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Most weeks, pastors have to preach a sermon. In addition to worship planning, it’s the most predictable part of our work. Whatever happens, you know you have to get up there and say something. Some weeks it’s a challenge.
Here are three basic questions to ask when you are preparing to preach. For most of you, these will be nothing new. However, it may be a good reminder as you go about the task of preaching. It’s easy to forget when you are pressed for time. However, they can help you most during a busy week.
(For those of you who were on my group coaching call last week, the questions below may sound familiar…)
If you regularly ask these questions, your preaching will be more focused and more relevant.
Why? What is the purpose of this sermon?
Where do you want people to be by at the end of the sermon? Of course, you can’t control how they respond to the message, but you can craft the sermon to make it more likely some at least will get there. What is going on in church life right now? Where are you in the church year, and the overall ministry plan of the church?
What? What is the central message of the text as you are living with it through the week?
What is God saying to you as you live with it, and what do you want to say to your people? Find one clear sentence that expresses what you want to offer to them.
How? What are the ways you will communicate that message to YOUR congregation?
You know that stories are one of the best ways to communicate – which ones will you use: Biblical stories? Your own stories (Yes, talk about yourself, but not too much). Theirs (with permission)? Stand with them allowing the text to address you along with them, as Walter Brueggemann recommended. How long will the message be? (I once saw James Forbes give a 16-point sermon on Nehemiah. It worked. I’m not that skilled, and you probably aren’t, either).
I know you can’t always thoughtfully craft a sermon. Some weeks just don’t go that way. Do your best. When I was preaching weekly, I found that thinking through some of these questions the week before the week I wrote the sermon helped me a lot. Something goes on in the back of your mind over time, even when you aren’t working on it.
What do you find helps you to think through the sermon?
Here’s another post on how to preach like a leader.
How is Holy Week going for you so far?
It’s easy to wear yourself out in the run-up to Easter. I talked with a pastor last week from a tradition that has services every night of Holy Week. He said one year he also had two funerals the two weeks before Easter. He’s planned ahead this year, and is taking time off after Easter to recover. What does it take to get through it?
At my church recently a couple brought their baby to be dedicated (we’re Baptist so we don’t baptize babies). The baby’s father, Malachi Williams, asked to say a few words. He talked about his late grandfather, Rev. George Dick, who was the executive secretary of the Oregon State Council of Churches from 1960-1966, as well as a pastor in Portland. His grandmother, Claribel, just reached her 99th birthday. This is a picture of the two of them together.
Mal pulled out his wallet and read to the congregation some words his grandfather always carried around:
Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I can’t handle together.
I spoke with Mal afterwards, and he showed me the quote. It’s a photocopy of his grandfather’s original typed version, taped on his wallet where he can see it every time he opens it.
Now, that’s drawing on the strength of previous generations of family every day.
My grandmother used to say, Do your best, angels can’t do better. I don’t remember hearing her say it, but my mother quoted her over and over as I was growing up.
Another favorite Grandma quote was this: God can only guide a moving vessel. In other words, get going, and you will be more able to fall into line with God’s will. If you stay put, you may never get anywhere.
Did your family have any wisdom that you can draw on to support you through Holy Week? Or any challenging week? You may even have found them annoying when you were young. However, they might provide strength in tough times. I’d love to hear about it.
Or you can borrow one of ours.
And here’s another article about surviving Holy Week.
Are you exhausted? Do you feel the weight of your church? Edwin Friedman used to say, “Stress comes less from overwork than from taking responsibilities for the problems of others.” It’s the most common source of clergy burnout. It’s that simple. Simple, but not always easy to address.
Here are some problems that clergy often take responsibility for:
- The relationship between squabbling members.
- Whether or not the congregation will still be in existence in a generation.
- What people think about them (if it’s negative).
- Whether staff members are happy.
- What parents think of the youth leader
- The relationship between parents and children in a church family (whatever their age, adolescents/parents or adult children/aging parents).
People will do their best to make these your problems. They think that is what you get paid for, and sometimes you think that is what you get paid for.
You don’t have to know everything.
One way to handle these is to get “stupid.” Act like you don’t know the solution. It won’t be an act, because you don’t know. You can’t change how adults behave, relate or think. You can’t know the best answer for someone else. It’s up to them.
Here are a few possible responses:
“Gee, I don’t know what to do about Mrs. So-and-So. What do you think?”
“If I knew what the answer was to make sure we are still in 30 years, I’d ask for a big raise. What do you think?”
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways to put you and me in the same church.” (A classic Friedman line that gets you out of the bind of trying to make them happy.)
Now, you may not have the nerve to use any of these. I’ve found, however, that sometimes simply thinking one of them helps me loosen up and lowers my anxiety enough to consider what I actually can get out of my mouth.
Friedman said that if you keep rescuing people you never get change.
Avoid clergy burnout by focusing on your own goals
What to do instead: focus on your own goals, not on other people’s goals for you or your goals for them. You will be better off. Though it may seem counterintuitive, they will be better off, too. You are insisting they take responsibility for themselves, their relationships and their future. In addition, you are doing the same for yourself.
That’s productive work.
And here’s a post on working a little less hard.
Here are 3 ways to make stewardship preaching easier.
I recently interviewed Rev. Dr. Clayton Smith, executive pastor of generosity at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, in preparation for launching a podcast. But I don’t want to wait for the podcast to share with you some of his helpful thoughts on stewardship and preaching about money.
Clayton said that his D.Min. research showed that 2/3 of the pastors he interviewed would truly rather have a tooth pulled than preach about stewardship. The other 1/3 have more prophetic gifts and don’t mind stepping on toes. Which are you?
Here are three ways to reduce the pain, Clayton said.
1. Focus on the mission.
Review your mission statement, and look at the last three years of how your financial program has done. Think, for example, “We could do so much more if we had an increase of 10%.”
2. Focus on the ministry of it.
He says at the Church of the Resurrection, attention goes not to what they want from their people, but first what they want for them—more financial freedom, more generosity, more awareness of God’s provision. The purpose is “faith-raising” as much as “fund-raising.”
3. Focus on the relationships.
“Nurture the relationships you have with people,” Clayton said. He added that if you had coffee with givers once a month, in a year’s time you would make real progress. He also suggested you ask, “Would you consider giving a gift, or giving more?” He said that word “consider” helped make it easier for him to ask individuals to make bigger gifts.
Note: when you develop those relationships, it becomes easier to preach because you know people better. In addition, it will be far easier for people to hear what you have to say. Of course, in a larger church you can’t do this with everyone, but you can focus on key leaders.
Here’s a word of hope. Clayton said for many years as a senior pastor, this was his own most challenging area of ministry. Now it’s become a specialty and a calling. His book Propel is well worth reading.
Here’s an excellent article he wrote on setting stewardship goals.
Do you want to be a better pastor? Here are three tips you can use to improve your leadership at church, courtesy of Jesus. They come from the great commandment:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Matthew 22:27-40
Of course, these are far more than tips. They are commandments, which means God asks us to live them out. They are not simple, and not easy. However, even a little progress in any one of them can make us better pastoral leaders.
This is obvious, and you’d think we’d put this at the top of our priority list. You might say, I’m serving God, don’t you think I love God? However, it’s all too easy to put God at the bottom of our priority list in terms of time spent. Prayer gets crowded out by the busyness of ministry life. We know God will be there waiting, and the board chair/dying parishioner/noisy son or daughter can’t seem to wait.
Alternatively, we may feel a little cranky with a God who called us into such a challenging ministry, with the attendant struggles and often personal and congregational financial challenges. We avoid having the hard conversations in prayer.
I’ve said before that five minutes, or even one minute, of prayer is better than no minutes. I don’t want to make you feel guilty for not praying. I want you to get the spiritual support you need for your ministry. Remember, even if you don’t feel like you can love God right now because you are struggling, God always loves you. See if you can at least receive that love for a moment or two each day.
Love your neighbor.
Let’s face it: this can be a challenge in ministry. It’s easy to love the neighbor (read, church member) who loves us. It’s much harder to love the church member who is constantly critical, has no boundaries, or can’t tolerate even an ounce of change.
Yet there’s this commandment. Can you open your heart even an inch more to the most difficult person in your congregation? Note: this doesn’t mean letting them get away with everything, including taking hours of your time each week. It does mean accepting them just as they are, trusting that God loves them despite their challenges or the difficulties you have with them.
If you move toward loving those who are most difficult, you’ll notice a lighter spirit in relation to them. It may never be easy, but it can be a little bit easier.
At the same time, make sure to spend some time with the easy wonderful people in your congregation, the ones who are easy to love.
Jesus doesn’t say explicitly love yourself, but he does say Love your neighbor as yourself. So in fact this shouldn’t be last. When I was a child I learned a Sunday School song that said, “Jesus, others, then you, what a wonderful way to spell joy.” Message: always put yourself last. I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended here.
Can you love yourself no matter what is going on in the ministry, whether worship attendance is up or down, or giving is up or down, whether people in the church love you or are ready to ask you to leave?
Love yourself as much as God does – or move in that direction – and you’ll be more joyful.
Here’s a post on lowering your ministry stress.
Many churches have just completed their annual meetings and passed their budgets. What was the result for your own compensation?
I find a big variation in the range of clergy compensation and in the attitudes of churches toward paying their pastors. Over the last few years, many church budgets have been flat or declining. Many churches never give raises for merit or experience, and some churches have not even given cost of living increases, in order to balance the budget. And of course, the cost of living was essentially flat last year. (Although see this article from Smart Church Management about projected salary increases for 2016.)
Clergy have mixed feelings in talking with their congregations about their salary. They are afraid to seem greedy if they advocate for themselves. They are anxious because people’s giving supports them, and because of the percentage of the budget that is salary (the smaller the church, the higher the percentage).
I recommend a different approach: taking a clear, non-defensive stand for what is important to you, while open-heartedly appreciating your congregation and those who make the financial decisions.
What to do now:
If you DID get a raise:
- Be grateful.
- Claim your value. Don’t be defensive.
- Do the best job you can in 2016.
If you DIDN’T get a raise:
- Let go of any resentment.
- Start now to get clarity for next year. Don’t wait until the October budget committee meeting.
- Do the best job you can in 2016.
What to do in the future:
- Track your own finances, so you know how much you actually need to live on now and for the future.
- Prayerfully prepare for the budget conversations, both as a whole, and with regard to salaries (your own and other staff members).
- Make a specific salary request. Don’t just wait for what the budget folks offer. It’s a way of taking responsibility for your own financial life. Make this request in the spirit that either “yes” or “no” is all right with you.
- Save this article to reread at budget time.
Coming next week: Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, The Training Program. This resource will help support you in your leadership (including money matters such as salary conversations).
Would you like to enjoy your ministry more this year? Here are three simple, though not necessarily easy, ways to do so.
First, let go of the outcome for the year.
This may seem counterintuitive at a time when everyone is thinking about resolutions and goals. In fact, I do recommend setting goals and moving toward them. At the same time, anxiously pursuing a goal, can paradoxically make it harder to achieve, especially if we are trying to control what others do (see next point).
Imagine holding the goal in the palm of your hand, lightly. You pay attention to it, but you are not tightly gripping it. Your whole body is more relaxed. You can put your energy toward the goal rather than in holding on to the goal. I think this may be part of the meaning of Yoda’s statement in Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back): “Do or do not. There is no try.” Make the decision to do something, take action in the moment and let the rest go.
Second, let go of changing other people.
You’ll enjoy your ministry more if you aren’t constantly trying to change others. Try it, just this year: accept them as they are.
Instead, focus on yourself, and how you want to be in relation to them. You may find some amazing things happen this year. At the very least, you’ll be less stressed about how others aren’t measuring up to your expectations. You may find that others do change in surprising ways, and you change, too. It’s the paradox of relationships: the more we try to change others, the more they resist. When we let go, there can be room for shifts to happen in the relationship.
Note: you can try this with your family, too.
Third, every day, decide to enjoy your ministry that day.
I’ve been experimenting with this, and I find it sets me up differently for the day. I write down each day, “Have a wonderful day while…(a quick summary of my specific plan).” Monday I was in bed recovering from a fall on Sunday (where thankfully all my bones stayed intact). This had not been not my plan for the day. But I reminded myself through the day that my intention was to have a wonderful day, recovering. My experience of the needed rest was very different than it might have been if I were anxiously thinking about everything I wasn’t getting done.
Some days are harder than others. If you are officiating at a difficult funeral or meeting with a church member who is upset with you, enjoyment may be a tall order. You might decide to have a meaningful day instead. When you decide in advance how you want to respond to the challenges of even a difficult day, you will experience it differently.
Here’s a post on another way to enjoy ministry more: do nothing regularly.
The pressure is on this next week to have a wonderful Fourth Sunday of Advent and a fabulous Christmas Eve service. You may feel like you are hanging on by your fingernails until Christmas Eve. Here are five ways to enjoy the rest of the year – three for between now and Christmas Eve and two for after Christmas.
- In the next week, work a little less hard than you usually do the week before Christmas. Ten percent, five percent or even one percent less. My husband says to me, “If you want to be happier, just lower your standards.” Occasionally I can actually take his advice, and it always helps. Let yourself do something less than excellent. Chances are your 90% is very good indeed. And stop every day for a few moments and breathe deeply.
- Receive the gifts of others. Take time to appreciate every gift you get in the next week. The tins of cookies. The book you may or may not want to read. The cash bonus. Savor each one, and the people who give them to you.
- Celebrate your work and the work of others. After the Christmas Eve service, stop for a moment. Rather than rushing to a feeling of relief that it’s over, take a few minutes to say thank you to everyone. Then sit down for at least one minute and appreciate your own work and the experience you helped create for everyone, including those who only come to worship once a year. Thank yourself for your hard work (even if you took my advice in #1).
Then, after Christmas:
- Take some time to review 2015. You can do this in less than fifteen minutes. Take five minutes and write own what went right: what you accomplished, what you learned, what you enjoyed. Then take no more than five minutes and write down some of the challenges you faced. Then take another five minutes to focus on what else went right for you this year.
- Celebrate all you have achieved, personally and professionally. Perhaps you could give yourself a little reward. If it was a hard year, celebrate that you survived it. It’s so easy to jump to regret or self-reproach for what we didn’t do, or the ways we failed. Or, we quickly move on the next obligation or project. Take time to savor the blessings of the year.
Here’s another post on how to survive Advent.