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The Emotionally Honest Preacher

How strong leadership and vulnerability work together.
The Emotionally Honest Preacher
"Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God."
(Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, The Cry of the Soul. Word, 1994, p. 24.)

I don't fit the typical emotional profile of "strong leader." Tears come easily to me—of joy, sadness, frustration. And every effort to stuff them only intensifies them. So how am I supposed to preach as my true self and still be taken seriously?

When I first stepped into the preaching role, I noticed how many of my fears grew from gender stereotypes. I was afraid to be a cliché—the "weepy woman." Would my joy seem childish? My lament manipulative? My first sermons were all buttoned up. I wrote out complete manuscripts, practiced them carefully with references to emotion but not much show of it. I felt very competent and controlled. But to my listeners, I was stiff and distant. Soon the disconnect forced me to confront a choice before me: be taken seriously as a leader or be emotionally honest. It was a false choice.

When preaching heals the preacher

I'm learning that we've all been sold a lot of stories about gender and emotion. (Women are emotional. Men are not.) We've also been sold a lot of stories about emotion and power. (Emotion is weakness. So to be seen as powerful, leaders should always be in control of their emotions or, better yet, have none.) These stories or cultural expectations about leadership-preaching and emotions don't leave much room for human hearts.

So, with trembling, I chose to prepare my heart more and my manuscript a little less; to let my longing, joy, and sadness be seen. Instead of telling resolved stories from the past, I began sharing stories that were still in process. I tested the possibility that there might be a way to be truly myself and still be used by God to bless others. I chose to trust that there is truth in emotion.

"Scripture reveals God as an emotional being who feels—a Person. Having been created in his image, we also were created with the gift to feel and experience emotions."
(Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Thomas Nelson, 2006, p. 70.)

Surprisingly, not only has this excruciating choice brought freedom and healing to me as I give myself permission to share more fully, many in my congregation have also found permission to be whole. (It turns out the answer to "Can I be true to myself and still be taken seriously?" is "yes.") It's still not comfortable, but I'm getting used to the discomfort. I'm willing to suffer the pain of that vulnerability for the sake of the belonging, freedom, and healing we're all finding together.

The risk of full engagement

This commitment to engage as a whole person colors my sermon preparation process from the very first time I read the Bible passage. Hebrews' description of the living, active word of God (dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart) reminds me of surgery—God's Word working upon our whole selves. To keep the Bible from becoming a textbook, my first step in preparing a sermon is to lie down and listen to the passage, over and over—to submit my whole self to what the Word will do in me. I pay attention to how the Spirit in the Scripture catches on my spirit—whether I'm bored, confused, encouraged, tormented. As psychologist and preacher Richard Cox writes, "Good preaching must be applied uniquely to the preacher before it can be made public, thus allowing the power of the sermon to heal the messenger first….If the preacher is not made more whole by the content, there is little hope that others will benefit from it either" (Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons. IVP, 2012, p 63.). These honest, personal experiences of the Bible passage help me find entry points into it for others, which may mean acknowledging how confusing or violent or irrelevant the passage seems, giving me courage to preach even difficult passages that I'm tempted to avoid.

I chose to prepare my heart more and my manuscript a little less; to let my longing, joy, and sadness be seen.

As we, as preachers, share our own experience of the passage, there's a tricky balance to find: to be general enough to be relevant to all our listeners but specific enough to be human. There are few things more human than story—it's what we live, our first language—so I work to create emotional pictures that can be revisited by my listeners, even after the words are forgotten. The authors of Scripture knew about such scenes, sometimes skipping over decades in a few sentences then slowing the narrative pace for the most significant moments—Abraham by the altar with Isaac, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Shaping these kinds of memorable scenes means digging deep to describe bodily experiences, facial expressions. Telling stories in this way requires a trust that, even in our differences, there is a place where all human stories meet. While it's important to be emotionally engaged and spontaneous in the telling of these stories, they also require a thoughtful preparation of the central moments in the story, finding the most human words—evocative, sensory words that cost me something. And that cost shows in my facial and vocal expression. If it's true that the best art doesn't only tell, it transports, we have to be willing to also be transported.

"The power of story-telling goes beyond the border of the story itself. It moves into the nooks and crannies of our memories and emotions, sometimes gently, sometimes explosively, revealing, awakening, shocking, calling."
(Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul. Tyndale House, 2010, p. 102.)

A test of healthy and unhealthy emotion

Since emotion is so transportive, we must be purposeful about where it takes us. Will it persuade or manipulate? Will it integrate or overwhelm our sermon, support our points or distract? A helpful sense of whether an expression of emotion is healthy or unhealthy comes from asking this question: As I express emotion, am I communicating that I rely on the congregation or on God? In our sermons we have an opportunity to show what's going on behind the scenes of our emotional and spiritual lives. But while it's healthy to invite them to pray for and support us, it's not our job, in our sermons, to dump our emotions on our congregation. How can we communicate messages like "I am longing" or "I don't have answers" while also communicating "and God is my hope" (or even "and I'm trying to learn how God can be my hope")? While this reveals our human weakness (something our folks need to see from us), it also shows strength of a different sort.

The pressure preachers feel to show the kind of strength that never struggles and never feels can lead us into a habit of repression—and unhealthy practice for both us and our congregations. And even when we do share our emotional experience, it's tempting to tell stories from the distant past where all the questions are resolved and the emotion is long forgotten—a detached "I had a difficult experience once and it was really hard but it's all good now" is meaningless. Instead, how can we share our deep emotion, even when we haven't resolved the issue, in a way that still says "God is at work in this somehow. He is my hope"? Doing this well (and sincerely) takes a lot of work—processing with trusted friends, journaling, rest, prayer, wrestling, surrender.

Here's an interesting litmus test: When a congregation isn't comfortable with their preacher's sharing of real emotion, it may be a sign they want to put their hope in the preacher and not in God. If we're honest, when they look to us for that kind of strength, something in us wants to be God for them. So instead, when they look to us for their security, how can we redirect that longing by modeling where we find ours?

Whole people preaching to whole people

Every preacher longs for each sermon to find an application, to take on flesh in the life of every hearer. And yet we too often think our job is information transfer—if we just get an idea into their heads, they will know how to live it in their hearts and hands.

Christian epistemologist Esther Lightcap Meek describes what she calls the "knowledge-as-information" approach: "We tend to think knowledge is information, facts, bits of data, 'content,' true statements—true statements justified by other true statements. And while this isn't exactly false, we tend to have a vision of knowledge as being only this …. [But this approach] is actually defective and damaging. It distorts reality and humanness, and it gets in the way of good knowing." According to this approach, "feelings are private and only impede the important job of knowledge. [This approach] dehumanizes." Instead, when we invest our whole selves—including, but not limited to, our intellects—into the adventure of growth and learning, our learning yields "results that are truer to reality" (A Little Manual for Knowing, Cascade Books, 2014, p 2, 96.).

What better way to facilitate a whole person application of our sermons than to engage in a whole person preparation and presentation? This reaches way beyond the sermon. For our sermons to be living, breathing expressions of a life lived before God, we have to let our own lives become that. Are we willing to risk a whole-person engagement—mind, body, spirit, heart—with the whole person of God? And let our sermons be glimpses into that adventure?

It will be messy and risky. But we may just find our own lives transformed and our congregations transformed with us.

Sections of this article have been adapted from Mandy's book The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (IVP).

Mandy Smith is the pastor of St Lucia Uniting Church in Brisbane, Australia, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture. Her latest book, Confessions of an Amateur Saint: The Christian Leader's Journey from Self-Sufficiency to Reliance on God, releases in October 2024. Mandy teaches for The Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination and Fuller Seminary. Learn more at www.TheWayIsTheWay.org.

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