The demoralized preacher

November 14th, 2016

I find myself exhausted and demoralized by the disparity between what I want to say and feel led to say in the pulpit, and what I actually wind up saying. Take this week as an example: I woke up Wednesday morning, after the tumult of the election, and felt uneasy about the sermon I’d had incubating. Then the phone rang. Clergy friends, some pretty upset, asking what I would say come Sunday.

For the rest of the week, I labored and agonized over how to speak to a divided, edgy, fearful people. I conversed with others, stole their better ideas and finally settled on an approach. I preached; you can watch it here. Not surprisingly, some nodded, some embraced me while exiting, some sent appreciative notes later on. Some averted their gaze as they left church and sent me critical, sometimes angry emails after lunch.

Normally I’m a tad ambivalent about this. My official self welcomes critique, and my stated goal is to spark conversation. But then there’s this smaller part of me that resents the presumption of homiletical critique.When I go to the dentist, and he says I need a root canal on a certain tooth, I don’t mock him and say No, dude, really it’s this other tooth, and it needs a crown, not a root canal. He’s trained. I assume he knows way more than I’ll ever know about teeth. I'm there to learn and get help. We clergy are trained. Why is everybody a theologian, a master of homiletics, fully capable of sitting in judgment on what I am pretty darn sure is a faithful, exegetically and theologically sound sermon? I know I’m saying something he desperately needs to hear — but I’m getting judged.
But that’s not my beef right now. What happened on the Sunday after the election is I said some things. Truth be told, though, I was biting my tongue and not saying anything close to all I had to say. There is good cause for this: no need to alienate people who aren’t well-formed. And you could say Let the truth roll and if they leave, they leave!
But I have people I love on our payroll, and if we have a mass exodus, I’m laying off people I love, not to mention cutting mission work. I’ve thought a lot about how to handle prophetic preaching, how to give the other side a voice, how to keep your arms around everybody. That’s crucial for the life of the Body, in which love really does trump insisting on being right.
Having bitten my tongue, though, I field the pointed barbs for the rest of the day.  I respond kindly, and generously, but in my gut I want to say Are you kidding?
The barbs are even more fascinating because a few clergy checked out my sermon online and applauded me for my bold, courageous, downright prophetic word. I know they serve churches where they would get run out of town for half of what I said. I suspect this might be the single greatest reason for burnout and weariness in ministry: having to pretend to be somebody you aren’t, having to bear up under criticism you know is ill-founded.
So there’s the dissonance that might just eat me alive. All this put me in a deep funk — and then I noticed on my calendar that Rev. William Barber was speaking right down the street from me. I went, and he thundered all the things I wanted to say but just couldn’t, or didn’t. You can watch his sermon here; you should. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy of applause, but I was fighting back tears, feeling so inadequate, so lame. I believe in the Gospel and its radical claim on real life. But if I tell it all, I lose half my congregation. They are innocents, really, victims of what Barber called “theological malpractice.”
I wondered, as he was cascading to the climax of his sermon, how long I could keep doing what I’m doing. Should I retire? Should I just blurt it all out, watch the door slam behind the angry crowd, take a salary cut and say goodbye to beloved coworkers?
Then Barber healed me. His choice of text had been startling, and brilliant. 1 Samuel 8: the people clamor for a king. Samuel feels rejected. But really it is the Lord they are rejecting. Samuel kept being a prophet. Barber invited all the clergy to gather around him. He took oil in his hands, looked us in the eyes, and as he anointed us he said “It’s not about you. They aren’t rejecting you. You still have a powerful calling. Be resilient.”
So I’m not retiring, at least not yet. I’m going to push harder, although I pledge to say to everybody in front of me, Please know that I love you. Please know how much I care.  Please know God wants us, together, to go to hard places. Maybe then I can cut the dissonance, maybe by a third, maybe in half.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. 
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