Imagine speaking to a small audience on an emotionally charged issue. You know they probably won’t like what you have to say, but they need to hear it. Some of these people are likely to respond with aggressive anger – some will walk out and may never come back, one or two might write an anonymous letter, and many will remain completely silent, leaving you to wonder if they heard anything at all.
Now imagine you have to do it again next week.
This is the reality of many pastors all across the globe. They face their fears and stand resolutely in the pulpit, speaking what they believe God has given them to say. Preaching takes great courage and pastors are under enormous pressure.
Not every Sunday is this intense, but every week there is pressure on the preacher. Some pastors have learned to thrive on the adrenaline rush, but that can only last so long. Eventually, without a break, pastors will feel the weight and begin to struggle. This is one reason I often encourage churches to give their pastors time away in prayer retreats, vacations, and sabbaticals.
Here are some of the things that add to the pressure of preaching. Following each one, I’ll share a thought that may help lighten the load. If you are a pastor, I pray that this will help you press on with courage. If you are a church member, I hope this will help you know how to pray for your pastor and support them each week.
Preaching is a heavy responsibility
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Every godly preacher knows that he will stand before God to give an account for his words (Hebrews 13:17). John Knox, a Scottish Reformer, supposedly said, “I have never feared the devil, but I tremble every time I enter the pulpit.”
Caring for the souls of a congregation can be exhausting – especially when many people in the congregation don’t seem to be caring for their own souls. The weight of preaching and pastoral concern can leave a pastor physically and emotionally drained for many hours. This is why pastors often experience the “Monday blues.” (Pray for your pastor on Monday).
Pastors, while you are responsible for what you preach and how you care for your congregation, be careful about carrying too much responsibility. You are not responsible for how your congregation responds. Let each man or woman bear that burden themselves. Remember, even Jesus saw many people reject his teaching (John 6:66).
Preaching requires great courage
I sometimes describe preaching as “the act of getting people to do what they don’t want to do by telling them what they don’t want to hear.” Ever since the fall the sinful flesh of humanity rejects the good news of the gospel. Sometimes a pastor has to preach a sermon that is intended to convict people of sin. This is a fearful thing because unless the Holy Spirit convicts their hearts, the people will reject this teaching – sometimes in a nasty way. Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his master” (John 15:20). If they rejected Jesus, they will reject you too.
Pastor, remember that you are not responsible for convicting people of sin; only the Holy Spirit can do that. Preach the gospel clearly and passionately and you will be rewarded for your faithfulness. Trust the promises of God to give you courage in the pulpit.
It’s easier to criticize than to preach
If more people understood how hard it is to prepare a sermon, they would think twice about criticizing their pastor. Unfortunately, criticism often comes easily and freely. Perhaps it’s because the pastor is supposed to be meek and gentle like Jesus, so people don’t fear to say what’s on their minds. Sometimes it’s the way a church is run that gives people the feeling that the pastor is their employee. They should see him as a servant of God (Romans 14:4) instead of looking at him as a hired hand.
Most criticism that a pastor faces will come from people who are struggling in their own lives. The pastor becomes an easy target because he represents God. When people criticize the pastor they are often expressing their disappointment either with God or with themselves. A wise pastor will learn to listen for truth in criticism and let the rest go. He will use these moments to ask his critics about their life and how he can help.
Preaching is creative work
Have you ever wondered why it takes so many hours to develop a sermon? It’s because preaching is a creative act, and creativity takes time. A pastor needs a quiet space to focus so that his creativity can come forth. Not that he is creating new doctrine – that would be heresy. Rather, he has to find a way to creatively connect the truth of God’s Word to the context of the local church.
Creating something for others always involves personal vulnerability. Whenever we create something for others, there is a part of ourselves that is invested in its creation. Offering this creation to others makes us vulnerable because they may reject our creation. Sometimes that rejection feels personal.
A healthy pastor will separate himself from his creation. He will recognize that his identity is in Christ, not in his preaching. A pastor who finds identity in preaching can be assured that he will eventually be crushed by criticism.
The weekly deadline is always present
“Sundays never stop coming,” said a new pastor expressing his frustration over the pressure to produce quality sermons week after week. Maintaining creativity and passion from week to week is one of the hardest aspects of a preacher’s work. If you watch carefully, most pastors will go through “dry spells” – times when their preaching is not up to their ususal quality. This is often a signal that the pastor needs a break from the pulpit.
Given all their other ministry demands, most pastors cannot produce more than 35 good sermons in a year (and only about one quarter of those will be really good). However, the average pastor will preach 45 to 52 times each year! This means that they will go through dry spells several times every year.
A wise church will make sure their pastor averages at least one Sunday out of the pulpit every eight weeks – a total of six to seven weeks per year is a minimum for healthy pulpit ministry. I recommend that churches give their pastor two weeks of study leave twice each year and four weeks of vacation every year. In addition to conferences and retreats (which usually feel like work), this time-out from preaching will make all their sermons better. Does your pastor need more rest?
Every preacher lays an egg from time to time
I remember preaching a sermon that was so bad, I literally cried afterward. It wasn’t from lack of study or prayer. The sermon just fell flat. It felt like the scene with the academic decathlon judge in the movie Billy Madison. He said, “At no point in your rambling, incoherent [sermon] were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Every pastor knows this experience. Consider how this must weigh on your pastor’s soul the following week. Is he experiencing fear of failure? Is anyone encouraging him in the Lord? Do the people in the church know how to listen to a bad sermon with grace and understanding?
Pastor, if you’ve just laid a rotten egg of a sermon, here is what I recommend: First, give yourself no more than 24 hours to grieve, and do it in the presence of God – lament well. Second, remember that God once use a donkey to deliver his message, and he has the ability to bring miraculous change through a lousy sermon. Third, find another preacher and share your story. Let his empathetic response remind you that this happens to every speaker from time to time. Trust me, I’ve been there. Just be glad it’s over and move on. Next week will be better.
It’s often a thankless task
Once, when I was feeling down and wondering if my preaching was making any difference at all, an older pastor gave me some wise counsel. He said that I should look to Jesus for my reward because I wouldn’t get one from my church. Then he shared this song with me:
So Send I You
by Margaret Clarkson
So send I you to labor unrewarded
To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing
So send I you to toil for Me alone
So send I you to bind the bruised and broken
Over wandering souls to work, to weep, to wake
To bear the burdens of a world a-weary
So send I you to suffer for My sake
So send I you to loneliness and longing
With heart a-hungering for the loved and known
Forsaking kin and kindred, friend and dear one
So send I you to know My love alone
So send I you to leave your life's ambition
To die to dear desire, self-will resign
To labor long, and love where men revile you
So send I you to lose your life in Mine
So send I you to hearts made hard by hatred
To eyes made blind because they will not see
To spend, though it be blood to spend and spare not
So send I you to taste of Calvary
"As the Father hath sent me, so send I you"
I can’t say the song cheered me up, but it did help me to regain perspective. Thankfully, that isn’t the end of the song. In 1963 Margaret Clarkson realized that her song didn’t convey the joy of ministry, so she added the following verses:
So send I you by grace made strong to triumph
O’er hosts of hell, o’er darkness, death and sin,
My name to bear and in that name to conquer
So send I you, My victory to win.
So send I you to take to souls in bondage
The Word of Truth that sets the captive free
To break the bonds of sin, to loose death’s fetters
So send I you, to bring the lost to Me.
So send I you My strength to know in weakness,
My joy in grief, My perfect peace in pain,
To prove My pow’r, My grace, My promised presence
So send I you, eternal fruit to gain.
So send I you to bear My cross with patience,
And then one day with joy to lay it down,
To hear My voice, “Well done, My faithful servant
Come share My throne, My kingdom and My crown!”
“As the Father hath sent Me, so send I you.”