The lowlight of yesterday’s worship service was definitely the awful preaching. The pastor’s delivery was bad … The illustrations were non-existent … The knowledge of the source material was laughable. Even worse, the pastor even forgot to give an invitation at the end of the sermon!
Unfortunately, I was the one doing the preaching.
One toddler stunk up the auditorium … I stunk up the pulpit.
Sunday morning was a total #preacherfail. It’s been one of those crazy busy weeks in the life of the pastor that they don’t train you for in Seminary: Hospital and nursing home visits on Monday … Applying for church loan on Tuesday … Leading a training session on Wednesday … Plastering and painting my house in preparation of small group in my house on Thursday AM … Small group in my home on Thursday PM … Church yard sale on Friday … Family time planned months in advance on Saturday … Multiple crises and mega interpersonal church drama in between. A new conflict in the church kept me awake half the night on Friday. My daughter is asking to spend more time with me, and I worry about how to make her a priority instead of “squeezing her in.” The sermon wasn’t quite a “Saturday night special” (which is an unfortunate pastoral euphemism for hastily slapped together sermon written in the wee hours of Saturday night / Sunday morning), but it was about as close as I’ve ever come. In the midst of everything else, I’m having somewhat of an existential crisis about the quality of my preaching and why virtually no one responds to it. So the perfect storm of anxiety, stress, exhaustion and lack of confidence blew across the bow of the pulpit like a hurricane force wind.
Like many fresh-out-the-Seminary-bubble pastors, I bought into the false notion that a successful response to a sermon is to have a magical Billy Graham / Acts 2 moment where the masses rush to the altar in repentance after a good rhetorical drubbing from the Word. When you’ve bought into this measure of success, zero response to your preaching on a regular basis can be heartbreaking. And then the Monday morning quarterbacking questions inevitably ensue: “What am I doing wrong? … Did I not pray hard enough? … Was my delivery bad? … Maybe I wasn’t explicit enough with the main idea.” You wind up pulling all of your self-help preaching books off the shelf to highlight things to fix next week. Worst of all, I tend to get caught up in the sin of comparison, where I glance at other pastor’s successes and start to think I’m a failure. And so my wife winds up spending her Sunday afternoon talking me off the ledge a couple times a year. The great pastoral hope of early Sunday morning usually gives way to the Sunday afternoon desire to enter the witness protection program. You wind up like the guy in the suit from the Talking Heads video asking over and over: “How did I get here?”
As a pastor, the subtle temptation is to attempt to take on the divine eternal attributes of God. If only I had the proper rhetorical skill, verbal hook and three points that alliterate, then sinners would be moved to repentance. If only I had edited my sermon better and been clear in the main idea, then my church would moved to evangelize their neighborhoods. If only I hadn’t whiffed that illustration, then that couple might finally start thinking seriously about joining a small group. If only I had a really moving conclusion, then that family might be moved to join the church. I know it’s complete foolishness but I find myself thinking in these insane manners sometimes. In the process, I put a lot of pressure on myself foolishly attempting to be God and to do only what God can do. Only the intersection of the Holy Spirit and the Word can move sinners to true repentance … Only God can move believers to grow in obedience to the Word … Only God can stimulate spiritual growth.
Honestly, I hate making the admission that I cannot accomplish what God can. I am a total perfectionist and pride myself in being able to solve my own problems without anyone else’s help, thank you very much. My default response is “What can I do to fix things?” … Instead of “How can I surrender this problem over to God and trust that He will provide?” Instinctively, I know this streak of self-reliance is sinful / wrong, but it’s my fall back position. The whole “Be faithful and let God take care the results” thing is far easier said than done.
I am often reminded that the original disciples fantastically failed in ministry too. In Matthew 17:14-21, we witness Jesus succeeding where the disciples failed in exorcising a demon from a child. When the group had gotten away from the crowds, the disciples asked Jesus: “Why could we not cast (the demon) out?” The implication of the question is that the disciples are asking what they did wrong: “Do we need to work harder? … Do we need to do better preparation? … Do we need to play some quiet worship jams to set the mood for the exorcism? … Did we not read the correct church growth manual? … Do we need three points and a poem next time?” Interestingly, Jesus replies: “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
The answer is faith.
The answer is trusting that God can accomplish what is seemingly impossible and relying less on your own power and ability.
I once served under a pastor who burned out fast and imploded in slow motion over a course of several months. From a public blow-up over a baptismal unfilled to a cussing out of the worship leader mid-service, the signs were on display for the everyone for all to see. Sermons become more spiteful and hateful and less loving and caring. Everyone in the congregation knew that the end was near, but no one really know what to say. The problem was the pastor put all of the pressure of the success or failure of the church on himself. And no one – including me – had the guts to tell the pastor that it’s OK to fail. I wonder how much healthier that church (and all of our churches) would be if the congregation just spoke up and told the pastor that they don’t expect him to be perfect. Ironically, I now find myself in similar shoes, blaming myself for every failure, and not giving myself permission to fail. Similar to the disciples in Matthew 17, I need to understand the answer is more faith and less methodology and minutia. Success is simply faithfulness.
There will be more #preacherfail.
If you are reading this blog and serve in any capacity in ministry from ministry leader to Sunday School teacher to deacon to worship leader, you will have your Sundays of #leaderfail, #teacherfail, #deaconfail and #worshipleaderfail too.
We’re not God and we have to accept it. We cannot accomplish what only God can do under His own power. We simply have to plan, prepare and give God our best, and trust God to accomplish the things of God. I don’t particularly like this concept, but – like broccoli – I’m working on it becoming more palatable.
I also need to remind myself of the following:
I am still a child of the King.
I am still more loved by Christ more than I possibly understand or deserve.
I still have the riches of a glorious hope and inheritance in Christ.
And when I fail, nothing will change these immutable facts.
So it’s Monday morning. It’s time to start preparing for next Sunday.