By Paul Koch –
Awhile back I mentioned that the task of preaching is quite simply exhausting. The work of a preacher standing before a congregation and engaging in the craft of killing and bringing forth new life by means of the Word, is a draining endeavor. And while there may be many reasons for this; the complexities of preaching to a group made up of people from different backgrounds and facing different struggles, the uncertainty of current events and their impact on the fellowship, or the challenges of the particular text that is guiding the words of preacher. Yet one of the realities that I think makes it most exhausting is that each week the preacher is to find a new and creative way to do the exact same thing they did the week before. In other words, though there is much that changes and shifts in the lives of God’s people, the task of his preachers remains constant.
It is not the unpredictable and erratic aspects of the preacher’s vocation that leads to exhaustion but the predictable and expected.
This time of year is a wonderful example of what I’m getting at. Though there is a lot that a pastor will inevitably do throughout Advent: midweek services, children’s programs, etc., the preaching work of Christmas offers a great challenge. For instance, I will preach at a Christmas Eve service at 7:00 pm then I will preach another sermon at the Christmas Midnight service at 11:00 pm and then another one Christmas Day at 10:00 in the morning. Though all these services will have different readings from which to draw for the sermon, the central theme or focus cannot be shifted – it is Christmas! For three different sermons in two days I will have to find a way to preach the incarnation of our Lord to kill the comforted sinner and give life to the terrified conscience.
Now, in case you think I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill or just trying to invite you to my pity party, there is a real danger when a preacher becomes exhausted. Perhaps it’s not as dangerous as operating heavy machinery when exhausted, but it is dangerous none the less. For it is when a preacher becomes exhausted that he begins to take his hands off the plow and scans the horizon for other options. Like old familiar lovers looking to spice up their sex life, the exhausted preacher hopes to find something that will give new energy and excitement to his task.
After all, to do nothing, to just press on, is to risk falling into a system where you simply go through the motions. The idea of doing the same thing week in and week out kills the creativity, and the preacher becomes a bore. There is no art, no beauty, no engagement with the hearers of the Word. This will ensure that all but the most die-hard old-school parishioners will tune him out before he is even half way through. The exhausted preacher might as well be a tape recording of a previous sermon. Here the sermon is something to be endured. It is that difficult part of the service where you believe that you are earning bonus points before God for not falling asleep, or you are just working on your shopping list.
No one wants to be this guy, no one wants to go to church and endure the ecclesiastical equivalent of the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. So the exhausted preacher goes looking for something new, something that will spice things up. Now the simplest solution is the most obvious, don’t do the same thing every sermon. Don’t be hedged into killing and bringing forth new life as the task of the preacher; expand your horizons! After all the Word of God offers rich instruction and guidance for the living of the Christian life. You can teach doctrine, expand the understanding of our liturgy or the office of the ministry itself. You can amuse and enlighten the hearers, give them little bits of wisdom to hold on to and carry with them throughout the week. Perhaps you can give them a taste one week and then hold the rest until the following so they will come back excited and engaged. How could a preacher ever become exhausted with so much variation at his disposal?
If the task of the preacher is not viewed as a hitman and midwife of God, then whole new options open up. The preacher can be a counselor, an educator, a coach, or simply a spiritual adviser.
This, I fear, is what has happened in so many of our pulpits. Preachers became exhausted and found new freedom in not seeking to kill and make alive, week in and week out. This is why we spend so much time on academic arguments about the uses of the Law. This is why Lutheran clergy will argue over who is confessional enough and who is not. This is why we are tempted to turn our sanctuaries into concert halls on the one hand, or shrines on the other. And we will dig in our heels and passionately defend whatever side we are on, so long as we don’t have to face the exhaustion again.
When preachers become exhausted with their craft they inevitably become beggars.