Scared to Preach

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.

Peace,
– Robby

Not Enough

Question for preachers and worship leaders: how often do you tell the people you lead that God makes them enough?  How often – especially if you come from the Reform tradition – do you tell them about their inadequacy but how the Spirit will work within them and make them enough?

I do this often, bordering on weekly.  Maybe I do not use so many words, but I do it essentially every Sunday.

I have started to struggle with this idea.  I do not want to imply I disbelieve in this whole process of the Spirit empowering us beyond ourselves, but I keep finding myself inherently “not enough.”  I do not even know how to describe it, but I keep running into things in my life and ministry that require me to “be more” of whatever that situation require:

  • I am not woke enough. I do not march, I do not protest, I do not do enough of the things our “thought leaders” and “prophets” demand all clergy do.  No one would confuse me for an activist pastor.
  • I am not apolitical enough. I have lost members for speaking out against child separation already and I had a member refuse to talk to me after my last sermon.
  • I am not tall enough. Thank God I have a powerful voice.
  • I am not hip enough. I lead a liturgical service with standard movements, and I feel comfortable and empowered there.
  • I am not traditional enough. I cannot just use the Book of Common Worship; I must change the language, make it inclusive, and soften it.  I try to be playful in the liturgy, making it less formal and more relaxed, which means people who grew up with the traditional liturgy get lost sometimes – especially those who struggle with hearing.

And continue ad infinitum.  I could go on for days about the ways the world and leaders on our faith have implied – both directly and generically applying to me – that I am not enough.  God did not make me enough for…anything, it seems.  I can have a good ministry but even then, it feels as if I should feel shame over how I do not do something enough.

I feel this demand to fit into a label to find any sort of community or acceptable ministry.  My pastoral ministry feels irrelevant to everything because we now live in a time of overt evil that demands constant, constant attention.

Wil Willimon told the Festival of Homiletics that pastors care too much about pastoral care and too little about their prophetic voice.  John Pavlovitz told people to leave their churches if their pastors did too little to speak out against the evils of today.

I lost members to this already.  I have to walk a tightrope of prophecy while also needing my members to not hate me before I show up at the ER, the surgery ward, or the funeral home.  I can only speak so loudly, but the thought leaders demand loud and constant voices, implying we can only be true to Christ if we march with our signs at every opportunity.

I am not enough, and I keep running into that fact.  Hell, I am not enough of anything to even find community here – not liberal enough, not conservative enough, not heteronormative enough, not queer enough, not political enough, not apolitical enough, not nerdy enough, not geeky enough, not dumb enough, not confident enough, not humble enough, not weird enough, not normal enough, not anything enough.  I have no strong labels, making me feel like the world sees me as personification of Revelation 3:16: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

I know I bring severe feelings of inadequacy and inferiority to this, but I want to know: how do the rest of you preachers and worship leaders know you are enough?  I know God chose me for this work and called me – the Spirit has made my ministries too effective to doubt – but how do I shake this feeling?

Is it just the Age of Polarization and Trump?  Is it a thing about Urban Ministry I did not understand coming in?  Am I actually not enough and just did not realize it before?

I did not write this for sympathy.  Yes, I will own existential pain drives this a bit, but I also find myself angry.  When someone says my parishioners should leave my church if I do not do something but leave that something vague, and no one can tell me how much I must do to not deserve my church dying, what should I do?  How much is enough for the prophets and thought leaders?

I take exception to a call to exodus without so much as a sliver of guidance for the pastors you threaten with exodus.  I take exception to condemning ministries without a conversation about the day-to-day of solo pastoral ministry and trying to help struggling churches find their way in the world that includes more than protesting – like care, fellowship, discipleship, and teaching.

I just wish I was enough.  The Spirit gave me a pastoral heart and a strong voice, but that is not enough, so it seems.

Anyone else?  Am I alone here?  Or are other pastors starting to feel it?  And please, for all that is holy, I did not write this for someone to patronize me and softly tell me, “You are enough, it’s just tough.”  I want to know:

Am I alone in feeling that I cannot possibly be enough in 2019, or are other pastors feeling it, too?

– Robby

Love Thine Enemy

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you

– Matthew 5:43-44 CEB

Last week at Bible study one of the men, with a pained look on his face asked:

“God created everyone and loves everyone, and that includes the terrorists who killed those kids in England, right?  How do you accept that?”

I responded with a comment about how those who are dying as terrorists are usually just horribly misguided children, and those in charge are the ones pulling the strings, and that we should mourn their death, as well, because they are loved children of God.

A good response, I supposed, but what I wanted to say was, “Yeah, it’s be really freaking nice if God would come down and explain to us how He loves someone who would murder a bunch of innocent children for simply going to a concert, innocent children who did nothing wrong.”

How do you love your enemies?  How do you look at someone who means harm to the most innocent of us, and say, “I love you. God loves you.”?

And even if you can look at the misguided footsoldiers of an evil master with love, compassion, and sympathy, how do you look at those who are brainwashing them and using them as disposable tools of violence, and desiring the destruction of the innocent, all for selfish and hateful gain?

Or let’s go out a step further.  How do you look at a politician who makes decisions that you know – or at least strongly suspect – will have a detrimental effect on the lives of the weak and innocent, all to the gain of the powerful, and say, “I love you.  God loves you.”?

And how do you not just fall to your knees, screaming at God, “Why do you love them?  Why do you allow them to be in power?  Why?”

I don’t know.  I don’t know, and I can’t pretend to have an answer.  I gave an answer when the question was presented to me, but I don’t know.

But that’s what we are called to do.

God loves us all, even those we condemn as evil and irredeemable.

I’ve been asked recently what I believe the future of the PC(USA) is and the answer I keep coming to is this: if we can learn to work with each other and see each other not as enemies but brothers and sisters in Christ, and if our focus can be on showing Christ’s love with the world and not on yelling at each others, we might stand a chance; if not, we will die out.

I realize, writing this, that even if we do see each other as enemies – the though of which makes my soul mourn – we still are to love each other.  I know that I have pastors, ministers, and faithful people of the entire spectrum who may see the link to this, and I ask you all if you are showing love to those you disagree with, even if you see them as your enemy, or are you simply showing them hate and judgement?  Because tearing ourselves apart will not do anything for the body of Christ or for us individually.

Love your enemies, and also learn who an enemy is.  But most importantly, love your enemies.

Peace,

– Robby