Monday, September 19, 2016

Preaching As Free Therapy

I take preaching very seriously. That's not to say that my sermons are always incredibly serious. It's just that I think the call to stand up in front of a group of people and attempt to describe what God might be up to in their lives is something to be undertaken with great care, preparation, and respect. There are many important functions of the pastoral office, but to me preaching is near the top of the list in terms of its potential to shape a congregation's life, and thus something to be given due attention.

As many teachers and writers of preaching might tell you, a sermon is not the thing you write in the pastor's study, nor is it the stack of paper--if any--that you set on the pulpit. A sermon is a moment in time. It doesn't actually exist until the preacher starts speaking, reacting to the words they've prepared, the energy of the congregation, and the energy within the preacher themselves. And if the preacher has done their homework through the week, they've taken into account what might present itself when the time comes to preach: what pastoral care issues might be among the gathered people, what's happening in the community, what might be on congregants' minds from their own lives or from the world at large. One can't anticipate every variable, but they should at least take time to prepare for some possibilities.

So the sermon is a living event with a lot of moving parts. And the preacher is really only in control of a few of them. They can't control who shows up or the baggage they bring, they can't control the weird unexpected things that happen in worship at times, they can't control the prominent community or national issues that might help shape the sermon or people's responses.

But if there's one thing the preacher can control, or at least take proper note of, it's their own internal stuff.

Pastors can have as much baggage as those they serve. We are not immune from the daily frustrations, uncertainties, and disappointments of life. Some of these come from ministry itself: the governing board is being unreasonably stingy about a proposal, someone slipped an anonymous critical note under the office door, a program hasn't taken off as expected. But there also come those other life events that can be as stressful for us as anyone else: an aging or dying parent, the dissolution of a marriage, the difficulty of raising a child, the management of physical or mental illness.

We bring all of our own issues to the preaching moment as much as parishioners bring theirs. These are likely to have an impact on our sermon preparation. How can it not, especially during weeks when the lectionary seems particularly pertinent to something in our personal lives? Our own situation has an effect on the sermon as much as others' might, moreso since we're the ones doing it.

It is important to acknowledge that the preacher's life will influence what they say on any given Sunday morning. It may even be that an anecdote from one's own experience will serve the hearers well, whether to help illustrate the point or to show that the preacher struggles with the topic of the day just as much as others.

But there is a line that the preacher should be wary not to cross. Again, the sermon is a time to help name for the congregation how God is present or how God is calling individuals or the collective faith community to participate in that presence.

It is not a time for the preacher to work out their issues in front of everybody.

Maybe the governing board's perpetual tabling of a new initiative is frustrating and seems to signal resistance to change. Maybe that anonymous note was especially stinging. Maybe the upcoming appointment for a father with cancer is weighing heavily upon you; the latest in a months-long saga. The temptation might be high to unload all this anxiety on an unsuspecting worshipping community; to let those sticks in the mud on Council finally have it or to share how little sleep you've gotten due to your worry about a loved one.

But that is not the time or place. Those are to be saved for Pastoral Relations meetings or therapy appointments or spiritual direction sessions. There are many more constructive options and outlets both inside and outside the church for processing such things. "Bleeding all over the congregation" during the sermon (a phrase I heard many years ago but am not sure of its attribution) is not an option. It can have a negative impact on the pastor-church relationship, it can shape the congregation's life in destructive ways, it can further the preacher's own issues rather than help resolve them.

For the sake of one's own health and vocation, and for the sake of the church, the preacher must practice appropriate self-care. Venting one's spleen during the sermon does not qualify. Instead, seeking proper channels to address issues is what is needed, along with still keeping an awareness of how they might linger in the background of sermon preparation and other moments in ministry.

In this way and so many others, preachers must be careful with the sermon and with themselves.