How can you offer living water through your preaching when your well is bone dry?
Have you ever asked yourself this? I have, many times. During my years as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, the question usually struck me during the middle of May. My professional calendar paralleled that of the public schools. During July and August, I took time off from preaching to enjoy family vacation and recharge my batteries. I started a new preaching series in September, bounding with enthusiasm. The Spirit-driven wind of the Christian year carried me along through Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. But I hit the doldrums, almost inevitably, every May.
I knew I was slowing down when I'd reach the weekend without a sermon prepared. It would be hard for me to focus on the main point of the biblical text. Appropriate illustrations eluded my imagination. I could easily become discouraged, wondering what was wrong with me. Maybe, I thought, I just wasn't spiritually mature enough to be a preacher.
Sucking the Muck
One time I shared my May struggle with John Huffman, a wise, experienced pastor in a church near Irvine. He told me a story (which he also tells in this sermon) that encouraged me greatly. One Sunday evening in June, John attended worship at Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. The preacher that night was Dr. Harold Ockenga, the church's senior pastor and one of the leading Christians of the 20th century. In that sermon, Dr. Ockenga announced that he was about to embark on his summer vacation. "I have been working since last September," Ockenga explained to his congregation, "drinking from the fresh waters of the well. Now the well is exhausted, and I am down to the bottom, sucking muck."
John added, "I often feel that way before my summer break. Don't berate yourself for your spiritual immaturity. You probably just need a vacation." John's words encouraged me tremendously. If such fine preachers as Harold Ockenga and John Huffman sometimes sucked the muck from the bottom of the well, then maybe I wasn't such a terrible pastor after all.
Yet, even though John's counsel set me free from beating myself up for my May muckiness, I still had to preach, and I still wanted to preach sermons that offered living water to my congregation. What could I do to be a faithful preacher when I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted?
Time for a Break?
I talked about my May struggle with a fellow preacher and good friend, Tod Bolsinger. He admitted that he had a similar tendency. His solution was simple: Take a vacation. Rather than saving up all of his vacation time for summer, Tod would take a week off in April or May. This would renew his energy and give him fresh enthusiasm for his preaching.
I could see Tod's point, but my personal situation made it difficult to stop work in the spring. I wanted to save up most of my vacation for time when my kids were out of school. Plus, I wanted to take a week off after Christmas. So I didn't want to use a vacation week in the spring. (In retrospect, I realize that I could very well have planned to use professional development/study leave time to recharge my batteries. But, for some reason, this idea didn't commend itself to me while I was a parish pastor. I think I was overly committed to working the entire school year because that's what I expected of myself.)
If May and June tend to be muck-sucking months for you, I'd encourage you to think more seriously about Tod's suggestion than I did. Is there some way you can give yourself a break from work before the closing stretch? Minimally, can you find a way to have your pulpit covered by someone else, perhaps a staff colleague or a guest preacher?
The problem with relying on pulpit supply to give you the break you need is that, for many pastors, the most exhausting part of the job isn't preaching. Yes, preaching is demanding. But it is also rewarding. I loved being able to share with my congregation each week what God had taught me through my preparation, and they usually received it with open and grateful hearts. It was the rest of my pastoral duties that tended to drain my spiritual reserves. Personnel hassles, capital campaigns, driving in traffic to make hospital visits, listening to people's unfulfilled expectations for me, dealing with recalcitrant lay leaders, and carrying the spiritual burdens of my congregation were the things that wore me out. Thus, having a guest preacher or two in the late spring might have given me a gulp of fresh water, but it wouldn't have done much to refill my mucky well.
But what if you just can't take time off from your pastoral duties? Or what if, after stepping back for a week, you still feel spent? How can you preach living water without spewing muck? I'll say more about this in my next column in The Pastor's Workshop.