Caring for Preachers and Pastors

04-06-2011 by

Jennifer Aycock
Ruth Haley Barton is founder of the Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of pastors, Christian leaders and the congregations and organizations they serve. She is the author of numerous books and articles including “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry,” “Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, Invitation to Solitude and Silence,” and “Longing for More”. She spoke at McCormick’s “Preaching as Leadership: Meeting the Challenges of 21st Century Ministry” event on April 5-6 in Chicago.

Q: Why should preachers attend to the care of their souls?

If they do not, they will dry up. Preaching can become nothing more than a clever arrangement of ideas, composed primarily of intellectual work and the skill it takes to prepare and deliver a message. This is not the same thing as a message given by God through you to the congregation.

Q: How do you define successful preaching?

Someone can use language well and be polished, but that does not mean the message is anointed and what the congregation needs. When spiritual anointing and what is most needed in a moment come together in a sermon, it can be truly amazing. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a great example. His content was rich with metaphor and it possessed great theological and philosophical depth, but his messages also came out of his own listening to the Spirit for what was needed in the moment.

Q: Can preaching be a transformational moment for both the preacher and the congregation?

Preaching comes from transformational moments that a preacher has with God, not only personally, but those moments when a preacher is called to say something risky, vulnerable, tender, or out on an edge. Preachers need to cultivate obedience and a willingness to be with God in such a way that it results in prophetic moments like the messages that came from God through Isaiah and Jeremiah.

It is risky to evaluate the transformative impact of a message on the basis of how the congregation receives it in the moment. We need to be patient and wait to see the truth and impact of the message made clear in the changed lives of the congregation.

Q: What is needed in preaching preparation and delivery?

Pastors and preachers need time in their spiritual rhythms to personally be in the Scriptures before they bring Scripture to others. This is giving God access to our own souls in private; it’s being under the word of God, as Bonhoeffer wrote. Preachers need time with God in which God can say things to us and we can say things to God that are not meant for public consumption.

We may receive a message that requires great boldness and courage or we may need to be restrained when we receive a word that a congregation is not yet ready to hear. It takes spiritual wisdom not only to discern what needs to be said but when it needs to be said.

Part of preparing to preach includes a rigorous check on our motives. It is an abuse to use the preaching platform for our self to bully others, to air our pet peeves, or to subtly critique and criticize our captive audience. This check involves evaluating the message and its delivery by the standard of speaking truth in love and speaking only those things that are intended to edify and build up the body.

Finally, we need to ask, “Am I living what I am preparing to preach to others?” and “God, what do you have to say to me before I speak this to others?” The call to preach is also a call to live what we preach - however imperfectly - and that is usually the harder thing! But Jesus is our example when he says to Nicodemus, “We speak of what we know, we testify to what we have seen.” 

Q: What do you find pastors need most to sustain their preaching ministry?

Preachers need to discipline themselves to build in recovery time so what has been poured out can be replenished and their spirits can be refreshed and renewed. Pastors need a Sabbath. They need two days off; one day to do the work of being human and one day devoted entirely to rest, worship, and delight.

There is also a tremendous need for solitude and silence, to make time to shut our mouths and be in silence before our Lord. Silence can feel threatening because we experience our emptiness but there is an invitation to move through the emptiness and experience a silence that is full of God’s presence.

Preachers also need friendships and relationships apart from being a pastor. My brother, a pastor, competes in Iron Man competitions where he gets to be just an athlete and not a pastor. It rests his soul in a whole different way.

Q: How can we better develop the whole person for ministry?

Academics and theological training alone simply do not prepare people for long-term sustainability and health in ministry. Little attention is given to future pastors’ health, wholeness, and life patterns that will sustain them for the long haul. Research indicates that pastors are among the least healthy as measured by instances of heart disease, obesity, depression, and other illnesses. In my work, we integrate all aspects of the person: physical, spiritual, psychological, intellectual, and relational. Ministry preparation that does not touch on all of these is in the end, going to be found wanting.  

Q: Is there a particular challenge that all pastors face?

Many are woefully unprepared to deal with sexuality and power in the context of ministry. The pastoral position is one of power and often, power gets sexualized.

Even persons who might not normally be thought of as physically attractive can become sexually attractive to others because they have power. When a member of the congregation responds to a pastor because of that attraction, it is really about power. Spirituality and sexuality are closely aligned; when we deal with spiritual issues, our sexuality can be awakened as well.

We need  open conversations about sexuality and power. Pastors need to better understand their own sexuality and the sexuality of others; it is a part of learning to behave ethically and lead lovingly and responsibly. At all times, it is unethical to use our power in a sexual way or to receive someone else’s sexual advances as anything other than the projection or acting out that it is.

Given all the pain, heartache and failure in the church around issues of sexuality, I think this is one of most important areas to focus on in preparing pastors for ministry.

For more information on the Transforming Center: