A preacher's life is full of all kinds of confusing stuff that their congregation probably knows little or nothing about (and probably don't want to). Stuff like our occasional doubts after we preach some doctrinal point to God's people, or the anger preachers have to preach through after just having had a five minute argument with their spouse in the back hallway of the church, or the sheer insecurity preachers face every single week about their own vocational calling. One more: How to recover from a sermon.
How do we recover from the high of preaching? Before entering ministry, it was never pointed out to me that once the sermon was finished, I would experience alternating waves of emotional distress, adrenaline overload, and temptation. Even though there are occupational hazards to preaching, there is also nothing, and I mean nothing, like looking at the people God has asked you to serve and seeing that they get it. When something clicks. Because when that happens, it's a high of joy and ecstasy that makes preaching worth the pain. Not to mention the adrenaline hangover we experience once everyone has left.
I recently noticed that Jesus, following his first public sermon in Luke 4:14-28, immediately faces an impure spirit head on. Translation: after finishing a sermon, even Jesus went into spiritual warfare mode.
We've become masters at sermon preparation but entirely ignorant of sermon recovery. That's a huge problem, for our own health and the health of our families.
One of those things that didn't come through in my Bible College, seminary, or Ph.D. in theology was the reality of the emotional and physical toll that comes with preaching. To be more specific, I've found that Sunday evenings, especially after the high of a Sunday service, are riddled with temptation. Many of my preacher friends experience the same thing. The temptations may come in many forms for a preacher: an increased desire to view pornography, drink heavily, eat bad food, or go into an emotional coma. Whatever it may be, Sunday evenings can be one of the darkest times in the week.
It is true that most people have heart attacks on Monday morning than any other day of the week. For pastors, I'm sure that is all the more true for a whole different set of reasons. In my years of pastoral ministry, the stories of struggle, sexual temptation, and disordered desires often take place in the very sensitive hours after a sermon. And to compound this problem, we often don't have any tools or emotional infrastructure to deal with these post-sermon struggles.
We've become masters at sermon preparation but entirely ignorant of sermon recovery.
So how can we recover from a sermon? How can we do post-sermon soul-care that brings life to us and our family? Here are five practices that have proven life-giving for me and my family.
1. Embrace a more robust theology of health. One of the greatest ways that we preach our sermons is not with our words but with our life. The health of a preacher—emotionally, spiritually, physically—is a way to preach the good news of Jesus. Can we say that we really believe in the gospel of wholeness, freedom, healing, forgiveness, redemption, and unrelenting grace if we, as preachers, don't care for our own health?
Long ago, the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin said that the church is the hermeneutic of the gospel. And by that, he meant that a local church community is to be a place where the gospel is worked out in flesh and blood. I would push it a bit further—the preacher is a hermeneutic of the gospel. Your ability to care for your own soul is a distinct way to preach the message of grace week in and week out.
Your health preaches the gospel. Early in my ministry, I thought it was my job to work hard for the church, and that my health should come second. I believed that. But I have come to reject that idea. It is not my task to die for the church. Like my preacher hero, Nate Poetzl, of Faith Chapel Foursquare Church in Billings, MT, taught me years ago: We don't need to die for the church because that has already been done. We are stewards and servants, not saviors.
2. Do something that makes you sweat. Studies have shown that public speaking, in general, is a stressful act on a preacher's body. This is particularly the case if one experiences glossophobia, the fear of speaking in public. In either case, the adrenal gland goes crazy, pumping loads of adrenaline into the preacher's body to prepare them for the task of delivering a sermon. Archibald Hart, an expert of adrenaline and pastoring, has concluded that adrenaline rushes are more central to trial lawyers and pastors than any other profession.
One way to help your body deal with that extra metabolism so that you can sleep and not keep living in the high is to do something that makes you sweat. For me, this means going to the gym immediately after church and doing a full one-hour workout. For another pastor it might mean getting outside and gardening. Be creative. But if it requires sweat, it is most likely good.
3. Make the rest of Sunday a "screen free" day. If it has a screen (a computer, a phone, or a television) it is a door wide open to get images and ideas into your head when you are at a particularly sensitive time. It is when we are most tired that we are unable to think clearly.
4. Don't answer emails. Leave them for the next workday. You are in a sensitive emotional zone. Answering emails in that state can be harmful not only to you but to those receiving the email.
5. Do something that makes you smile. I certainly don't mean to be crass about this, but adrenaline is a kind of high. And it is very common for an addict of anything to want to, once they have come off a high, jump to something else that brings them back up. My personal principle is this: if it makes my adrenaline pump, I won't do it after church. It is just moving from high to high. Over time, it'll kill you.
Adrenaline will almost always create what's called anhedonia, the lack of ability to feel pleasure. Archibald Hart describes anhedonia as the inability to feel anything that "moves your heart." This comes from becoming addicted to forms of pleasure that are abnormal or not within the realm of good creation. In Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit of Pleasure is Leaving us Numb, Hart describes perfectly what happens over time:
Pastors … know very well what I mean here … When they are young, just starting out their calling and fresh from seminary, they could take great joy in what they were able to do for God. Every day was a thrilling adventure. But with time … something changed. Pleasure was lost. As one pastor said to me recently, "I no longer feel any pleasure in my work as a pastor. I don't enjoy my wife and family. And the other night, it dawned on me that I don't even find any pleasure in God anymore." An honest comment—but indicative of how widespread anhedonia has become.
Learning to do something that brings pleasure and doesn't require a substance (internal or external) is not only creational, it is healing. Finding pleasure in simple things is a way to center our lives back into Jesus Christ and not rely on anything else as a source of our being.
These practices have sprouted from the soil of my life. But I hope that in preaching the good news ourselves all of us could experience the good news. The preaching of the good news should never be bad news for those who preach it. And that is important because people are watching our lives just as much as they are listening to our words. In the end, the gospel that comes out of our mouths can only be amplified when it is displayed in the health and joy of our lives.
1. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, 222.
2. A theme throughout his Adrenaline and Stress: The Exciting New Breakthrough That Helps You Overcome Stress Damage. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995. This was originally pointed out to me in Jim Belcher, In Search for Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beauty, Goodness and Heart of Christianity. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2013, 44.
A. J. Swoboda is the pastor of Theophilus in Portland, Oregon, a professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and the author of Messy: God Likes It That Way.