if you were trimmer, fitter, healthier, and more energetic. This builds off of the first hopefully. If you can remember what it was like, you can imagine what it could be like. But if you say that as long as you can remember you haven’t been healthy, then you’ll have to work your imagination harder. Try using these questions to jump start you. How would your self-image change? How would your confidence in meetings, pastoral care, the pulpit change? What if you could actually enjoy eating healthy food, experience periods of “feasting” and celebration, and still be fit, trim, healthy, and more energetic?
  1. Is there an upcoming event for which you would like to feel that way? For some people it’s a vacation to the beach. For others it’s a hiking adventure or a camping trip. For you it might be a season, say the fall, or the holidays. I have often found great motivation in setting a deadline of an event or season by which time I will have that feeling in place that I have imagined. Not the waistline or the weight. Do not fixate on those externals. Fixate on the way of being: a healthier, trimmer, more energetic me who actually likes the lifestyle that got me there. Go ahead and set the deadline now if you like. When’s that vacation? That adventure? That life event? That season?
  1. Is there a person with whom you can share this dream? Social connections are the key to lasting change. We preach this, we know this. Yet pastors have a particularly difficult time finding core relationships that they can trust. That doesn’t mean we don’t need them, it means we work harder to get them. A spouse who will support you in the journey rather than eat crackers by you on the couch at night is helpful. A friend who will actually go the journey with you, and change their lifestyle too is even more helpful. Give each other a challenge with a benefit at the end if you meet it.

If you were able to get the relational support and inner motivation to regain a level of health and energy that you haven’t had for quite some time, it would affect everything including your preaching. Some of us would have more energy to play with our kids. Others would have more energy after work for our spouses. Others would pursue life dreams and adventures we thought were out of reach. But all of us would have more credibility to preach on issues we couldn’t preach about before. Hopefully we would preach with good news, that Jesus Christ and our abiding in him and Christian community is the best way to manage stress or negative emotions.

We could preach with gospel orientation that a healthy life can be a happy life and that is a holy thought. What’s stopping you?

On The Side: Preaching and Money

header_imageOver the next few months we will post a series of articles on Wesleyan Sermons that cover side issues to preaching. The series “On the Side” will cover money, health, compassion fatigue and more. Usually we cover topics like theory and method for more faithful and more effective preaching. We will still cover those with sermon reviews every other week.  We want to talk about the things that exist around preaching that effect preachers. After all, everything that affects a preacher eventually affects preaching. Today, let’s talk about money.

Actually to be more specific, let’s talk about the preacher’s money, her salary primarily.

Much of the data I want to share with you today comes from the 2016-2017 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff by Richard R. Hammar. Check it out sometime, it may help you feel more equipped to decide salary, budgets, compensation, benefits and everything else that goes into that, or to negotiate at your next yearly review with your own supervisor. My international friends I hope will forgive me for focusing on the North American conference. It is where I live, and the conference that sponsors this site.

Here are a few thoughts you might want to chew on that you already know:

1) The two biggest factors in changing a pastor’s pay package are church setting and worship attendance.

A pastor in a suburb of a large city makes 21% more than a pastor in a farm setting. Many will way that the cost of living is cheaper. But the reality is that a comparison of some random suburban settings versus farm towns reveals the following cost differences:

  • Groceries will cost 2% more
  • Housing will cost 8-14% less
  • Utilities will cost 6-8% less (unless it’s drafty)
  • Healthcare will cost 3% less

None of the major expenses costs 21% less, and groceries even ends up costing more. So there isn’t the same level of cost savings as salary decrease. As far as worship attendance goes for preaching, it may make sense. Some believe a larger church requires a sharper, more focused, more broadly appealing preacher to maintain a larger and more diverse church body than a smaller church. You could argue though that you need a better preacher to grow a small church than you do to only maintain a large church. You need a strong salmon to swim upstream. However, we feel about those factors, they are the facts. Larger churches and suburban churches in big cities pay the best.

2) Preaching pastors make more than non-preaching pastors.

Senior Pastors and Associate Pastors make significantly more than their colleagues in other areas. Part of the reason is preaching. Churches simply pay more for the people they hear from the most. Is preaching more important than Christian Education? Certainly not. That’s from a preaching pastor, guest preacher, and preaching professor. It’s simply not more important than the deep ongoing discipleship of the mind, heart and lives of church goers. Again, sticking to the facts it certainly pays more in North America.  Given that most people fear public speaking more than dying, maybe the emphasis is in the right place.

Youth pastors, whose ministry is more typically associated with preaching than children pastors, also make more. 20% more than children pastors on average. Part of that reason may be lack of ordination. Ordination always garners a higher average salary and many children pastors mistakenly avoid getting ordained. Preaching takes a toll, but on average the church compensates for that. The old wisdom is that one hour of preaching requires the same expenditure of energy as 8 hours in an office. If you preach half an hour in two services you’ve put in quite a full day. If we were worldly in our thinking, we would suggest that if you want to get paid more you should work on your preaching. Instead, the worker is worth her hire and preaching takes a toll…so we do not muzzle the ox.

3) The biggest difference in pastoral pay is the church’s revenue

If a church brings in under 250k per year the average base salary plus housing is $42,872. That is in keeping with the median single earner salary of the country.  Household income averages $55,775 which includes two-wage families (deptofnumbers.com/income/us). If a church brings in more than $1 million a year (something like 800 people on average in Sunday morning attendance) the average base salary plus housing is $71,999. It really did add up to “71,999” by the way, I didn’t monkey with that curiously sales-like fact. That’s a 67.9% increase in pay. If the church is increasing numerically, the pastor is increasing in income. If the church is shrinking, the pastor’s budget is decreasing on average. That is not a statement of value on our part from this site, simply a reporting of facts and trends.

Apparently we are not completely muzzling the oxen that is treading the grain. However, we might ask what happens if the oxen is treading just has hard as another oxen but the farmer doesn’t make as much (for any reason) should they get paid that much less?

Now here are two things you might not have known:

1) Education makes a huge pay difference.

The average senior pastor who gets a masters degree receives 12% more in total compensation than the average pastor with a bachelors. Read that again. If you don’t have your masters, think about what 12% would equate to. The average pastor with their doctorate (PhD or DMin is not divided in the study) makes 10.3% more than the masters. Doctorates typically cost less to receive than masters, especially the behemoth Master of Divinity degree versus the rather small Doctorate of Ministry degree. Perhaps this is a shameless plug for education. I don’t work for Wesley Seminary but they should thank me. I tell my own students who are finishing our Mdiv equivalent masters program that it was one of the best ministry decisions they ever made. A masters trained pastor is on-average better equipped and will therefore be better paid. More importantly, the goal is that they will better serve souls. And the cost of the degree will pay itself off in 2.5 years for the masters, 2 years for the doctorate if the church raises the salary accordingly (and we should). Feel free to print this for your board before, during, and after your degree.

Pastors used to be among the best educated persons in town. They were respected as such. We’ve lost something now that pastors are often among the lowest level of educated persons in town. There is great danger in allowing pastors to remain relatively uneducated. If pastors cannot tell Plato from play dough, or have an intelligent conversation about the difference between open theism and arminianism they should not expect to get paid as well as professionals who know their field.

2) Senior pastors take the biggest cut in tough times.

pay-cut-cartoonBetween 2013 and 2015 senior pastors took an average pay cut of $19,470. That’s a huge pay cut to any family budget. Associate Pastors took a $3,233 increase. That’s right, associate pastors took a pay raise while senior pastors took a massive pay cut. Other areas in the church budget weren’t necessarily increased. Full time administrative assistants took about a $400 cut during that period and worship pastors took about a $900 cut on average. Some of that may have been reduced hours in hourly positions. Now matter the reason for the reduction, all of that pales in comparison to the senior pastors who cut their pay by a significant percentage, and a big chunk of yearly change. While giving to charitable causes has increased, year-2013-giving to churches by percentage reached Great Depression levels. Who took the hit? Senior pastors.

Perhaps this is noble. The senior pastors look at their staff and make a tough call. They are the leader, they make the sacrifice (servant leader model.) Or perhaps they make a strategic call, the senior pastor has no desire to leave, but the staff might go elsewhere if their pay is cut. Who knows, but thank you to all you senior pastors who quietly told the board to cut your pay. Thank you from every staff person who doesn’t even realize that their pay raise or smaller pay cut was primarily funded by your personal pay.

Oxen thresh grain with hooves and men separate kernels from straw.

We need to ask questions about this though. Over time, preaching will continue to take it’s toll. The weekly production of content will continue to drain the soul. Have we allowed the oxen to muzzle itself? Should we do that? Is it best for the kingdom long haul? District superintendents, board chairs, and lay leaders of all stripes need to consider that question carefully. Maybe it is not in the church’s long term best interest to let pastors play the  martyr with their pay. How many of their children will play Jonah because they remembered Mom and Dad whispering tensely at the table about the “lower giving” and the need to “cut the family vacation again?”

I will leave those questions aside and talk to you, the preacher. You’re the one reading this and give some unsolicited advice.

1) Make preaching your priority growth goal.

Preaching is the central growth engine of the church. Evangelistic preaching that not only seeks to bring people to Christ, but train people in how to lead people to Christ is one of our primary roles. And actually, the church has let us know they will pay us more if we do it better (all other things equal). It is worth pouring your time into improving your preaching week by week…for the kingdom’s sake and your family’s finances sake. You might think that corrupts the character of preaching. I do not. Neither did Paul. He was happy with little, but he was also content with much. He was willing to be bi-vocational, but he stopped that immediately when the pay was sufficient to preach full time. I think good pay for growth of the kingdom actually puts the incentive in the right place. If more people are following Christ and giving generously as a result of a pastor’s labor we should pay her more. Does that mean the pastor may make more than the plumber or factory foreman who sits on the board? Perhaps. “Worthy of double honor” comes to mind. They may make less than the business person who sits right beside them. Should we tell the business person to make less money simply so they can be equal to the plumber? Of course not. Board members need to set their own personal egos and personal budgets to the side when they walk into the board room. If they cannot do that, they should step down from the board.

2) Find out what pay is reasonable, and accept it.

If you get the 2016-2017 compensation handbook you’ll be able to do a salary and compensation worksheet that looks at your church income, your church location, your church size, your (or your pastor’s) educational level, pastoral years of experience, and the pastoral position to decide on a reasonable salary scale. If you are the pastor in question, do not feel greedy for accepting it. They will need to replace you one day after all, and the budget should be built to do so. Do not feel underpaid if you are within it. It’s tempting to look wistfully at the boats, houses, cars, and clothes our wealthier congregation members have and think “it must be nice.” If we do that, contentment is leaking out of our souls. A worker is worth his hire, and you are worth a reasonable pay. However, do not keep seeking more than what is reasonable. Instead, work hard at what you have been given (Proverbs 12:11). Take joy in the work itself (Ecclesiastes. 3:22). Seek first the kingdom, and do not be surprised or resistant when all these other things get added back to you. Do not be too impatient when they have not yet been added back. We are citizens looking for another city.

For the Wesleyan-Arminian movement:

  1. Perhaps its time we put more reflection into how we set salaries. Should preaching senior pastors be allowed to play the martyr with their pay? Is that the right strategic move? Perhaps preachers need the church to protect them from themselves as well as from others.
  1. Giving is changing. Giving to charitable causes as a whole is up; giving to local churches is down. It’s a new day and we need to think carefully through how we should adjust our thinking and preaching about giving. Whatever preaching we are doing and discipling we are doing is not quite accomplishing the need: for regular faithful givers to support the ministry and work of the church for the sake of the world.
  1. In a denomination and movement whose population is increasingly served by staff churches rather than solo pastor churches (though we still have a beautiful army of those) a standard of pay and benefits might be a good idea. Though the averages work out, human beings do not live in averages. There are some churches who are taking advantage of young people by paying them well below the standard for their education, church size, position, and location. That’s an issue of injustice and local churches may need accountability to right the wrong.

These things may not be the heart of preaching, but they do deeply affect the preacher. And no matter what our theology of preaching may be, the state of the preacher affects the state of preaching.

You Can Learn a Lot from a Preacher

Lenny Luchetti

Dr. Lenny Luchetti

Dr. Lenny Luchetti presently serves as Associate Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University. He is responsible primarily for the development and teaching of the preaching courses the seminary offers. He is the author of Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide (May 2012), which has been honored by Outreach Magazine and Preaching Magazine as one of the best books on preaching in 2012-13.

The following article was originally published here. It’s the kind of article our readers love to get their hands on. Glean from the article, then go listen to the preachers.


 

 

Every preacher has at least one primary strength from which all preachers can glean. I have been preaching for more than 20 years and teaching preaching for more than 10 of those years. I love listening to preachers who hit the proverbial ball out of the park in key areas, especially in areas where I strike out or get singles. Here are 7 skills we can learn from 7 different preachers.

All of the following preachers have sermons that can be easily accessed on the internet.

  1. Andy Stanley and Conversational Delivery: Stanley breaks many of the old rhetorical rules. At times, he talks too fast, uses too many hand gestures, and doesn’t enunciate well. Yet, tens of thousands of people listen to him live and online each week. Why? Because he replicates in the preaching event what happens naturally in conversation. He seems natural, conversational and, as a result, authentic. In conversation we don’t always enunciate, we talk too fast when excited, and we get overly animated with our hands. So does Stanley and that’s one reason why people listen to him. Preach like you converse and listeners will feel like they are in dialogue with a real person not a plastic pulpiteer.
  1. Christine Caine

    Christine Caine

    Christine Caine and Passionate Testimony: Caine has grown in popularity as a preacher over the past decade, even in surprising circles where female preachers are not endorsed. Even naysayers sense the passionate conviction with which she preaches. She does not simply tell us about God, she tells us about her experiences with God. She sprinkles her powerful testimony into her sermons. But, she is careful to share her testimony in ways that help the listener know God, not her, better. Caine shares her story in a manner that helps listeners access their stories in light of the story of God as revealed in Scripture. Caine’s credibility and authority are anchored in her experience with God. The listener senses, “she walks with God.” Caine shows preachers how to be testimonial without being self-centered.

  1. Fred Craddock and Inductive Progression: Craddock was a pastor and teacher of preaching for more than half a century. He recently passed away but not before passing on a legacy for those who dare to preach. One of the main hallmarks of his preaching was his ability to replicate for listeners the journey of joyful discovery he experienced while preparing the sermon in his study. Craddock contended that too often preachers reverse what happened in the study by starting the sermon deductively. They begin with the bottom line discovery it took them a week to discern in the study. This makes the sermon dull and boring. The listeners are handed the main thrust of the sermon at the outset and they have no reason to listen beyond the sermon introduction. Craddock, as well as Jesus in his parables, taught us the art of the inductive sermon by taking listeners on a journey of joyful discovery. Sometimes Craddock would hold back the sermon focus and resolution until the last minute of the sermon. Craddock’s sermons moved toward the focus inductively instead of starting with the focus deductively and proving it.
  1. TD Jakes

    TD Jakes

    T.D. Jakes and Contextual Colloquialisms:  Jakes puts biblical concepts and narratives in the language of his people with power. He playfully connects the characters in the biblical text with contemporary images and situations. He is careful, when he does this, not to neglect the historical and literary context of the text. Instead, he contextualizes the exegetical realities of the text so that the world of the bible and the world of the listener are merged. So, Jakes might describe Moses as shedding his high-top Air Jordan sneakers because he is on holy ground. He might paint a picture of Pilate as a divorced politician coasting toward retirement. Jakes finds ways to contextualize biblical realities by using the colloquialisms of his people. He does this in ways that are faithful to the intent of the text and to the realities of his context.

  1. Steve Deneff and Itch-Eliciting: Steve is my pastor so I have the privilege of hearing him on a weekly basis. His sermon introductions are lengthy. He will use the first 10-15 minutes trying to expose and elicit an itch in listeners that we didn’t even know we had. He exposes our assumptions and debunks them. Steve recognizes that the sermon introduction must elicit an itch the listener will want to have scratched. If not, the listener might not listen. Steve knows his context. Most of the congregation consists of long time churchgoers, people who might assume we already know what we need to know and live how we need to live. Steve has to work extra hard in this context to help us feel an itch we didn’t even know needed to be scratched. He does this masterfully.
  1. Barbara Brown Taylor

    Barbara Brown Taylor

    Barbara Brown Taylor and Poetic Word-Smithing: There is no one alive who is better at stringing words together than Taylor. She weaves biblical exegesis into the sermon seamlessly without saying “look at my word study” or “check out the historical background of the text.” She is more subtle, more artful in her weaving of the “then and there” of the text with the “here and now” of her context. Taylor poetically words her sermons in a way that blurs the lines between the biblical world and our world, so that our story is caught up in the story of God. She is a manuscript preacher, so her delivery may not be charismatic enough for some. Her content, not her delivery, is her lead card. One gets the sense from listening to Taylor that she labors over every word to find just the right one to fit with all of the others. Listen carefully to the way she uses words to concretize concepts, to paint profound pictures.

  1. Eugene Lowry and Tension to Twist: Lowry is a genius at developing narrative tension in the sermon. And just as listeners are feeling the tension of the biblical text, Lowry will pull a fast one and offer a new twist on a familiar passage. Here’s an example. I heard him preach on the familiar Mary and Martha passage in Luke 10. What is typically preached from this text is the tension between serving and Sabbath, between doing and being, between busyness and stillness. Lowry starts there but then digs deeper to create a new tension and twist. He pulls a fast one by revealing that Mary is not to be commended merely because she sat still at the feet of Jesus but because she was counter-cultural. Mary took on the posture of a disciple, a role reserved for men alone in her culture. Martha stayed in the kitchen doing what women did in that day. Jesus commended Mary not Martha. Lowry used tension and twist to help us see this familiar biblical narrative in a new light.

What skills from the preachers above do you most need to adopt in your preaching today? These skills are not the ones we traditionally learn from a basic preaching course. They are advanced skills that come with experience and intentionality. Go online and check out the preachers who possess the skills you need to enhance your preaching.

Serving Christ with you,

Lenny Luchetti

Preaching Roundtable: Culture-Shaping Sermons

Sermons are culture-shaping events. As we craft church mission, vision, and values, it’s important to see how sermons shape churches and communities. To address the issue, we’ve assembled a panel of some of the best culture-shaping preachers we know: Gina Colburn, Lenny Luchetti, Amber Livermore, and David Drury. As you read the conversation, think of your own tips for culture-shaping preaching; join the dialogue by leaving your tips in the comments below

First, what ingredients cause a sermon to shape congregational and community culture? 

ginaGina: Here are a few key ingredients: Biblical truth, applicable instructions, and questions engaging the listener’s growth in faith. I also attempt to insert our local church vision and mission several times each month.

lennyLenny: The sermon has to say something of substance about God, his nature and/or his work. The primary ingredient that shapes the lives of listeners is not merely good advice about finances, dating, etc. People can get that from a talk show. The sermon must bring people face to face, heart to heart, with Christ. The preacher can be considered a theotokos. This term literally means “God-bearer” or “one who births God.” The preacher must birth Christ in sermon, so people encounter Christ and not just the preacher. Christ architects a cultural DNA that aligns with the values of His kingdom. This happens best when preaching faithfully makes God the hero of the sermon by proclaiming his nature and work.

But, the theological substance of the sermon must be contextually connected to the particular people we preach to. The preacher does this through metaphors, illustrations and applications that are most relevant to his/her context. What cultural values are most likely to supplant Christ’s values in the lives of your particular people? We must put the Gospel in a container that fits our particular preaching context. We must be relevant.

There are four types of sermons:

  • Theologically shallow and contextually irrelevant
  • Theologically substantive but contextually irrelevant
  • Theologically shallow but contextually relevant
  • Theologically substantive and contextually relevant (the preacher must aim for this mark).

amberAmber: Sermons which can change the culture of a community in a positive way exegete, both Scripture and the community; culture is only shaped when Scriptural truth is presented in a contextually-engaging way.

davidDavid: Abraham Lincoln was bored with many preachers who he considered cut and dried. He preferred preachers who “seemed to act like they were fighting bees.”

Which bees do my sermons swat? A sermon can have a cultural effect if I can tie the point of the passage, first, to the felt needs of those in my congregation and community. Next, I can apply the gospel truth with rich theological urgency that provides the solution to those felt needs (rather than just cultural commentary “Ain’t-it-Awful” preaching.) Finally, my sermon can tap into the power of the Holy Spirit in Christians to overcome these things, not merely escape them for an hour at church.

A sermon’s content can shape the culture; but without theological urgency, no one will know it could in the first place. This theological urgency can be infused into any sermon if we preach as Luther advised: “as if Jesus was crucified yesterday, rose from the dead today, and is returning tomorrow.”

  1. I’m glad we touched on culture and Biblical faithfulness, because much of our audience is concerned with both. How do you tell if you’re delivering culture-shaping preaching?

ginaGina: Most pastors ask, “Is my preaching making an impact on culture?” I measure this by first assessing a cultural shift within the church. Are people changing the way they think? Are they engaging on deeper levels in our mission? Is there life change? Cultural shifts don’t happen when people become apathetic; they occur when action and sincere desire for change results in reaching our communities.

Don’t just pastor your church; pastor your community. Build relationships with everyone you can. Be a lifelong learner. Be open to listening to what people are saying and doing around you. Don’t let your “ideas of what should be” cause you to miss what is actually happening.

lennyLenny: I am not ready to preach until I have a “word from the Lord” for the people to whom I preach. The way to receive that “word” is to listen with one ear to the heart of God through the biblical text and with the other ear to the hopes of humanity through pastoral ministry.

Once I’ve done the exegetical work of digging into the text’s literary and historical context, I prayerfully invite God to take the scalpel of his word to my life and do surgery. How dare I unleash the word of the Lord on others unless I have let his word have its way with me first!

Then, I listen to how the text intersects with my congregation, community, nation and world. I expend lots of energy in sermon preparation trying to discern how the word of the Lord intersects with the particular people to whom I preach. How will this word specifically challenge, comfort, correct, or convict them?

When I come away from wrestling with the angel of the text so that I’m limping, with Jacob, under the weight of a word from the Lord, I am ready to preach. The sermon’s development and delivery must flow out of a sacred love triangle that incorporates love for God, love for people and love for Scripture. The sermon is the consummation of these three loves.

amberAmber: Sermon-writing must be a process of deep listening to the Word, the Spirit, and the community. Any time I am struggling to listen to one of these voices, the sermon loses its culture-shaping power. If I do not listen to the Word carefully, the sermon has no authority. If I do not listen to the Spirit, the sermon loses its anointing. Therefore, listening prayer becomes an extremely important ingredient in the sermon-writing process. If I do not listen to the community, the sermon loses its contextual delivery. For this reason, seeking to know and understand our community culture is tremendously important.

davidDavid Drury: Some say one should preach with “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” But this clever preaching quip runs the risk (as Bonhoeffer bemoaned) of sermons “reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.” We should free the sermon from the parentheses. Perhaps we preach with the Bible in one hand and human nature in the other. Helpfully, human nature is not like a newspaper you subscribe to, it is in the very hand that holds the paper: yours.

In the newspaper, on television, on the Internet, and yes, in social media too, we find useful contemporary catalogs of sinful human nature wreaking havoc in our culture. With these in hand I do not ask: “What does the Bible have to say about current events?” Instead, I ask: “what do current events confirm about what Scripture tells us of human nature and sin?” As I prepare the sermon I ask, “What is the solution to that sinful human nature through Jesus Christ?” These are more theologically urgent questions than the banal treadmill of fabricated relevance.

In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson speaks about pastoral ministry being a subversive act. Sermons are an opportunity to subvert the dominant sinfully motivated culture of my church, and furthermore the same culture in my community. Then the sermon may spark two of the most critical tools of the Kingdom of God: subversive spiritual language and subversive biblical values.

Subversive spiritual language is made up of the shared terms and ways we describe our spiritual growth over and against cultural norms. Subversive biblical values are manifested in the stories we tell about how we made decisions with biblical wisdom and character in our everyday lives, rather than succumbing to sinful human nature. If you see these showing up in your church and surrounding community, your preaching has had a subversive Kingdom effect on the culture.

  1. So far, we’ve assumed culture-shaping matters. To shift directions a little bit: why should pastors worry about the cultural effect of their sermons?

ginaGina: Jesus came to change culture. At the core of His ministry was redeeming culture (people) back to him.  If we don’t care about culture, we don’t care about the people Jesus called us to reach. Our sermons should empower and engage people so they become involved in shifting culture.

lennyLenny: Preaching has produced various significant cultural movements. There are examples of people like Adolf Hitler, whose nationalistic preaching (that’s what it was) caused a movement of German people to seek the annihilation of non-Germans. Conversely, the Gospel preaching of MLK caused oppressed African Americans to seek the liberation they believed they already possessed in Christ. Preaching—not politics—got that ball rolling through the church and into culture.

Hitler preached towards cultural oppression. MLK preached towards cultural liberation. What we say from “the pulpit” (or music stand) in the context of Christian worship can lead to oppression or liberation, bondage or blessing. Your preaching can start a movement, and it should. Let’s make sure our movement preaches the values of a king not of this world, born to peasant Jews in Podunk, to redeem and restore what was lost in the Fall.

amberAmber: If sermons do not shape a faith community’s culture, they fall short of proclaiming the full power of God. God desires to speak to His people corporately through preaching and call them to communal transformation. Individual transformation is much more sustainable within a transforming culture. A sermon, then, becomes a powerful tool of speaking new vision and direction over a people, encouraging the kind of kingdom culture shifts needed for God’s work to be accomplished in new ways in that community.

davidDavid Drury: I should pay most attention to the difference my sermons have on my congregational culture. The best hermeneutic of the gospel, of course, is a congregation.[1] Preaching is not a solo sport. In the end what matters is not my preaching, but my preaching-in-community.

Unfortunately, most pastors face a spiritually oppressive culture within the church, as much or more so than a persecuting culture from outside of it. Some reading this might be discouraged these days, thinking their congregation right now is just about the worst hermeneutic of the gospel, not the best. Be encouraged. If one faithfully subverts the culture of their church and turns its language and values toward Kingdom language and values, it will transform the community around it in time. Community transformation is the mission of God. We join in proclaiming the Word, and the church is his tool in that mission, with our preaching embedded in it as a sort of voice box in the body of Christ.

When speaking of his style of preaching, Billy Sunday reflected, “They tell me that I rub the fur the wrong way.” Billy wasn’t all that worried about this accusation of his subversive preaching—and we shouldn’t be either. It might be the best criticism we ever receive. When told his preaching rubbed the wrong way, Billy mused, “I don’t rub the wrong way; let the cat turn around.” I hope the cats your preaching rubs the wrong way this Sunday start turning around.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin makes this lesson essential for preachers in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.


About the Panelists:

davidDavid Drury is the author of eight books including Transforming Presence, Being Dad, and SoulShift. He serves as the chief of staff for The Wesleyan Church international headquarters.

lennyLenny Luchetti is the professor of proclamation at Wesley Seminary, a graduate school of Indiana Wesleyan University. He also writes articles and books to equip and inspire the church and her leaders.

ginaGina Colburn is the lead pastor at Trinity Wesleyan Church in Allentown, PA. A 2011 graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University, Gina’s expertise in communication has been honed through her experience in children’s ministry, and nonprofit work.

amberAmber Livermore is a Global Partners missionary in New Zealand. Amber trains and develops young leaders to influence their communities for Christ—helping lead and organize regional/national youth events, as well.


Ethan Linder is a staff writer for wesleyansermons.com. A fresh graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University, Ethan and his wife Sarah currently live in Marion, Indiana–where Ethan is College Pastor at College Wesleyan Church, and Sarah is a teacher. When he’s not writing, Ethan enjoys reading, listening to music, studying cultures, running, and following the Philadelphia Phillies.

Find Your Strength of Character for Preaching

  1. Do people tell you they feel like you read their journals?
  2. Have you had people tell you that you are a healing presence in the pulpit?
  3. Do you gravitate toward psychology as a helping discipline more than other schools of thought?
  4. Do you naturally think of the pain people are going through as a primary motive for preaching?
  5. Have you preached on grieving, suffering, or pain as a primary preaching theme this month?
  6. Would you rather consider yourself compassionate than passionate?
  7. Do you gravitate more toward Ephesians than Hebrews?

If you answered yes to 5 or more of the above questions empathy may be one of your greatest strengths in preaching.

  1. Do people tell you that they love your vulnerablitiy in the pulpit?
  2. Do others tell you your brokenness is one of your best qualities?
  3. Do you gravitate toward exegesis more than topical preaching because it helps you find something to say?
  4. Do you naturally think of the ways this passage confronts and challenges you before you think of how it might preach?
  5. Do you gravitate more toward Proverbs and Philippians more than 1 and 2 Kings or Romans?
  6. Are you surprised when numerous people respond physically, visually, or verbally to your preaching?
  7. Have you been told that your tone is easy to listen to and that you do not “talk down” to people?

If you answered yes to 5 or more of the above questions humility  may be one of your greatest strengths in preaching.

  1. Do you have a few burning concerns about unfairness in the world that you want to see changed?
  2. Have you been called a “prophetic voice” for your preaching in your community or broader ministry?
  3. Do you gravitate more toward James or the prophets than the Pentateuch or Galatians?
  4. Are there issues about which you feel you just cannot be silent in the pulpit and be true to yourself?
  5. Have you preached on racism, sexism, materialism, sex trafficking, or immigration in the last month?
  6. Do you serve on the board of a ministry to the poor or oppressed or regularly volunteer in one of those ministries?
  7. Do you feel that action is more important than words and that your actions are your best sermons?

If you answered yes to 5 or more of the above questions justice may be one of your greatest strengths in preaching.

  1. Do you feel that you have gathered many insights and ways of living over the years that you want to share with your congregation so they can live better lives?
  2. Have you been told you are mature for your age, have more knowledge than your years should allow, or that you are a trusted source of counsel in a way that surprises you?
  3. Do you naturally gravitate toward Proverbs, Romans, or James more than the Gospels or Psalms?
  4. Is cutting down your sermons more of a challenge than filling the time? Even before you add stories and illustrations?
  5. Has someone said that the “light bulb finally came on” for them after hearing one of your sermons on a difficult topic?
  6. Do you prefer reading Andy Stanley or John Kotter to Henri Nouwen or Mother Theresa?
  7. Do you find mentoring and coaching to be rather stress free but counseling others to be difficult and frustrating?

If you answered yes to 5 or more of the above questions wisdom may be one of your greatest strengths in preaching.

These strengths are not the kind of strengths you find in the secular model of the Strengths Quest, as helpful as that is. They also are not performative strengths exactly though some elements of performance can be of benefit. They are strengths of personhood. They are parts of our character as preachers. Each of them should play a role in every preacher’s life. But not preacher will be the perfect model of all preaching virtues. So think on these things:

  1. Growing your strengths is almost always more productive than trying to turn weaknesses into strengths. How can you emphasize the area of your greatest strength and bring others around you in the pulpit who complement you rather than clone you?
  2. Weaknesses that are too weak are like flies in the ointment, it damages the whole. Consider creating a targeted growth plan for the weakest of the three for you for the coming year.

Now read below for some next steps to grow your particular area of strength and minimize the downfalls of the strength:

Senior and young holding handsEmpathy: Empathic preachers really deliver well on topics related to therapeutic needs, personal growth, and human relationships. Be careful not to avoid the difficult theological work that needs done for counsel and healing to be truly Christian. The gospel is a healing power, but it is not self-help. Lean on others around you to press you to think more carefully theologically and to submit yourself to the teaching of doctrine not just the insights from psychology.

Humility: Humble preachers really deliver well on topics related to conviction, sin, and flaws of character. Be careful that your humility not turn to shame, otherwise you may put too heavy an expectation on yourself and your listeners as a result. Gospel, gospel, gospel people do not guilt them. Lean on people around you for the empathy to know when you are expecting too much, and the wisdom to know the difference between shame and conviction.

Wisdom: Wise preachers really deliver well on topics related to living well, discernment, difficult situations, leadership, doctrine, and finance. Be careful to remember that people do not always have the easiest time doing the wisest thing. Personal baggage, wounds, self doubt and more can cause a person to act against wisdom. Wisdom alone does not always win the day. Lean on people around you for the humility and empathy to realize that what motivates you does not motivate the average person.

justiceJustice: Prophetic preachers deliver well on topics related to social justice, oppression, greed, sexism, racism, or other prejudices. Be careful the fire of your passion does not leap the bounds and become a prairie fire of anger. Anger pushes people away, passion draws people in. Lean on those around you to help you discern when your sense of justice lacks compassion for the one in power or privilege. Also be ware that your passion areas may blind you to your own lack of just living. Also lean on those who are wise in the ways of the world to help you find strategic steps from the real toward the ideal.


© David B Ward, 2015