(NOTE: This post is part of a series of posts I’ve been doing over the past few months reflecting on what I’ve learned over the course of 10 years of preaching… hope you’ve enjoyed them!)
If you do all of the things I’ve recommended in the previous posts, chances are you’re going to have the beginnings of a preaching ministry that has some potency. This potency will be due on the one hand to the clarity, precision, and focus of your content. It will be due, on the other hand, to the quality of earthiness and authenticity you bring to the table each week–a disciple relating to other disciples the challenge and promise of following Jesus.
This “earthiness”, as I have called it, is an indispensable element to your ministry among the people of God. No one benefits from having a preacher whose stoic presence each week makes one wonder whether or not they personally have been touched by this stuff. We are not called to stand up and simply recite the lines of our favorite systematic theology or biblical commentary. The Word is living. For disciples of Jesus, as that Word lives and moves and shapes us, it will (or should, anyway) be evident to those watching our lives–and no one’s life in the community is more on display than the preacher’s. Our transparency about that process has a powerful function in the lives of the people we minister to–among other things, it gives them permission to themselves be a people “under construction”, as it were, yet-to-be-finished masterpieces under the wise governance of the life-giving Spirit of God. All of this is at it should be.
Nevertheless, as anyone who has grappled with the call to preach for any length of time knows, this call to earthiness, authenticity, and transparency about our own process carries with it a hidden peril. A friend of mine, in describing why he, for a time, was stepping back from pulpit ministry, stated it like this:
I can’t quite separate what God is doing with me personally and what He is speaking to us as a congregation. I feel like I’m shedding a bunch of theological misconceptions and stuff I’ve just believed as believe-ism as opposed to a grounded faith. I guess you’d call it a sort of deconstruction simultaneous with a reconstruction…but [I realize] then that might be quite jarring for a community…Is there no difference between the personal journey of the preacher and the communal journey?
That right there, the question of the relationship between the personal journey of the preacher and the communal journey, is precisely the peril I am talking about–the peril of the preacher’s own “self” being insufficiently differentiated from that of the congregation, with the result that the communal journey and the personal journey of the preacher are one and the same.
This can happen on two fronts:
The Theological. From my where I stand, it seems that this struggle has been most pronounced in recent years among those feeling the Spirit’s call for them to emerge from the extremely narrow, sectarian, and often fundamentalist or conservative ways of thinking in which their faith was reared and into the breadth of the faith of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, as the Creed declares. The struggle here is very real, as we begin to come to grips with alternative vantage points from within orthodoxy–vantage points that challenge our own prejudices and assumptions–we long for the congregation to experience the same beautiful disequilibrium that we are experiencing, knowing its power to bring about transformation.
This longing for the congregation is well and good; it is part and parcel, I would argue, of the pastoral task–the task of bringing the people of God out of their enclaves and into the shared faith of the global Church. The problems start to occur when we either (a) fail to appreciate the length of time it may take most of the folks in our congregation to catch up to what we’ve seen, (b) fail to appreciate the reality of the traditions and structures we’re laboring within, thus dishonoring the “house” in an attempt to help people, (c) begin to obsess over our own newest pet doctrine or issue within Christianity, thus imbalancing the congregation’s “diet” as it were, and finally (d) in our zeal foolishly lead our congregations to swap one ideology for another.
One of the worst mistakes I ever made as a preacher was preaching a sermon on the call to make peace to a more or less conservative, Bible-belt church I was serving at in Oklahoma. At the time, I had been reading a lot of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, and was really grappling with the biblical and theological case for nonviolence. That journey was so very real and fresh for me, that I felt compelled in this message to say something about it. I wanted to challenge the congregation to see that even if the case for absolute nonviolence was a contested one in the Church (as it is), even so, the call of Christ to make peace, to absorb blows rather than inflict them, and to forgive our enemies, was so very powerful that it must continually challenge our fear and hatred of “the other”, leading us to become a prophetic voice in a world so massively torn and conflicted.
A good impulse, no doubt. The problem, among other things, was my total lack of pastoral sensitivity. Instead of simply laying the richness of the call of Christ to each one of us at the feet of the congregation, I foolishly abstracted that call into the ideology of nonviolence, and then proceeded to lay that at the feet of the congregation (a congregation, I should note, full of veterans and families of veterans). Why did I do that? Because I was personally wrestling with nonviolence and decided to use the pulpit as an opportunity to work it out. Bad move. The brew ha ha that ensued over the next few days told the tale, and even though I was tempted at the time to simply write off those whom I had offended, the truth is that they were helping me straighten out my course as a preacher–I am not tasked with lobbing abstractions at people and trying to get them to adopt those abstractions as their own. I am called to help each one hear and respond to the call of Jesus in their own lives. If I personally am wrestling with lofty ideas like “pacifism”, I had better make sure that if that journey makes its appearance in the pulpit, it is positioned as a journey and handled with great care–something that in my youthful zeal I did not do.
The “Existential”. I call it this because I really can’t think of what else to call it. What I’m talking about here is the depth of pain and anguish that you are going through in your personal life. It may be you wrestling through offense. It may be frustrations within your family or circle of friends. It may be your feelings of doubt or lack of faith in God. It may be you beginning to come to grips with how your having been abused as a child or a teenager is influencing your behavior and choices, and starting to slough it off. It could be any number of things.
I want to say here again that this impulse–to share your journey with the congregation, even and perhaps especially this existential one–is well and good, as it demonstrates the reality of how you personally are being confront with the reality of the liberating Spirit of God and are being transformed from glory to glory. Even so, there are pitfalls. One is the undue burden that is placed upon the congregation when it is put in a position where week in and week out it must act as your sounding board for dealing with all your issues. Another is what happens to your soul as a preacher when (what should be) the secret things of your life are constantly on display for all to see.
I can speak from deep experience on this point as well. For the first several years of my time at Bloom, I was so committed to authenticity in the pulpit that I far too often used my own “stuff” to illustrate or deepen a point I was trying to make. It tended to feel good when I did it, and I know that the congregation appreciated the honesty. What I did not realize, however, was the impact it would have on me over time. I vividly remember waking up one Monday morning and realizing that I was burnt out, in large part because over the years I had given away all the precious things God had given to me in secret, mostly because I wanted my sermons to be good (by my standard). Many of those precious things–insights, stories, journal entries, etc–I know fell on the soft soil of people’s hearts and helped them. Perhaps an equal measure, however, were simply consumed and discarded by people who were not in a position to really appreciate them. My beautiful things, trampled and tossed out like common rubbish.
This should not be. Whatever our journey, whether theological or existential, our commitment to authenticity should also likewise be chastened by a humility, by a self-differentiated relationship with the congregation, and by a certain reticence about giving away the things that should be held in the secrecy of our communion with God and the wisdom of trusted, intimate community. Let me give you a handful of things that are helping right now with respect to the above…
- Keep the general good of the people of God in mind. Do they need to hear about this lofty theological concept right now? Are there more patient and careful way to open up their thinking? Is this sermon going to satisfy my desire to “be prophetic” and say something edgy, or will it genuinely help them live more faithfully tomorrow morning? Don’t use your sermon to work out your unfinished theological business. Do that in conversation with friends, or on your blog, or in your noggin. Put it in front of the people of God when it can be genuinely helpful to them and when you can talk about it without being antagonistic or forcing them to adopt new ideologies, and not before.
- Once again, shorten your messages! On both the theological and the existential sides of this conversation, the longer your messages are, the more prone you will be to say something you should not say, to become undisciplined in the pulpit. “Where words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise” is advice not sufficiently appreciated or adhered to by preachers. If you’ll limit yourself to a narrower window of time, you’ll find that you simply won’t have the opportunity to either to lob clunky theologies at people or to bare the bits of your soul that ought not be bared. Limitations are a good and beautiful thing. Apply them liberally, and everyone will benefit.
- In that same vein, I have found over the years that preaching through the lectionary is an immense help. Too many pulpits (and therefore too many churches) are driven along by the preacher’s newest theological obsession or existential crisis. The lovely thing about the lectionary is its power (not an absolute power, mind you–clever lectionary preachers will find ways around it) to bracket out our ideology by focusing us week in and week out on Christ as he has been revealed in space and time, the wandering and universally compelling Galilean prophet. “Read these texts,” the Church bellows at us, “and finish with this Gospel. Invite people to know and love and yield their lives to Christ. Then sit down and shut up.” Give it a try. You may like it.
- Remember that the congregation is not your therapist and the sermon is not therapy. It may have therapeutic qualities from time to time, but the moment you feel that you cannot do without baring this or that piece of your journey to the congregation, or the moment you start to feel like nothing in your heart is private anymore, you’ve got problems. Don’t put that on them, in the same way that while you want to be honest with your teenagers about your struggles, if you and your spouse are having trouble with your love life, you’ll keep it private from them, for the excellent reason that they are not positioned to be a help to you, and the mis-positioning of them by you will only confuse and frustrate and draw them into anxieties they have no business holding. There is no substitute for healthy process. I AM IMPLORING YOU–If your faith is failing, if your marriage is hurting, if some wound from the past is all of a sudden starting to leak its poison into your life… GO SEE SOMEONE. Work it out in the wisdom of community and the secrecy of prayer. And perhaps one day, when the moment is right, you’ll be able to tell about it without skewing the relationship between you and the congregation. Perhaps. But don’t assume it. Some things are simply not for public consumption.
Hope all that helps. Would love to hear your thoughts.