Jason Esposito, pastor of Crossway Church in Milwaukee, WI, sums up the state of preachers right now: “The practices I had in place need to be the same, but they haven’t been. So many other things have been demanding my time. It is not sustainable.” COVID-19 has affected virtually every area of life: finances, health, personal connections, discipleship, school, family, and yes preaching. The state of our souls as well as those of parishioners have suffered. The stresses are everywhere and they have a very real impact.
We have settled into new routines that would have shocked us in February. The dangers of COVID aside, if we aren’t careful our new reality can be hazardous to our spiritual health and long-term ability to shepherd the flocks which God has entrusted us.
Esposito knew it, he was very clear that the shifts that he had made in his own spiritual practices were having a negative impact not only on his own life, but on his ability to preach effectively. His frustrations and the solutions that he recently implemented echoed with two other conversations that I had with preachers. Three principles for preaching rose to the top in all three conversations.
Soul Care Starts with Sabbath
When I reached out to Trevor McMaken, pastor at City of Light Anglican Church in Aurora, IL, via text, he was enthusiastic about connecting. His next sentence revealed what would end up being the heart of our conversation: “I am about to sign off chat and Gmail for Sabbath.”
Sabbath was not a tacked-on idea or pious ideal for McMaken, he makes it the starting point for his week, not the end, and for good reason. About 10 years ago, McMaken says he was crashing and burning, Sabbath keeping was healing for his own soul.
In the pandemic this is even more important because the current pressures are enormous. He likened it to three huge building campaigns: the first at the outset of the lockdowns and going online for worship, the second when the church started to gather outside, and the third as City of Light just started to gather indoors. He says “the Lord gives us Sabbath out of love: there is always more to do.” He went on to quote Will Willimon who back in 2013 tweeted “Sabbath is a publicly enacted sign of our trust that God keeps the world, therefore we don't have to.”
McMaken’s Sabbath is in addition to, and some ways an extension of his daily time in Scripture and prayer. It involves several regular practices starting Friday evening that are designed to reorient his life back toward the Lord with regular times of rest, reading Scripture, and prayer:
-Limiting devices: no social media, texting, or email for 24 hours.
-Date night on Friday night with his wife.
-Saturday morning fun breakfast with the family
-Time in nature
-Afternoon alone time
-Saturday night prep for Sunday
Esposito recently reinstituted his previous practice of disconnecting from all church related emails on Friday, spending time with family, prayer walks, and what he identified as his primary “sacred pathway to God”—reading. That reading involved both the Scripture text he was working through as a preacher but also other works that show how God is at work in the world.
Josh Moody, pastor of Three Village Church in Long Island, NY, debated changing his weekly rhythm at the outset of the COVID crisis, but is convinced that keeping his regular Sabbath practice on Fridays in conjunction with his daily time in the morning reading Scripture and praying ensured his survival. He blocks out all ministry without compromise and spends at least a half-day recharging with prayer and an activity like fishing.
Three pastors in different parts of the US, from different denominations, with differing sized churches and constituencies, are all echoing the same idea. Sabbath is crucial. Caring for the souls of others, especially in a moment when that care has to happen through the ministry of preaching, requires that we spend time caring for our own souls, to reorient and reconnect with God.
Soul Care Requires Community
Most of us have modified our preaching to some degree or another during COVID. The biggest modification, let’s say it together, livestreaming. Preaching to a camera in an empty room is not exactly a normal Sunday morning experience. When there is no congregation, the energy is different—Esposito called it “soul eroding.”
It can be easy to feel that we aren’t connecting at all. Or fall prey to the sneaking suspicion that our people will be checking out the cool church down the street. So we feel more defeated and the whole thing spirals.
Even as many of us get back to in person worship, things are different. The precautions that we have to take to keep everyone physically safe means that our regular ways of connecting with our congregations aren’t happening. Conversations are cut short, gathering in lobbies and around classrooms have been curtailed. We haven’t seen some people physically in half a year. Even though we are “back,” we may be seeing half of our regular congregations on a good day and others may not come back at all. Connecting with people becomes even more important when we can’t see them directly and even when they are behind a mask or spread out in a mostly empty sanctuary.
All three pastors I spoke to mentioned community in some way. Moody said that we have to be conscious of people where they are in life and mentioned that the longer we are alone, the more we turn inward and away from community. McMaken was intentionally looking for more collaboration and connection with his parishioners so that he could know their needs. Esposito said, “If you came, sang, listened, and walked out [pre-COVID] then you already got your community elsewhere” and was actively exploring how to preach on a theology of ecclesiology and humanness because of the need to reinforce the need for the church community.
Connecting with our people informs us about where they are and helps us to better apply the Scripture we proclaim. Being the church, the community of faith, spreads the care of souls to all of us; thus, lightening the load of the preacher and strengthening the individuals and the community as a whole.
Soul Care Means Preaching the Word
All three pastors have taken different approaches to sermon series and topics over the past several months because their cultural contexts are all somewhat different, but there are common concerns and commitments. “People need the Lord so much . . . they are so empty, and many don’t even know it,” McMaken observed. Given these real stresses that everyone is facing today, it can be tempting to modify the content of our sermons as well as the way that we deliver them. All three made it clear that encouragement was important, but not enough.
Moody is on his third series since the pandemic. Initially he did a topical series, which he said was “fairly rare” called “Interrupted,” looking at lives of Biblical characters and how “our biggest interruptions are God’s biggest invitations.” He went on to do a 10 week series in Ephesians which included encouragement but went wherever the text dictated. He is now in the Sermon on the Mount. Through it all he has repeatedly looked at our brokenness and how God graciously meets us, spurring us on through the community of faith.
“Preach the Word. Maybe there is more encouragement, but the sermon is still tied to the text. We need a stripping back because our theology of discipleship is somewhat thin,” stated Esposito. He sees preaching as a recalibrating work, helping people to recognize that COVID is bad, but there are worse things that people are facing right now that need to be confronted.
Similarly, McMaken said that we “can’t care for people’s souls without prophetic correction.” It is harder to do when you aren’t physically together because it is harder to read the room and to project empathy, and so he felt the need to be thoroughly grounded in prayer, preparation, and Bible work, more connected to the Holy Spirit because of the real need to address the issues of our time like “race, idols, politics, and sexuality.”
Caring for souls is never easy. The challenges of COVID have made it even more difficult and important. It requires us to be grounded in our relationship with God – starting with Sabbath. It means connecting with our people so that we know what they are facing and what they need. Finally, it means preaching the Word, the whole Word, not just the encouraging parts so that as Esposito said to me, “We become a living example of Christ—not coming back to a service, but to the community. The church overcame Rome, Israel was blessed to be a blessing. We are to be distinct with each other to show the world Jesus.”
Kevin O’Brien is a writer, editor and ordained pastor living in Chicago’s far western suburbs.