“I could not believe how exhausted I was!” The first-time preacher was standing in my office doorway, talking about her Sunday. “I went out to my car and had to summon the energy to drive home. It was as if I had run 10 miles!”
Another new preacher, an older student who enjoyed a long prior career as a beloved teacher, slumped in my office after his first classroom sermon had not been what he wanted. “I’ve taught for years. . . . I’m used to being up in front of people. . . . I’ve been in theater. . . .” He fell silent for several seconds. “This was unlike anything I’ve ever done.”
Twenty years after my first preaching gig, I am still amazed at what preaching demands. Thoughtful engagement of Scripture. A prayerful life. A deep love of the people to whom you are preaching. Engaging, relevant illustrations and life-changing application—along with a delivery that keeps people not only awake but interested.
Add to this the spiritual dimension that those who preach are at the same time the mouthpiece of God and the object of the enemy’s attacks, and a mere mortal can quickly become overwhelmed.
In the winter of 1982, author and pastor Frederick Buechner accepted an invitation to teach preaching for a term at Harvard Divinity School. In his book Telling Secrets, he writes, “I had never understood so clearly before what preaching is to me. Basically, it is to proclaim a Mystery before which, before whom, even our most exalted ideas turn to straw. It is also to proclaim this Mystery with a passion that ideas alone have little to do with. It is to try to put the Gospel into words—not the way you would compose an essay but the way you would write a poem or a love letter—putting your heart into it, your own excitement, most of all your own life. It is to speak words that you hope may, by grace, be bearers not simply of new understanding but of new life both for the ones you are speaking to and also for you. Out of that life, who knows what new ideas about peace and honesty and social responsibility may come, but they are the fruits of the preaching, not the roots of it” (p. 61).
We love good sermons. We believe that they matter. Many of us can remember sermons that corrected us, comforted us, or stretched our imaginations in ways they needed to be stretched. We can read a passage of Scripture and recall an illustration from a sermon preached on that passage years before that still rings within us. Most of us go into worship expecting that the sermon will do something—teach, encourage, challenge, convict.
But the man or woman standing there in front of the congregation is a human being. Trained, yes; experienced, often—but still a person whose child may have been sick in the middle of the night, or who conducted a funeral and spent four nights away from his family this week, or who herself is struggling with God right now and finds it very hard to stand up and preach.
The high demands on the preaching event are a perfect storm: God can do amazing things, or it can be 22 minutes of pain for preacher and parishioner alike. And these things are not mutually exclusive—God, thankfully, is not limited by the skills of the preacher. But preaching is a unique practice, wholly demanding and yet routine. Holy and human. Exhausting and exhilarating. It takes everything the preacher has. Knowing this, how do we help our preachers?
How Do We Help?
First, find out if your preacher is getting enough rest. It is hard to be creative when you are exhausted. Does your preacher use the gift of Sabbath? Is there a day when he or she does not use email, go to the office, or attend meetings? Is there a day to rest physically and spiritually? A day to pray, journal, go to the gym, or sit in a park and enjoy the spring blooms? A recent New York Times article touted the benefits of regular rest as a way to accomplish more. We were created to enjoy the rhythms of work and rest. Because of the demands of a regular preaching schedule, the need to have stamina when a crisis hits, and also, of course, because this is a commandment, preachers need a Sabbath. They need to have one day when they rest and remember that God is in charge and they are not, and to release their parishioners into God’s keeping. So encourage your preacher to enjoy Sabbath.
Second, preaching employs the use of words—sometimes carefully crafted, sometimes simple and straightforward. What words is your preacher reading? Does your church have a line item in the budget for the pastor to purchase commentaries, novels, or subscriptions to newspapers or magazines known for good writing? Perhaps the gift of a subscription could be your annual way of expressing your gratitude for the work he does. Reading is a good way to mine for illustrations but also shapes the preacher’s imagination. A great novel allows her to think about the intersection of theology with daily life in fresh ways. A succinct article in a newspaper can reveal the strength of brevity as a communication tool. Reading words well written will encourage your preacher in the wise use of words in worship.
Third, say thanks. A handwritten note expressing gratitude for a recent sermon series or an email that notes an illustration from Sunday’s message and how it helped are fuel for your preacher’s fire. So often we preachers wonder if people are listening. Are they paying attention? Is what I am doing helping anyone at all? Hearing specific feedback on what was helpful allows us to shape future messages in similar ways. An encouraging word about a recent sermon can do so much to keep your preacher excited about preaching.
The final but most important role for a parishioner to take in caring for a preacher is to pray. Do you know when your pastor writes her sermons? Set an alarm on your phone to ring every week at that time and pray for her. Pray every Saturday night as you fall asleep. Pray around the table with your children. Pray for the armor of God to protect her. Pray for the Holy Spirit to equip her. Pray for good ideas and for clarity. Pray for a deep love of the Word. And let your preacher know that you’re praying. Knowing that there are parishioners who are interceding regularly for the preaching ministry of the church will bring deep comfort for all who step into that pulpit Sunday after Sunday.
As Buechner writes, preaching “is to speak words that you may, by grace, be bearers not simply of new understanding, but of new life both for the ones you are speaking to and also for you.” Through our good care, may our preachers be bearers and receivers of the good news of the gospel.