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Preaching through Fatigue

Fatigue happens. Here's four ways preachers can deal with it.

My first week of full-time, paid ministry was exhausting. We moved to a new town for the job, and the apartment my wife and I moved into was unlivable, so we ended up moving twice in two days the week my job as an interim youth pastor started. Two days later one of my students committed suicide before I'd even had a chance to meet him. By the end of the week, one of my paid staff had resigned because her marriage was falling apart and she'd gotten too involved with the guy who led music for youth night.

A few months after that one of my most faithful volunteers was moving out of his house, his marriage also cracking wide open. No one else on the pastoral staff was reaching out, so I spent time just hanging out and listening.

These kinds of situations, each their own individual tragedy with their own particular contours of doubt and despair, aren't exactly unfamiliar territory for pastoral ministry. In fact, these sorts of tragedies with all their emotional wreckage are the burning buildings of pastoral ministry. Just as civilians flee a five-alarm fire while firemen go rushing the opposite directions, so pastors (at least they should) move into the pain and heartache of their people, rather than take the long way round to avoid uncleanness.

Fatigue will happen

This means that if pastoring involves, you know, pastoring, then it matters little how vociferously some may say "there are no guarantees in life." There is one on which nearly any pastor can count: spiritual fatigue will happen. There will be moments or perhaps months where Jesus seems conspicuously absent, and no amount of Footprints in the Sand reviewing will convince us otherwise. The scary part is that it may have nothing to do with the hurting people around us. The windiness of the Spirit is it's own unpredictability and we may find ourselves mid-ocean, tacking on course, sails up, and suddenly getting nowhere.

When Sunday rolls around again, and you're only ever at most 168 hours away from standing up the very next week, the task of preaching is unavoidable, and at times crushing.

Unfortunately even the strictest of pietistic training does little to prepare us for this. Whatever pastoral training we may have received, even the kind that seeks to ground us in an ordered, disciplined life with roots of prayer and study, and the fruit of gentleness and peace, for one reason or another we seem to ignore the phenomenon of fatigue until the symbols of epic collapse (adultery or embezzlement, for example) start to appear. Indeed, our reticence to acknowledge our own fatigue may explain our need to spray our people with cheery "we know God wins in the end so let's have a smile" sorts of sermons.

Call it burnout. Call it depression. Call it the doldrums. And by all means, do try to be specific, as each particular fatigue will have it's own set of remedies, it's own set of connective and causative tunnels serpentining through us that will require tracing and self-discovery.

Sunday is coming

But regardless of causes or cures, the thing that can feel the most overwhelming, one might wager the thing that keeps us from addressing our own fatigue, is that awful, unrelenting realization: Sunday is coming.

Sunday. That day when you smile and greet everyone with a "How are you?" or a "Did you have a good week?" and a "Glad that you're here with us this morning." That day that you have to get up and call out prayers over the heads of your people, asking God to show up and make himself known.

Sunday. The day that you'll break bread and pass wine and say "Body of Christ, given for you." The day that you stand up and say, "The Word of the Lord," and then keep on talking for thirty minutes, hoping that somewhere in the midst of your own blacked-out tiredness, you're words are making any sort of sense.

How do you go about preaching when your spirit and your brain feel iced over with fog as thick as peanut butter? How do you speak something meaningful to these people—some of them indifferent, some unraveling and hanging on every word—gathered before you when you could barely get out of bed this morning?

Preaching through fatigue is it's own sort of trial. Pastoring in general during these stages is difficult, but appointments can be cancelled, you can give the appearance of quiet thoughtfulness in meetings. But when Sunday rolls around again, and you're only ever at most 168 hours away from standing up the very next week, the task of preaching is unavoidable, and at times crushing.

Augustine himself said, "To preach … that is a great burden, a great weight, a great labor. Who wouldn't run away from such a task?"

After all, preaching isn't just about study, though it requires an immensity. It's not just about oration, though it takes effort, perseverance, and skill to communicate winsomely. Preaching is the flint and firesteel, a striking upon striking in the presence of the Spirit who brings his wind and oil to set a fire burning. The preacher is at once doing the striking and the one being struck. A professor of mine once told me, preaching is like disrobing in front of your people, standing naked in their sight for thirty minutes.

Herein lies the problem. If we are in the glazed-over grips of fatigue, baring ourselves seems beyond tortuous, it seems impossible. We'd prefer to wear a Snuggie in the pulpit. And of course there's a danger on the other side: the catharsis of owning our own fragility in public can become it's own pathology. But hiding behind the vinyl curtains of fatigue while preaching can drive us further into isolation, deeper into our disconnectedness.

Practices for fatigued preachers

So what do we do? There are of course a thousand different answers: set good boundaries, take a weekly Sabbath, negotiate sabbaticals in your contract, move away from the messiah complex that tells you to solve everyone's problems, have honest relationships with others. All these (and more) are good things to be investigated and practiced, but specifically I want to address, what do we do with our fatigue in preaching? What follows is an incomplete list, the incompleteness itself a call for preachers to start talking with one another about how to press onward, when onward seems like the worst place to go.

Stay in the text. Fatigue expresses itself differently in different people, some preachers get angry, some go on tangents that are impossible to track, some just sound robotic. The times when we feel most cut off from the voice of God are the times when we must cling as tightly as possible to his Word. As Peter Bohler told John Wesley back in the 1700s, "Keep preaching faith 'til you have it." Preach a series on the Psalms of lament, or preach through Esther. As you do, you and your people will learn again that there have always been dry spells, there have always been seasons of silence. What bursts forth, eventually, is the realization Elijah had: God is no less God in the thin whispers of the wilderness then he is in the fire of Mount Carmel.
Remember the fatigue of Jesus. If the King of the kingdom, the Chief Shepherd of the sheep, felt like "butter scraped over too much bread" why should we expect to feel any different in carrying on his work? The key to being fatigued like Jesus is to hold, fiercely as he did, to the love the Father has for us. I think, for many of us, this is the crux of the matter. We believe that our fatigue is a sign that God no longer loves us, that we've failed too many times, that we're too glum for him to hang around, that he's moved on to that super successful, good looking pastor down the street. When we live in the tension of belief that God loves us even when we can't feel that he loves us, we allow ourselves to be fatigued and to not be responsible to get ourselves sorted, but to rather wait upon him to come again and be the lifter of our head.
Stay human. There is a real danger to treating the pulpit as your own personal therapy session where you get to share your doubts and distress. That sort of open humanity isn't helping anyone. But with balance, and in moderation, be yourself in your preaching, even if occasionally that means admitting you're fatigued. Pretending otherwise won't work for long, anyway, but the beauty of being honest is that if done rightly, it will serve to reassure your people that even when you feel paper thin, you still get up to strike the flint and wait for Jesus.
Plan for Fatigue. If you've ever skipped lunch and then found yourself in a slump by mid-afternoon you know how quietly depletion can creep up on you. Knowing that fatigue is crouching at our door, if not already on the couch in the front room, allows us to pack the right kind of pastoral lunch. The contents of this lunch will vary according to taste, but the basic ingredients of prayer, quietness, and recreation should always be present. Here's another great idea to help you deal with preaching fatigue: Open up your pulpit to others so you can rest under the preached Word rather than labor through it.

I've been in ministry for a handful of years now and new stories of heartbreak and dysfunction have moved in to replace the old, like waves on a beach. I've been learning to let my hands be pried open, learning to live without closure for my own pain and the pains of others. I'm learning to look into dim mirrors in anticipation of seeing, someday, face to face.

Steve Hall is the Associate Pastor for Intown Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon.

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