A neat thing happens when I confess my struggles to my congregation: I suddenly can write about them publicly! When I say, in the middle of my sermon, “I am scared to preach and paralyzed every week,” no one I currently serve gets a huge surprise when I write about it for you 12-50 internet people, that number depending on random chance as far as I can tell.
I did not exaggerate or say anything close to untrue when I spoke those words a few Sundays ago. From the moment I got back from Festival of Homiletics, I have had constant, paralyzing fear when it comes to writing and giving sermons. I sat down on eight separate occasions – eight separate, scheduled occasions – to write my Pentecost sermon and I still, given four weeks of no sermons and nothing but time, wrote the manuscript at 7:00 P.M. the Saturday before.
To talk about this, I need to talk about the voices and “ghosts” who sit on my shoulders and make sure I constantly feel my inadequacy. But first, let me talk about how we valiantly try to make this feeling go away when we look at and prepare for professional ministry.
We had this thing we said in seminary as we discussed our inadequacies and “being not good enough” for ministry. The solution always came out as this answer: You aren’t good enough; get over it.
As a theological construct and encouragement, it fits the bill, more or less, kinda. God does not have adequate and perfect people to call to ministry, so God calls the likes of you and me. God sees my brokenness and inadequacy and calls me anyway, sometimes using that brokenness and inadequacy for holy things.
Great, wonderful, lean into that if it loosens your voice, but it does not help me a whole lot after eight years of preaching every Sunday with short interludes of every-other Sunday. It really does not help me as I feel more fear and trepidation “stepping into the pulpit” now than I ever have.
I found the fatal flaw in that mindset: we never addressed the fact that our discouragement does not come from God – remember, God called us to this wonderful and awful task – but from other broken people who will, at the drop of a hat, make sure I know exactly how terrible of a pastor and preacher I am.
I recently wrote a post called “Not Enough” about a lot of these feelings of inadequacy, but, as I finally decided to name the voices screaming in my ears every weeks as I try to prepare for the task God called me to, I can address the voices I alluded to.
One voice from the past screams in one ear: the “ghost” of my preaching professor. In January of 2012 I nearly left seminary. The professor tasked with preparing me to bring the Word of God to a congregation decided to prepare me through bullying, both his own and encouraging the class to participate.
(And before any apologists come forward, loving people I trust confirmed my experience. I have grown weary of people minimizing this experience, even nearly eight years later).
For the past few months, only his judgements and the “rules of homiletics” I break come to mind. You ever have inspiration, only to have a ghost say you are not allowed to do that? That defines my last few months.
But I have battled with this ghost of the past before and come out with an unhealthy but helpful chip on my shoulder. Now, though, something else screams in my other ear, giving the fear created by this ghost additional force and power.
Christian thought leaders have put a demand on clergy to constantly preach from a prophetic voice. A mainline leader of the church told the Festival of Homiletics to put pastoral care to the side and focus solely on preaching and prophecy. Progressive thought leaders demand people “leave their churches” if their pastors do not speak out against [insert new, weekly travesty].
As I sat at the Festival of Homiletics, I feel encouraged and convicted to do better and try harder. Upon arriving home, the weight of never living up to the standard these pastors and thought leaders set before us that week sat on my shoulders and has made my voice…shaky and scared. I participated in an alter call for preachers to speak out against the evils of the world – a thing I thought I did before but, in that moment, believed I had failed at – but now have no idea how I, Rev. Robert Glen Brown, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, live up to that alter call.
Since then I have preached. But the pit in my stomach comes every week, and every week I feel a little bit more like a fraud because I did not do something someone “smarter” or “more important than me” would demand of me – or worse, intentionally did something they would look down upon.
I am scared to preach. Horrified, paralyzed, frozen; I have more fear today than I did that first week I preached during my first internship.
I once read something from a seminary professor – I think – confessing that he often told students that preaching gets easier when, in fact, it actually gets harder. (If anyone reading this knows this piece, shoot me a link, please.) When I first read that, I believed it but I could not actualize or internalize it. Every Sunday, though, despite feeling more skilled and having more experience, it feels harder.
It gets harder. The expectations – both real and imagined – of congregations for good preachers to always preach well, the world constantly finding new ways to cast people into the darkness, and thought leaders telling small church leaders that they need to live into the ministry and preaching models of megachurches make it harder every Sunday, every season, every year.
I do not want anyone to express sympathy or support in response to this; my people have supported me more than I realize more days, and I got a powerful and confidence-boosting affirmation on Sunday that I needed.
I just need to say it. And, if you happen to be/know one of those thought leaders who demands small church leaders abandon their good ministries for activist, megachurch, prophet models, maybe try to remember what small church ministry looks like/spend some time serving a small church.
I am trying, and I do not need more voices condemning my efforts. The ghosts of seminary have that job taken care of enough.