Preaching Under Pressure

"St Peter's Church, Hinton Road, Bournemouth, Dorset." Image by Alwyn Ladell via Flickr; licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Preaching regularly is a grind. But what about preaching under pressure?

Picture this:

Sunday. About 15 minutes after the last worship of the day has ended. The worship space is being lovingly reset, and you’re starting to come down from the preaching high and realize just how tired you are. Thoughts of lunch or a nap or a child’s hug or a pet’s snuggle are rosily taking shape in your mind. A few parishioners are waving goodbye as they meander amiably towards the door. With his hand on the handle, a final parishioner turns before he leaves and calls, “Great sermon today, Pastor! Preach like that on Christmas Eve and maybe some of those Christmas & Easter Christians will start feeling the call to church more often!”

Out the door he goes. And with him go the rosy thoughts about well-deserved rest.

“There’ll be a lot of people at church this Sunday, Pastor…”

“I always feel so much better when I hear your sermons, Pastor…”

“Bring those worshippers to the altar, Pastor!”

“With more sermons like that one, we might just make budget this year, Pastor.”

Depending on your tradition, the spoken and preached Word of God carries a varying amount of emphasis. But the preaching of God’s Word is one thing people often reference as the reason they choose one church over another. Consequently, the stakes can feel higher as we move toward some of the High Holy Days of the church year: Reformation, All Saints, Christ the King, Advent, Christmas, and then the short hop to Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. The fact that many of these highly attended worship services coincide with the end of the fiscal year can rachet up that pressure to the point where it becomes a distraction, or worse, an inhibitor to preaching.

I know this feeling well, and not just from preaching days. Recently I went through a part of my Ph.D. program called comprehensive exams. These exams are the culmination of 2-1/2 years of classes and studying. The four tests range from 8-hour sit-down exams to 3-day take-home exams. They cover a stunning amount of material. The pressure is high. And at some point in the midst of the whole process, I threw down my pen and cried, “I just can’t think!

We all know the studies that say pressure and stress are bad for our health. But they’re also bad for our ability to think, to create, to preach. Even worse, pressure like that is often bad for our ability to hear: the text, our intuitions, and most importantly, what the Spirit is calling us to preach.

How do you head pressure off at the pass, handling it so that it does not handle you? If you know and are doing it already, thanks be to God. If you know already but your attention has slipped, consider this a wake-up call from the Spirit to put that item at the top of your very long to-do list.

If you don’t know how or your past ways to handle it aren’t working, check out my list of What I Learned about Pressure from Comprehensive Exams below.

Then find one person to brainstorm how you might try out at least two things on the list in the pressure-filled weeks ahead. That’s it. Just one person, to talk about implementing two things below.

  • Perspective. Doing comprehensive exams can feel like the Most Important Thing in the World. It’s not. In the grand scheme, it is a very, very, very small thing. I often had trouble remembering that, and I remember a similar struggle during pressure-filled times in the parish. Find your perspective. How can you quickly and easily re-orient yourself to the horizon when everything around seems to loom large? Find that trick and use it.
  • Body. Care for your body. This is perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my experience with comprehensive exams. When time gets short, that’s the first place we sacrifice — good eating, healthy walks, meditative prayer. And it can work, somewhat, if we’re in the midst of a crisis. But it’s far more difficult to get out of crisis mode than to get into it. And our bodies can only take so much for so long. Granted, this is not the time to start out a brand new program of exercise or healthy-lifestyle commitment. But it doesn’t have to be that drastic: what are the things you do that make your body feel and function the best? Prioritize them.
  • Prayer. Take time to pray. The biggest, most seductive, falsest belief I struggled with throughout my exams was the belief that I just didn’t have enough time for that Tuesday hour of prayer. Inevitably, I would drag my feet on the way in. Inevitably, I would practically skip on the way out. Devoted time for prayer is a direct renunciation of the idol we worship practically above all else in America: time.
  • Support. Pressure-filled times should not be borne alone. Who are the 3-5 people in your direct circle of support? Use them. Lean on them. Text them, call them, write to them. These should probably not be parishioners. They may even be people who are not your immediate family. Comprehensive exams was a pressure-filled time not only for me but for my family as well, as they had to adjust to the lack of a contributing adult for a good 6-week period. While we still supported each other, the people I reached out to for extra support were beyond the borders of our immediate family.
  • Boundaries. I know. Out of any on this list, this is perhaps the hardest one, at least if you’re anything like me. Sometimes boundaries do need to be crossed, in the case of a funeral or a crisis. But I would challenge us to really look at the times we are allowing our boundaries to be crossed: sometimes, it just seems easier in the moment to capitulate than to hold firm. It feels like it will actually take less energy to just say OK to one more thing. It is a lie. We all have different abilities, and we all have different capacities. But we all also have limits. Respect the limits of your body, your self, and your family, and expect the same from others as well.

Preaching under pressure is no joke. We all know that one well-wrought sermon is never the key to connecting church goers to a more regularly attending schedule. But the constant grind of preaching, when heightened by the burn of pressure, can be the key to a short-lived call due to burnout.

Find one person. Brainstorm these bullet points with them. Choose two, and do them. And may the burn of pressure lift and the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit blaze in your hearts.

In Rachel Wrenn’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Notes from the Field,” this pastor and Ph.D. candidate offers a fresh approach to preaching in light of the everyday and the extraordinary.