Preaching is a high calling, but at times deeply humbling and even frustrating. People who are attuned to the enormous challenges for pastors in today’s deeply divided culture sometimes ask me if I might one day leave the pastorate because of burnout.
A large number of seminarians do not intend to work in a local church, but rather pursue careers in social work, chaplaincy or nonprofit work. Good for them. I pray God’s blessings on their ministry, and I’m deeply thankful for what they do. In my case, I am committed to congregational ministry as a pastor. One reason is that I feel called to preach. I know many women and men who feel the same calling and wrestle week after week with what to say in a politicized and polarized environment.
Preaching weekly comes like a freight train, barreling down the tracks every seven days. I was an associate minister for over a decade before pastoring and had given hundreds (if not thousands) of talks and devotions for teens and college students, and occasionally preached on Sundays. Still, I find the pressure of having to preach every seven days is a different kind of burden.
When I accepted my first call to a solo-pastorate in a rural Virginia congregation, I walked into the empty sanctuary on my first Monday and stood behind the pulpit. I remember thinking, “An entire congregation now expects me to have something spiritually inspiring or helpful to say every seven days. These people are looking to me for weekly leadership, and I hope I don’t let them down.” It was an overwhelming feeling.
“Finding the right words to preach in our divided culture can prove deeply vexing.”
I feel sorry for pastors who only get one or two Sundays off a year. Some pastors preach more than one service on a Sunday morning, and some still preach on Sunday night. That means some preach a minimum of 150 times a year.
I have the arrangement of taking fifth Sundays off, which amounts to about four extra Sundays off annually, in addition to my vacation days. This is a wonderful gift from the congregation since it allows my family to have a real weekend several times a year and gives us the freedom to worship elsewhere on occasion.
The rhythm of having fifth Sundays off also means our congregation gets to hear voices other than my own on a more frequent basis. In the world we live in, listening to a diversity of voices is an important spiritual practice. Inviting different women and men (and occasionally a denominational representative) to preach gives our congregation the opportunity to hear “Thus saith the Lord” from someone other than me.
Preaching week after week is a challenge, especially after an extended period of long days, crises in the church family and intense leadership responsibilities. Sometimes I’m not as discerning or careful as I should be in my treatment of the Scripture, even after hours of study. Sometimes I put my foot in my mouth. Sometimes my own sinful self gets in the way of what God’s Spirit wants to say, or how God’s Spirit wants to say it. I think that happens to anyone preaching and teaching 150-plus times a year (or once or twice a year for that matter), but it doesn’t make it any less painful or embarrassing.
“Preaching weekly comes like a freight train, barreling down the tracks every seven days.”
When that “off” day comes, I’m usually surprised that someone still says, “Pastor, that sermon really touched me today.” The Spirit of God amazingly works despite my own ego, imperfections and shortcomings.
Finding the right words to preach in our divided culture can prove deeply vexing. I remind my congregation often that in terms of politics, the gospel is an equal opportunity offender – meaning that no party platform or political agenda can co-opt the Gospel of Christ, and that the teachings of Jesus often shine a bright light on the insufficiency of political solutions to ushering in Kingdom ideals and values. One can hardly quote the Bible without someone saying, “Now pastor, you’re getting political.”
I wonder if Aaron decided that speaking out against the people forming a golden calf was too political (Exodus 32). Perhaps he worried about whom he might offend. In any case, his failure to speak at the moment God’s people were in crisis and longing for yesteryear, results in something quite profound. After the golden calf incident and Aaron’s refusal to speak, his voice in the text disappears. He’s always there, but never speaks. Because he failed to speak one time, he utterly and wholly loses his voice.
Pray regularly for your pastor, week in and week out, because discerning and speaking a word from the Lord is an ever-present challenge and sometimes a heavy burden. Pray that in this idolatrous age, we pastors will have the courage to speak. Otherwise, we risk losing our voice completely.