Last week the Evangelical Homiletics Society (http://www.ehomiletics.com/) held its annual meeting at Trinity International University. I don’t attend the EHS conference as often as I should, partly because they meet at a difficult time in the semester and partly because I don’t enjoy traveling (probably more the latter than the former).
This year, however, I not only attended, I presented a paper entitled “Prophet, Priest or Stand-Up Comedian? The Priestly Role of the Sermon.” The environment of the EHS is wonderfully supportive, not at all like some other meetings where academics gather. Perhaps this is because the EHS isn’t made up solely of academics. It is a society of preachers. The atmosphere is collegial and the attendees are interested and encouraging.
Still, I found the experience unnerving. I finished feeling a great sense of ambivalence, torn between a desire to run away and hide in shame and a compulsion to stand at the door with a sheepish grin in a desperate bid for compliments. I walked away promising myself that I would “never try that again.”
But then, if you ever done any preaching, you know exactly how I felt. It’s pretty much the same after every sermon. I finish the message feeling a curious mixture of relief, self-loathing and insecurity. Basically, preaching is like being in the 8th grade…FOREVER. Lately I’ve been thinking about giving it up. But I doubt that would make me feel any better.
An old commercial portrayed the Maytag repair man as the loneliest person in town. But the loneliest person in the church may be the pastor. Pastoral ministry is inherently relational. How, then, do we explain the feeling of isolation that sometimes afflicts pastors? To what can we attribute it?
Pastoral isolation often manifests itself in two areas: intellectual and social. Fifty years ago the pastor’s intellectual isolation was a result of education. The pastor was one of the most educated persons in the community. This is rarely the case today.
While it is true that the pastor’s theological and professional interests will not be shared by everyone in the congregation, there are many who would be interested in what he is reading and thinking. They simply need a context for entering the discussion. It is a good practice to share with others on your leadership team the articles, books and links which have stimulated your thinking. The Internet not only provides many new opportunities beyond the local ministerial meeting for pastors to interact with others who share similar intellectual interests, but creates a kind of “virtual watering hole” for community wide dissemination of ideas and discussion within the church.
Social isolation occurs when the pastor has difficulty relating to others outside his professional role. At times this may be because the congregation cannot see beyond the title of “pastor.” But the congregation is not the only one at fault here. It is tempting to hide behind the title. An earlier generation of pastors was even taught to cultivate a kind of professional aloofness with church members out of fear that congregational friendships would make members jealous of each another. Though well meant, this was bad advice. Loneliness is not the only consequence of pastoral isolation. A socially isolated pastor is a vulnerable pastor. The pastoral pedestal can remove us from the healthy and loving scrutiny of those who ought to be hold us accountable. Strange as it may seem, social isolation can actually weaken the boundaries that protect both the pastor and the congregation in counseling relationships.
Others may call us “pastor” or “preacher” but we are more (and sometimes less) than our title. Life behind a mask, even a noble mask, is suffocating.
Pastoral work is cyclical work. It is work which is marked by rhythm and repetition. There is the weekly cycle of sermon preparation. It doesn’t matter how well the sermon went on Sunday. When Monday comes, the process must begin again. The better the message, the greater the pressure we feel to repeat the experience. As much as we love sermon preparation, even the best of us must sometimes feel as if we are on a treadmill. Sunday night leaves many a pastor dreading the approach of a new work week just like the factory worker or office employee.
Our ministry of leadership is also cyclical, subject to the ebb and flow of life within the church. Every congregation has its own seasons. In some churches summer is the time when things slow down. Attendance dips and committees or programs go on hiatus as members leave for vacation. In other churches summer is the busy season. This rhythm of congregational life can frustrate a pastor whose planning cycle and expectations are out of sync with the rhythm of the church. Ignorance of this aspect of the church’s culture is a recipe for misunderstanding and mutual frustration.
On the surface you might wonder how pastoral counseling could ever feel routine. The church is filled with a variety of people whose background and circumstances differ from one another. Yet after a few years we discover that even when the faces and the names change, the problems are the same. We must confront the same sins. We are asked the same questions. Our preaching, too, begins to feel monotonous as the a few fundamental themes resurface in passage after passage. Or as the same holidays demand our attention year after year. It doesn’t take long before we begin to feel that we have only a handful of sermons and that we preach them over and over again.
Our first step to addressing this challenge must be to recognize the value of rhythm and repetition in the life of the church. Repetition is a necessary to growth and learning. Rhythm and repetition are evident in nearly every aspect of created life. We live in a world marked by the returning rhythm of work and rest, seed-time and harvest as well, as the need to hear the same things over and over again. It is only our frenetic leadership culture, afflicted as it is with the spiritual equivalent to attention deficit disorder, that sees these things as a detriment.