What Your Preacher May Not Tell You

shushRecently, I was with a number of ministers from across the country. Many of them were fairly young.  I would guess that most of these young ministers are conscientious people who want to do the right thing for their church.

I have preached for over three decades. I know many preachers. Most of them are good people.  The following are some realities of ministry that may not fit every single minister, but it is certainly characteristic of so many of us.

  1. Your preacher may not tell you about how difficult this task really is.  Of course it is true that there are some lazy ministers who do not honor their calling through their lack of a work ethic.  However, most ministers I know work very, very hard.  Most work long hours.  When I was a young minister, I remember hearing several times someone use the old line about preachers working one hour a week.  Those were awkward moments for me.  I knew how hard I was working.  I knew the stress I felt.  Somehow, this old line was supposed to be funny or relevant.  I never quite understood that.
  2. Your preacher may not tell you how hurtful and frustrating some remarks really are.  Some years ago, we were seconds away from beginning our morning service.  I was about to say, “Good morning!  I am glad you are here.”  I was standing at the front of our auditorium, on the floor, just about to speak, when a lady in the second or third pew said aloud to me “I am so angry with you!”  I was not expecting that at all.  I paused for a few minutes and then said “Good morning!”  However, her comment felt like someone had let all the air out of my spirit for the morning.  I talked with her later and things were made right.  It’s important to choose words that encourage rather than harm.
  3. Your preacher may not tell you how difficult it is to preach week after week. Someone asked me a few years ago, “Jim, how do you come up with new and fresh material week after week?”  I don’t remember my answer.  However, after thinking about his question for a few years, I realize that whatever he saw in my preaching each week reflected many hours of prayer, paying attention to the congregation and culture, reading, and intentional growth.  Know that most preachers don’t simply have the gift of gab.  Rather, they work hard.
  4. Your preacher may not tell you that he is right in the middle of life right along with you.  Marriage concerns.  Child concerns.  Dealing with aging parents.  Health issues. Problems with siblings.  Financial issues.  Problems with elders, etc.
  5. Your preacher may not tell you that he is a person who probably needs encouragement.  Yes, in most congregations, there are people who are generally very encouraging to their preacher.  However, I believe that elders often underestimate how much encouragement their preacher needs.  Quite often preachers (particularly in small to medium sized churches) deal with many troubled people, address family issues in the congregation, and minister to the sick and dying.  Encouraging words help greatly. Some congregations may have a couple of people who are constant critics.  Unfortunately, in far too many congregations, the people who love their preacher and appreciate his ministry are silent.  They don’t criticize.  They don’t praise.  They say absolutely nothing.   If you appreciate the person who is preaching to your church each week, it might mean so much if you were to express encouragement to them in person or through a note.

Do You Know a Happy Preacher?

Unhappy manThe following are ten characteristics of happy preachers. Do you know a happy preacher?  Are you this kind of preacher?

1.  Happy preachers manage themselves.  Too many people are preoccupied with what others might think, how others might act, and what others might do.  It is far better to learn to manage yourself.

2.  Happy preachers are intentional about who they choose to be with.  No matter what the vocation, you can find plenty of miserable people.  If you spend most of your time sharing stories of gloom with unhappy, miserable preachers, don’t be surprised if your own attitude becomes soured.

3.  Happy preachers understand that being human is more than what they accomplish or what they produce.  Being human also includes our relationships, our feelings, and matters of the soul.

4.  Happy preachers pay attention to time.  They schedule time to do the tasks of their ministry but also take time to laugh, enjoy life, rest, and experience friendships.

5.  Happy preachers find their happiness in the Lord and not the visible, tangible results of their ministry.  Ministry can be painful, hard, and at times excruciatingly difficult.  Yet, our happiness is in Jesus, not in finding the right circumstances for ministry.

6.  Happy preachers choose to be happy now instead of waiting for things to get better.  I once spent several years thinking that the next thing (whatever that might be) would make me happy.  Wrong.

7.  Happy preachers pay attention to the narrative they are living out.  For example, if I believe the biblical story, that the best is yet to come, this will impact how I feel and what I do.  On the other hand, if the narrative is “Ministry and the church are awful and will only get worse,” this will certainly impact how I live.

8.  Happy preachers get the focus off themselves.  Sometimes we are too focused on how we feel, how we look, how we compare, and how we are perceived.  This kind of self-preoccupation is a dead-end street.  Far better to focus on whom I am serving and how I might contribute.

9.  Happy preachers get out of the shame business.  I’m not talking about sin or guilt.  Rather, I am talking about the subtle ways some ministers shame other ministers.

“Wow, you still have one worship service?  We moved on from that a long time ago.”

“You are in a building program?  Oh, I thought your church cared about the poor.”

“You aren’t going to build an addition to your building?  Hey, I thought your church really wanted to reach out to the community.”

“You are playing golf today?  That must be nice.  I haven’t had a day off in weeks.”

10.  Happy preachers may complain but their complaint is not about their lot in life.  Rather their complaint is over the mistreatment or abuse of others whom the Lord has created.


What else would you add to this list?  Are there any other characteristics of happy preachers?


What Is It Like?

WhatEvery Sunday, I stand in front of people and preach a message of some kind.  The one common factor is that every Sunday I open a Bible.  Out of that Bible I attempt to communicate something about God.  Not God in theory but God as he interacts with this world in general and with each one of us in particular.

I’ve got to tell you that doing such a thing is very humbling.  Imagine getting up in front of hundreds of people and daring to talk about the living God. For me, this moment is a very sobering time; it is holy moment.  It is more than a religious speech or talk that I am delivering.  No, I actually believe that in some way the living God is at work in that moment to minister to, convict, and encourage the people to whom I am speaking.

Do you know what I see on any given Sunday?  I see people just like myself: human beings who, for the most part, are just trying to deal with life.  When I was in my late teens, I recall sitting in the church building where I grew up and feeling very, very confused.  The inside of our church building was large.  Being in church on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings was not an option.  I respected my parents and wanted to please them, yet I was finding it more and more difficult to see how all of this intersected with my life.

After all, I watched the news.  Robert Kennedy had been assassinated.  Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered.  Cities were burning out of control as more and more of them experienced race riots.  There was so much unrest.  Meanwhile, I had lots of concerns and questions that were churning within me.  Yet, I remember listening to sermons that seemed to be so far from my life.  I remember vividly sitting on the right-hand side of the church building near the back.  The lighting was subdued and the minister, in a very dark suit, seemed to speak in a monotone voice.  He never seemed upset or excited about anything.  He never seemed sad or joyful.  I just remember the monotone; one sermon really never seemed any different from another. 

I remember feeling as if I were alone, disconnected from God, Jesus, and the Bible.  It seems long ago and far away.  I don’t intend to speak badly of this church.  I am simply describing how it all seemed at the time. 

Meanwhile, as I speak each Sunday to a group of believers, I try to keep in mind the people I have known who have been in these assemblies.  Sometimes I wonder, how does a person in this particular situation hear these words?

One exercise that has been helpful is something I call, "What is it like?"  What is it like to be in a particular situation and hear this message?

  • What is it like to be divorced?
  • What is it like to be a widow?
  • What is it like to have a wife or husband walk out on you in order to be with someone else?
  • What is it like to lose your job — to have an employer tell you that they won’t be needing you anymore?
  • What is it like to have cancer?
  • What is it like to be in a church, have a family, and yet be in the middle of an affair?
  • What is it like to be in the middle of tremendous debt?
  • What is it like to feel as if you have no friends?
  • What is it like to always feel as if you are on the outside looking in?
  • What is it like to be greatly overweight?
  • What is it like to be in junior high school and have people make fun of you, day after day?
  • What is it like to not be able to read?
  • What is it like to be married and now realize that you should have listened to your family and friends when you were dating?
  • What is it like to have lost a child in death?
  • What is it like to be a closet alcoholic?

I really do believe that God can deal with us right where we are.  I also believe that the Bible is a very relevant book.  (God doesn’t need for us to make his Word relevant.  Rather, it is our lives that need to be made relevant to the Bible.)

What are some other situations that those speaking the Word to groups need to keep in mind?  What situation would you add to the above list?


coffee33.jpgFor the past few days, I have been at the Lipscomb Preaching Seminar, held at David Lipscomb University in Nashville.  What a wonderful and helpful few days.  I had the opportunity to hear such people as Walter Breuggemann, Brian McLaren, Cleo LaRue, John York, and Mark Hamilton.  There was also the opportunity to visit with many old friends and to make a few new friends.  This is a wonderful seminar that was encouraging and very helpful as well. 




On the right-hand sidebar, you might notice some pieces of this blog that have just been updated:


1.  God-Hungry Live was updated with videos of Scot McKnight as well as Marva Dawn.  (God-Hungry Live consists of videos of various Christian speakers, thinkers, etc.)


2.  You might also enjoy looking at "10 Significant Books."  This is simply a list of ten books that have been helpful to me in some way.


3.  I have also updated the "What I’m Reading" page.




You might also note that I have a "Facebook" page.  You can get there by clicking on the bar on the right-hand side near the top.

How to Lose Yourself in the Morning

buechner.jpgI did it this morning.


I got lost.  I was sitting at my kitchen table early this morning with Frederick Buechner’s book Yellow Leaves.  I sat down with this book in one hand, a yellow highlighter in the other, and a cup of fresh coffee beside my book. 


I got lost in a story.   


What was the story?  Really, it almost doesn’t matter.  After all, I didn’t get lost because the story was spellbinding.  I didn’t get lost because the story was thrilling or suspenseful.  I didn’t get lost because the story was a nail-biter.


I got lost in Frederick Buechner’s story because he is a wonderful story-teller.  He is attentive to detail as he tells a story.  His language is clear, precise, and full of color.  As I read his story, I forgot that I was reading a book, gazing at black words on white paper.


No, I didn’t see words but people.  I saw faces with emotion.  I heard sounds.  I felt the emotion of some of the characters.  At one point, I wanted to Google a certain city in Europe that he was in.  I wanted to Google it to see where "we" were in the story and to see the place where "our" hotel was located.


Now this is not the first time that I’ve gotten lost in a Buecher story.  It first happened in the late 1970’s.  I was listening to a lecture on preaching.  It was very moving.  The speaker at one point read these lines in which Buechner describes the preaching moment: 


…Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick run through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand.  He hikes his black robe up at the knee so that he will not trip over it on the way up.  His mouth is a little dry.  He has cut himself shaving.  He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor.  If it weren’t for he honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else.


In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six-year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker.  A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand.  The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack.  A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her.  A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee…


…The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler.  The stakes have never been higher.  Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand.  The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening even himself.  Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?  (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, pp. 22-23)

That day, when I heard these lines, I got lost again.  I forgot about the lecture and began to think about the preaching moment.  For a few moments, I was reminded of how important and special that moment really is.


I’m curious.  Who is your favorite storyteller?  Why this person?

What Would Jesus Say? (Part 1)

coffee39.jpgI wonder what Jesus might say if he preached at our church one Sunday?

What would he say?

He would be walking into our cultural context.  He would walk to our podium, I suppose.  Perhaps he would use the wireless mic that I normally wear.  He might hear the baptistery occasionally gurgle behind him.  He might hear the air conditioning come on as he speaks (yesterday the temperature got up to 107 degrees here).  Hopefully, one of those crows outside would not come to the window and caw.

I just wonder what he might say to our church?  What would be the tone and substance of his message?  

I just wonder:

1.  Would the subject of his message be similar to what I have been preaching to this church?  Or, would it be very different?   Is there an aspect of the Gospel that he would emphasize that I really haven’t been emphasizing?

2.  What about his style, tone, etc.?  Is there anything about either the style or tone that might be "different"?

3.  How would the people in this church receive his message?  Would his message be surprising or shocking, or would it be something they expected?  Would there be a real appreciation for what he said?

4.  What about the application of his teaching to our church and to our lives personally?  How would we respond?

Do I know the answers to these questions?  No.  But it is interesting to think about this in the context of the congregation of people with whom I am most familiar.

As you think about Jesus preaching to your own faith community, whether small or large, are there other questions that surface?