Preaching is powerful. It reaches into our souls and speaks to every human emotion when it is going well. Though this will not be true of every preaching ministry some preachers avoid touching on grief and despair except for in funeral sermons. Perhaps this is because the preacher faces enough grief and despair week to week that they want to uplift and encourage instead. Compassion fatigue can so wear down a preacher that even discussing grief is too much for them to bear again. For other preachers a level of fear of getting it wrong or a lack of comfort in talking about these topics drives the dodging of lament. Others simply want to lead their congregations in optimistic faith, in triumphant hope, and make church an experience of celebration first and foremost. Whatever the reason may be, avoiding the breadth of human emotions can create a gulf between the preacher and the congregation.
The problem is partly one of approach. Preachers often offer sermons focused on future hope, which address a deep spiritual need, but is not holistic. There is a serious need for hope that is focused in the present. The world we live in creates an environment of despair, and preachers must offer hope of God’s present hope and love, in addition to future oriented hope. Preaching focused on hope centered on God’s presence in the midst of suffering addresses the immediate need of individuals’ suffering.
A second common mistake for preachers is inadequately addressing the normality of human emotions and their roots. Hope-centered preaching should not rush to optimism without adequately addressing pain. Preaching that ignores or merely mentions suffering inadequately is unfaithful to the biblical witness and can even be harmful if it is the pattern week after week. If preachers refuse to process grief and despair from the pulpit, then hope is robbed of its fullest expression. Hope without lament after all is in danger of being labeled naïve or out of touch. Of course, no preacher should ever drive his or her church to hopelessness, but frequently congregants are already in the valley. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, PTSD, or a child addicted to drugs are all common situations that need to be addressed. Preaching must meet people where they are. Congregants need to be more than just heard and understood from the pulpit, they need to have their experiences and struggles expressed. Preaching is effective when congregants feel that they and their problems are understood because being heard and understood by someone who also gives voice to their struggles meets spiritual and psychological needs that can provide hope in the present.
Lament, anger, and despair are all natural emotions. Some traditions of preaching tend to imply that we should not feel them even if it is not said explicitly. This creates a stark double standard of emotional expectations and a false dichotomy of faith. Rarely addressing these human emotions from the pulpit subconsciously invalidates their existence and creates an existential conflict between the body and soul. Moreover, it ignores the holistic biblical witness. Jesus wept at the loss of a loved one (John 11:35). He became angry with the money-changers (Matt 21:12). Jesus fell into despair on the cross when he felt forsaken by God (Matt 27:46). He lamented over the fate of Jerusalem (Matt 23:37). The life of Christ validates our feelings and reveals the need to address them. The powerful emotions of grief, anger, loss, discouragement, frustration, and even disillusionment can be seen as normal experience for faithful humans. Instead of seeking control over them or treating them as problems, what if we validated and guided these emotions? It takes more faith to remain steadfast in the midst of enduring pain than ignoring or denying that pain exists. In order for preaching to reach people, it must practically address what they are feeling. Christ, as fully God and fully human, understands our emotions and connects with us on a personal level, as preaching should.
Often preachers rely on the arch of God’s redemptive plan to offer hope. Comments like “this too will pass,” “it will all be worked out when we get to heaven,” and “God has a plan” are helpful for reflecting on suffering in the long run, but they do little to address immediate needs. All of these comments are solution-oriented. They imagine a time in which the problem and pain no longer exist, but in the meantime, the problem still exists. Surely preaching can offer something more than the imperative to wait to those in pain? In order to address the immediate needs, preaching should be problem oriented too. Problem oriented preaching seriously admits the reality of pain and authentically processes emotions. If the pulpit abdicates its role in addressing pain, preachers cannot expect to meet the congregation’s needs. I am not advocating for less hope but for hope that balances the redemption to come with God’s presence now. God is present with us within suffering, not just at the end of suffering. God has something for us in the middle of pain and loss, not just “someday.”
Preachers and their sermons must be “non-anxious.” A non-anxious presence is the ability to explore, process, and empathize without becoming anxious.[i] Being a non-anxious presence requires self-awareness and reliance on God. It has the faith to maintain calm in the midst of storms and to guide others through the storm without waving the existence of the storm away. Christ can say “Peace be still” and the storm ceases. Preachers do not have this power. In many ways we preach to those who, like it or not, will have to ride out a storm, sometimes to the bitter end.
What is it about the 23rd Psalm that speaks to us in times of distress? The psalm does not promise that we will never face difficult times; the psalm does not even promise that difficult times will end. So, how is it that in the valley of the shadow of death someone could find comfort? The answer is simply “I will fear no evil for you are with me” (Ps 23:4 emphasis added). The most comforting passage of scripture offers solace because it promises God’s presence, even in the midst of suffering and despair. Pain and suffering are real, are a normal part of the human experience, and their effects are potent. The psalm promises that in the midst of despair and darkness we are not alone; it is hope for the present that acknowledges pain. God’s presence is hope that can always be offered.
The seriousness and depth of the traumas we face cannot be fully explored in a sermon. A sermon cannot replace pastoral counseling even when the primary focus is appropriately pastoral care. I remember two specific times when the sermon’s main focus was pastoral care—the Sunday after 9/11 and the chapel following the suicide of a college classmate. The collective needs of the community were so great in each of these situations that doing anything but address the trauma would have been harmful. In these times, the homiletical task is not to solve or fix trauma. The task is to address the pain and offer hope, hope that is here now and hope that is to come. If congregants feel that the preacher understands them and is able to address their spiritual needs, they are more likely to seek pastoral counseling.[ii] The light of hope is brightest when it shines despite the darkness of despair, not merely at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Until preaching addresses the present need for hope rooted in God’s presence and grapples with the breadth of human emotions, a congregation’s needs will not be met. People have the need to be heard and understood. Preaching can address that need by exploring and validating negative emotions explicitly and in depth before hastening to hope. Sally Brown and Luke Powery say that “preachers are those who dare to dance on the graves of despair.”[iii] Dancing prematurely is offensive. Suggesting others dance without grieving or lamenting is counter productive. We dare to dance because we know the faithfulness of God’s presence in the present. Preachers can better understand their role by becoming more comfortable with emotions, especially their own as it comes to death, loss, meaninglessness, and other forms of despair. When a person has been heard and understood, they are more receptive to hope and aware of God’s love. Articulating that hearing and understanding takes practice and careful forethought. At times what not to say in relation to grief and loss is as important as what to say.
Preaching is always contextual, and our hope-centered preaching needs to attend to that context. Each congregation is unique with distinctive needs. Leonora Tisdale convincingly argues that preachers have the task of exegeting scripture and their congregations. This means that preachers need to study their congregations. She reminds her readers that the central message of the Gospel always remains the same, but the identity and needs of the congregation should impact the message. Preachers need to consider how race, ethnicity, gender, age,[iv] and the emotional needs of the congregation impact the sermons receptiveness, timeliness, and appropriateness.
Preachers can choose to speak of life in ideals, of the life as it ought to be or will be one day. Sometimes that is exactly what needs to be said; on the other hand, we must speak of life as it is. With all its struggles and adversities, rooted in the reality of the world we live in. The Bible offers a holistic message to body, mind, and soul; thus, preaching should do the same. When death and suffering are ignored or understated, our people are ill-equipped when they come.
By Scott Donahue-Martens
Questions for you to ponder:
[i] Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family process in Church and Synagogue, (New York: Guilford Press, 2011).
[ii] Preachers must be careful not to break confidentiality or make a public display of another’s pain.
[iii] Brown, Sally A., and Luke A. Powery, Ways of the Word: Learning to Preach for your Time and Place, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), x.
[iv] Leonora T. Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 1997.
From time to time we include book reviews of new preaching resources on Wesleyan Sermons. Scott Donahue, a Wesleyan Master of Divinity student at Princeton Theological Seminary, has offered the below review on a new work by Dr. Sally Brown and Dr. Luke Powery. I recently led a panel reviewing their work at the Academy of Homiletics and was thrilled at the spiritually formative nature of the book. Scott is right, far too many preaching texts assume such central practices as prayer when considering the task of preaching. This work speaks a needed prophetic word in that direction and others. I not only join Scott in recommending the work, I have put it on my required reading list for masters students in the School of Theology and Ministry. I hope you will pick up a copy. ~ Dave Ward
Book Review of:
Ways of the Word: Learning to Preach for Your Time and Place by Sally A. Brown and Luke A. Powery
Sally Brown and Luke Powery combine their diverse and immense homiletical expertise in Ways of the Word: Learning to Preach for Your Time and Place. Both authors are professors at well-respected institutions (Duke University and Princeton Theological Seminary) and have years of practical preaching experience. Powery grew up in a Pilgrim Holiness congregation and then worked in multiple theological traditions. Brown was formed in and teaches in primarily Reformed contexts. By writing from their shared and distinct perspectives, the book is intentionally ecumenical and offers diverse perspectives. Their goal in writing together was to be informed from multiple vantage points across ages, genders, ethnicities, and denominations. Each writer contributed individual chapters, while offering comments within the chapters that they did not write. Rather than argue for one particular method, form, and theory, the authors describe the best practices in each area and contend that preachers need to be well versed to be effective over time.
The first two chapters are devoted to understanding the Holy Spirit’s role in preaching. The authors contend that preaching is primarily driven by the Holy Spirit. Wesleyans should find the Spirit centered approach refreshing and congruent with our theological world view, in addition to appreciating the Christocentric method. The dynamic approach to preaching is summed up by their assertion that preaching “is more verb than noun.” That is, the sermon and the response to it are fundamentally dynamic. The authors balance the spiritual aspects of preaching by discussing the human elements of preaching, such as rhetoric. Effective preaching is a combination of the Spirit’s presence, faithfulness to the Word, and effective communication.
Chapter three reveals the importance of prayer in every part of the sermon practice. The internal work of prayer, study, and preparation are crucial to effective preaching. Along with these weekly practices, specifically set aside for preaching, is the preacher’s character. The congregation must trust the preacher and in order for there to be trust, they should witness the preacher’s character outside of the pulpit. Just as parishioners listen and respond to the words of a sermon, the preacher must listen and respond to the Word through prayer. The focus on prayer is an excellent addition to a preaching text, because despite prayer’s integral role in the sermon process, it is often neglected or underrepresented.
The fourth chapter highlights preaching as a form of worship and a spiritual practice. A goal of worship is to uncover God’s redemptive work in our world and give thanks. To that end, preaching must touch the mind and hearts of believers. Preaching cannot be purely cognitive (of the mind) because effective preaching not only educates but calls for a response. Holistic preaching reaches body, soul, and mind. The chapter contains a brief sketch of worship in the Bible and in Christian history in order to understand the modern centrality of preaching as worship. Brown challenges the reader to reflect on the purpose of worship and how sermons can contribute to worship. The notion is challenging because the reverse is often practiced. Preachers tend to think that worship enhances the sermon, as opposed to the sermon enhancing worship. Her corrective is welcome and necessary.
In chapters five and six the authors write about the preacher as interpreter of life and of scripture. The task of preaching calls for engagement with Holy Scripture and our 21st century lives. Brown’s emphasis on being specific to the needs of the individual congregation is well received, even though it means more work and intentionality for the preacher. The chapters on hermeneutics, how humans interpret, are the most technical and complex in the book. Yet, the chapters offer great insight and balance the rigor with illustrative material. For some, the specific discussion and implications may seem too academic, but those looking for homiletical theory to better understand the practice of preaching will not be disappointed.
The book touches on familiar ground with Powery’s utilization of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as an approach to good hermeneutics. Beyond using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as lenses through which the preacher sees the world, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral informs and gives depth to sermons. It also asks the preacher to consider the experiences and traditions of the local community they are preaching, in addition to reflecting on the preacher’s own experiences and contexts that are brought public because of the privilege of the pulpit. In other words, how do our race, ethnicity, gender, class, and age influence the message we preach? Ways of the Word assists the reader in becoming more self-aware so that the Holy Spirit can intentionally utilize our experience for the betterment of the congregation.
Chapter seven describes deductive and inductive sermon forms, which is technical and advanced. The chapter provides an excellent framework for the novice or experienced reader. Along with other chapters, chapter seven is best grasped by the preacher willing to reflect on his or her own style. In order to grow, preachers should keep Ways of the Word in one hand, copies of their sermons in the other, and their congregation in mind. The book provides the necessary tools and frameworks for comprehensive growth but such growth takes intentionality and time.
The eighth chapter provides practical advice and reflection on the preacher’s body in the pulpit including voice, tone, gestures, and stance. Chapter nine offers a reflection on the use of technology in preaching. Both of these practical chapters contain theological rationale and insights into their topics. The final chapter pushes preachers to think about the stages of faith within their congregation. The needs of a new Christian are different from the needs of an unbeliever or a lifelong believer. The chapter contains ten useful strategies to preaching that enable Christian formation. Each has merit and when used appropriately enhances the preacher and sermons.
The book explores preaching in the context of the 21st century, both secular and ecclesial. One of the strengths of Ways of the Word is its synthesis and readability of modern homiletical theory. The authors utilize a variety of sources and often give comprehensive lists that help readers better understand their own views, while introducing them to the greater homiletical milieu. Each chapter ends with questions for reflection, methods of growth, and a list of sources for further reading. The book contains elements of Reformed theology and non-Wesleyan views, yet the purpose is not to indoctrinate but to expand. In fact, I find some of the Reformed comments and approaches to be an effective challenge to preaching that reduces faith to moral pietism and the “do more” mentality. One of the main benefits a Wesleyan pastor would receive from this book is its diverse perspective that invites the reader to think cross-denominationally about the most effective preaching practices and methods.
I would recommend this text to those who want to increase their existing knowledge of preaching. Brown and Powery offer an advanced preaching text that balances homiletical theory with preaching practice. The frameworks given are coupled with practical implications such that the reader will discover himself or herself within the text and uncover tools to enhance his or her preaching. The book does not offer simple steps to better preaching or easy correctives to poor preaching. Ways of the Word is driven by its strong content and desire to expand its reader’s knowledge. Wesleyan preachers would likely find themselves in the pages of the book and leave with a greater sense of self-awareness, a better understanding of why they preach a certain way, and methodologies to improve systematically.
Preachers 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:
Do not forget that your greatest sermon may be the one you preach “on the side.”
Preacher: Kathy Resel-Chambliss
Sermon Title: “Full or Flat”
Original Sermon Link: here
Pastor Kathy Resel-Chambliss is the Awaken Pastor at Kentwood Community Church. She preached a sermon recently as a part of their series called “Momentum,” which focused on the early church in the book of Acts. She is a pastor who preaches with practical, passionate clarity.
1) Pastor Kathy brings us into the Scriptural journey. The transition from introduction to scripture reading is a familiar one to free church traditions like ours. Many traditions have the scripture read before the sermon. There are plenty of Wesleyan churches who follow that liturgical pattern. The average church however includes the scripture reading within the sermon with standard words indicating that moment like these: “If you have your phone or your bible with you, go ahead and pull that out. Our reading today is found in _______.”
The pastor in that moment has implicitly invited the congregation to join the reading of the Word, but Pastor Kathy takes the extra step and makes the invitation explicit. “Won’t you join me?” she asks. Then three times throughout the rest of the sermon when she returns to the text, each time she uses the same commanding word— “listen.” She draws us in to the journey and then asks us to stay with her as she moves through the text. Many congregations desire a sermon that not only preaches something that is biblical, but shows them the connections with the text the preacher is making. Looping back to scripture multiple times both increases the preacher’s authority and models the preacher’s hermeneutic.
2) Pastor Kathy draws us into the capital “C” Church. The Gospel is more than about what the individual can get out of it, and it is even more than about what is happening in our own church. It is helpful , even necessary to remind our people week-by-week that the Church is much bigger than our immediate context. We have brothers and sisters in the faith all over the world who are living for Christ, many of whom are persecuted for their faith, as in Pastor Kathy’s story. A gospel that does not keep the world in view is a gospel that is out of perspective. Certainly one of the most common themes of the New Testament is the use of spiritual authority to remind the church of Christians suffering in other places and cultures
3) This sermon is visual, intellectual, and emotional — One of the ways pastor Kathy accomplishes this is with contrasts so common to good preaching: good and evil, light and dark, holy and unholy. If we are not careful to make those contrasts clear and explicitly, they become hard to see and apply in our day-to-day lives. Pastor Kathy does a great job of making the contrast between “full and flat” very clear. She does this in three ways: she tells a story about her bike, in which we feel for her the contrast between riding with full tires and flat tires. As a visual tool, she places two boards on opposite sides of the stage, one saying “flat” and one saying “full.” She then outlines descriptors of these two ideas and puts them in her sermon notes for all to see from the screen (another visual tool), and she points out the contrast between full and flat characters in the biblical text. She’s helped us understand this with our eyes, with our emotions, and with our intellect.
So what can we do to give our sermons this practical, passionate clarity that she exhibits?
Watch your “This is the Word” words.
If you’ve been in ministry for a little while, maybe you’ve settled into a bit of a rhythm with the words you say when it comes time to read Scripture. Many pastors settle on a certain phrase that they may change a little bit from week to week but stays primarily the same. There’s nothing wrong with having rhythms;. Still if you do say the same words from week to week, make them intentional. Whether you realize it or not, you are theologically shaping your congregation’s minds in regard to the corporate reading of the Word by the words you choose to say in those moments. Make them purposeful. Take time out of your sermon prep this week to craft that phrase.
How do you connect your church to the global Church?
Perhaps your church is well connected to the global Church and other churches in the community; perhaps this is an area where you have a lot of room to grow. Regardless of where you are at on that spectrum, ask yourself this question: how, in this preaching series, can I connect our church to the global Church that has spanned two thousand years and is in so many corners of today’s world? Can I connect what we’re discussing to another period in Church history? Can I tell a story about something another church is doing really well to spur my people on to good deeds?
In your next sermon’s key content, how will you deliver it in ways that make sense for the emotions, the intellect, and the eyes?
Remember that old writing adage? Perhaps you learned it in school. “Show, don’t tell.” Show your people what good is. Show them what evil is, do not just tell them. Make it imagistic so they can see it, put in in stories so they can feel it, and understand it. Talk about what it looks like for someone to live in goodness and to live in wickedness. Write it. Sing it. Display it. Narrate it. In doing this, you are not beating a dead horse. Instead, you are conveying contrast from Scripture in a variety of ways so that their whole person can understand— their eyes, their intellect, and their emotions.
A 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.
Doug 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.
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
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.
Preaching 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.
Here’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:
I 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?
65% 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.
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.
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?