“What kind of person would a kid who grew up listening to your preaching become?” I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more piercing question about my vocation in my career. Thankfully, for me, the question came before I’d ever really started preaching, while I was still in school. The greatest danger of preaching is that someone might take us seriously.
Four years ago, a church member invited me for coffee. Over our hour together he talked about how the church’s preaching invited him to consider a different way of using his time and talents. He had done well in business, but the previous week quit his job, and was looking into work in the nonprofit world. His wife had just given birth to the couple’s second child and he was going to take four to six months off before he really started looking for what came next.
He’d done this because of something I’d said, or something someone else said during the teaching moment in our church. Good grief, I thought, I hope that whoever said whatever he’d heard was right about whatever they said.
Not since I’d been asked the penetrating question about children growing up experiencing my preaching had I come face-to-face with the heavy reality of what preaching can mean. Karl Barth asks in Word of God and Word of Man “Who are you, O mortal, with the word of God on your lips?”
No one can stand under the weight of that question.
When I come into contact with the reality that parishioners have made life-altering decisions because of the faith that came by hearing, I never worry about what many folks might suspect. I’m not worried about my preaching, nor the finer points of homiletics, neither do I take a victory lap or pat myself on the back for sermons well prepared and delivered.
In those moments, I worry about my person. Who am I? What kind of person am I becoming? How is my soul? Am I a spiritual person? Or am I just a guy who preaches? After all, there is a difference between a pastor who has to say something and one with something to say.
While an undergraduate, I had a professor who consulted with local churches on weekends. He’d discovered a survey, which asked pastors, church boards, and parishioners about pastoral priorities. It came down to three items: (1) administrative effectiveness, (2) study and preaching, and (3) being a genuine spiritual guide. The pastors ranked study and preaching as primary. The church board thought administration should take priority. But, the rank-and-file church members wanted their pastors to be genuine spiritual guides.
That lunch four years ago reminded me that while I studied homiletics, my church doesn’t really care about that. They believe—and want to believe—I am a genuine spiritual guide, someone who can and is walking along with them in an authentic journey in becoming more like Jesus.
The folks in our churches don’t care how well we run a meeting or whether we turn in our expense reports on time (something, in 26 years, I’ve never done) or how many hours we clock in order to uncover an insight which blesses them in a sermon. All those tasks matter, and when done poorly or abused can lead people away from Jesus, but when the alarm clock goes off on Sunday morning, and church members stagger out of bed, get their kids fed and dressed, and drive to worship, they want—they need—an encounter with God led by women and men who also want and are experiencing an encounter with God.
The easiest thing for a pastor to do—sadly—is fake spirituality.
Faking it is not particularly difficult. Training and experience means that most pastors can deliver a sermon or teach a class with a cold detachment from the text and the God of the text. God’s own commitment to God’s Word means that even our worst offerings won’t come back void. The push and pace of contemporary life means that most people in our pews simply don’t have time to know us well. Propriety dictates that not all of our failings are useful or edifying for public comment or consumption. Preachers, if we choose, can pastor as women and men for whom God is someone we used to know.
If we are not intentional and careful, if we don’t prioritize our spiritual formation and make growth central to our ministry, a kid can grow up hearing our preaching without hearing us encounter God. If that were to happen, what kind of person would they become?
What if the best thing you could do for your preaching this year is worry less about your preaching and more about your soul? What might it look like to insist that each sermon gush from the overflow of your life with God?
There are many ways to get started.
- Work with a great therapist or spiritual director, maybe even a small group of honest and vulnerable fellow pastors—anyone who cares more about you than your ministry.
- Give permission to key leaders on our staff and important voices in our churches to both ask us how we are and insist that we get better—we need people willing and empowered to call out our nonsense, lies, God-complexes, and ministerial delusions.
- Take a weekly Sabbath. Maintain it even when it’s uncomfortable to us and unhelpful to others. Hide your phone, set your “out of office” email, and get somewhere where you can rest and reconnect with God.
Your church wants, and needs, you to be a genuine spiritual guide. This is what real spiritual leadership is. What if, instead of trying to be a great preacher, we all tried to be the real deal? After all, someone listening might take us seriously.
Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.