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andrew picard: is preaching bad for your health?

I love preaching and in pastoral ministry I gave myself to it. It is the primary sense of God’s call on my life. But having been out of weekly preaching for a little while, I’m now wondering aloud if preaching is bad for your health?

 

Preaching every week is a demanding calling. For me, despite my love for it, preaching was often bad for my health. At the worst of times it became a robber. I allowed it to rob me of health, sleep and sanity and I allowed it to rob my family of a husband and a dad. While some of the conspiring factors are unique to my own weaknesses, I think some of the conspiring factors are common to those engaged in weekly preaching.

 

My rhythms for preaching quickly became unhealthy because of my perfectionist tendencies and my need to please others. My rhythms for the preaching task fitted in around the rest of the busy ministry life. I was diligent in study during the week, giving my best time to sermon preparation. After all I had the responsibility to proclaim the Word of God. Also, preaching is a public setting, and who wants to fail in a public setting? I worked hard at exegesis. I worked hard at understanding deep culture and engaging the contemporary world in creative ways. I read widely and listened well. I was way too diligent. I love input, and was always looking for more. Books grew around me like a virus (piles found all over the house). I always thought, ‘just one more’ (book or journal article or online resource) would give me that magical insight.

 

By Friday I had a mountain of work I’d done on the sermon, but the clouds were always gathering. To put a spin on Campolo’s line – it might have been Friday but Sunday’s a-comin’. Saturdays were most often spent on sermons. If I wasn’t working on it, I was wishing that I could. I might have been playing with my children but I was thinking about my sermon. On the weekend I was present but not really present. We came to describe the weekend as always ‘overcast’ – the sermon hovered over my head and dominated the skyline. Out of anxiety, I’d work late into the night on Saturday tweaking, re-tweaking and re-re-tweaking (read – obsessing over it). On Sunday I’d get up early and get down to church, preach twice, linger around church until about 1pm, go home eat lunch and then the crash would come. By 2pm on Sunday afternoon the quaterzol, adrenaline and stress hormones would drop and I would hit the wall. Just when my family thought I would finally be available for them, I had to go to bed from exhaustion. I would emerge from bed by 4pm still exhausted but knowing that we needed to do something together (often attend a social church event). By now, I’d start to worry and feel guilty that I might have offended someone in my sermon – especially if someone had made a “helpful” comment. On Monday, my day off, I’d be starting to feel better (often I was still recovering) but my eldest daughter had to go to school. Then on Tuesday I’d go and do it all again.

 

Obviously I’m describing the worst of times, and obviously I had weaknesses to face. Nonetheless, without naming these things well and developing strategies, preaching can be hazardous to your health. I’d love to hear, has preaching been hazardous for your health? And, how do structure your preaching ministry to ensure that you care for those God has first given to you – God, self, your family and friends?

 

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Andrew Picard is…

26 Comments

  1. Greg Liston says:

    Brilliant post Andrew, and well made point. The auestion I’d ask is whether preaching, in this regard, is different from any other job that you care about. As a preacher I agonise over my sermons. All of the negative impacts above that you mention I strongly relate to and suffer from. The thing is, before I was a pastor I was a management consultant. And I remember just as many sleepless nights and anxious days doing that job. I came to see most of these more as consequences of me being me rather than consequences of me being a pastor. Do you agree?

  2. Andrew Picard says:

    Hi Greg, yep, much of what I faced was ‘my stuff’ that I needed to work through regardless of my context. The weight of leadership can be very heavy. However, whilst I think that leadership is hard whatever the context, I think that preaching and pastoral ministry has some crucial differences from other workplaces (I say this as someone who has never been a consultant!). The key difference in my mind is the nature of churches as emotional systems. I have found Family Systems Theory hugely helpful in this area (e.g. Bowen, Friedman and Steinke). Churches function more like a family than a workplace. The people you preach to and lead with are people who you know and love and who, in time, know and love you. You do life together. Lines of power and authority are blurred and this can be a good thing but also quite complex. The one preaching would seem to be the one with power and yet they are the employee of the audience and crucially they are their friends. We preach to people who we share meals with, raise children with, rejoice and grieve with, welcome their new children and burying them or their loved ones, these are people that we do life with. This is a very different context than any workplace I have ever worked in. Leadership and preaching in this emotional system is quite different than a workplace. People are more willing to offer feedback and this is a good thing – it shows people thankfully realise that you are not the only who can interpret scripture for living, it shows they feel safe enough to give feedback and it shows that your sermon was engaging (postively or negatively). However, wouldn’t this be different than consulting? Preaching is a crucial part of pastoral leadership and it is done in the most public setting to family and it addresses all aspects of their life (not just workplace efficiency and effectiveness), encouraging them to bring all of life under Christ’s Lordship. This has quite a different feel to it than leadership one on one or in the boardroom with employees about KPIs or work matters. These are a few of my random thoughts. I’d love to hear your thoughts as one who has actually been a consultant! 🙂

    1. Geoff New says:

      Hi Andrew. I really resonate with your comments about the value of Family Systems Theory (FST). I too have found it an invaluable lens through which to consider ministry. With regards to this discussion about preaching – I wonder if the particular contribution FST makes is its premise that all emotional systems are attempting to cope with anxiety. FST posits there are two kinds of anxiety – acute (e.g. sudden illness, financial problems, a squabble etc) or chronic. It’s the chronic anxiety which especially fuels unhealthy emotional systems, say, in a church. The call from FST theorists is to become more “self-differentiated.” That is, being very clear about your call, values and boundaries yet all the while remaining connected with others in healthy ways. Specifically, by not entering into triangles (i.e. alliances) against someone/others/an issue. (I think it was Bowen who claimed that on a scale of 1-100, with 100 being totally self-differentiated, anyone getting to the 50-75 range in a lifetime is doing well!) Being “self-differentiated” as a preacher takes some doing – because as you point out it is a powerful role in a community. I find the account in John 13 very helpful. Jesus – knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up, wrapped a towel around Himself and washed feet. What happens next is Jesus remains firmly focused on His mission while all around Him the disciples are lurching from one position to the other. Or – to put it another way – are fighting and struggling with high levels of anxiety. To go back to your original post – I wonder if the crux of the issue is that someone in the community of faith needs to express and embody the call of God in such a way that shows what it looks like to be coping with chronic anxiety within the community, being self-differentiated, and enabling others to do and be the same. In short – to demonstrate a genuine non-anxious presence. I think one of the best positions to do that from is from the pulpit. But how?! I think the preacher needs to undergo a “conversion” of some description which is a seismic shift in how anxiety is dealt with. Reinhold Niebuhr said “Anxiety is the internal precondition of sin” and Kierkegaard said “Anxiety is the psychological condition that precedes sin.” Anxiety is not sin in and of itself – but it borders it. Niebuhr goes onto to comment “Yet anxiety is not sin. . .Man (sic) is anxious not only because his life is limited and dependent and yet not so limited that he does not know of his limitations. He is also anxious because he does not know the limits of his possibilities. He can do nothing and regard it perfectly done, because higher possibilities are revealed in each achievement.” How true of the preacher!

    2. Greg Liston says:

      Thanks Andrew. My post shouldn’t be seen as an “additional minor point” to your original post rather than a all-out rebuttal (which on rereading what I wrote and your reply I fear it may have come across as being.) My point is small – just that many other jobs are hazardous in ways that sometimes mimic and sometimes differ from the ways preaching is hazardous. So we shouldn’t be thinking preaching is unique in this respect. Moreover that other factors (such as personality type) have a big impact on whether the “potential hazard” turns into a real negative impact. The fact that pastoring and preaching is different in many ways from other jobs (as you outline), which makes it both harder in some ways and easier than others, I agree with completely.

      1. Greg Liston says:

        Obviously typing too quickly. I meant … ‘My post should be seen as an “additional minor point” to your original post’, not that it shouldn’t.

  3. Andrew Picard says:

    Hi Greg, I’m sorry if my reply was heavy-handed, it wasn’t supposed to be. I read your reply as an additional minor point (and a very good one) and not an all out rebuttal. I think your point is a very good one.
    Hi Geoff, thanks for sharing your expertise on FST. I was wondering how to outline FTS succinctly and couldn’t do it, but your reply does it wonderfully well – thanks. I think I struggled in my early years of preaching and ministry because I wasn’t a non-anxious presence. Self-differentiation is very difficult and it is easy to allow anxiety and fear to be your master and add anxiety into emotional systems. For me, this took some time in psychotherapy, coming to understand FTS and a renewed trust in Jesus as the saviour of the church (rather than me and my ministry). I’m struck by how often Jesus says to his followers “don’t be afraid”. I especially love John’s image of the risen Christ in Revelation 1. John the pastor is facing significant fear factors personally and also in his churches under the Roman Empire. In his vision he sees the Risen Christ in all his glory place his hand upon his shoulder and say “don’t be afraid…” This was a central text for me in learning how I could become a non-anxious presence – learning to trust the risen Christ as the Lord of the church and participate in his ministry. It was much less stressful once I came to trust that the church didn’t need me as a saviour – it already had one 🙂

    1. Greg Liston says:

      It’s all good Andrew. 🙂 Is there a good introductory book on Family Systems Therapy you could recommend?

      1. Geoff New says:

        Hi Greg,
        (Forgive me Andrew for elbowing in on Greg’s question…) I think that “Creating a Healthier Church: family systems theory, leadership & congregational life” (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996) by Ronald W. Richardson is superb! Chp 8 deserves much reflection and serves as an ongoing reference point for anyone in pastoral ministry. His short section on “pursuers and distancers” (pp 69-72) explains so much about troubling patterns that pastors can experience with particular people in congregations.
        “How Your Church Family Works: understanding congregations as emotional systems” (Herndon: Alban Institute, 2006) by Peter L. Steinke is another essential reference. Another treasure from the Alban Institute who never seem to fail to publish fantastic and incisive resources for pastoral ministry.

  4. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    Thanks guys for this very useful thread!

  5. Andrew Picard says:

    No problems Geoff, thanks for sharing. I hadn’t heard of Richardson’s book, I’ll have to follow that up. I’d also add Friedman “Generation to Generation”.

    1. Greg Liston says:

      Thanks all!

  6. Hi Andrew and team,

    Thanks for the courage you have brought to this conversation. This thread has been really helpful in my thinking about how to survive (or even thrive!) as a pastor.

    I have become less shy about saying that the pastoral role is particularly difficult – not the most difficult or special job in the world, but particularly challenging because of a) the wide range of skills used in any given day, particularly for sole or general pastors, b) the high and deeply held expectations of many churchgoers and c) the overlapping and circling relationships, where my employers, students, evaluators, counselees, advisors and friends can be the same people on the same day.

    My brief and shallow forays into Family Systems Theory have been hugely helpful so far, particularly in discussions with my work supervisor who’s also a psychotherapist, and I’ve now ordered the Richardson book after reading the first two chapters on Amazon – thanks, Geoff, for the recommendation.

    So thanks, everyone, for your wisdom and openness. This has been extremely helpful.

    I guess my remaining question is about how denominational leadership or other people or structures external to the pastor and congregation can support healthy relationships and expectations in churches. I feel like the task of being the good example of self-differentiation and non-anxious relating is pretty huge if the pastor is the only one doing it amid an anxious congregation – especially if the pastor has to do all of that emotional wrestling at the same time as writing sermons, building community and caring for people.

    1. Andrew Picard says:

      Great thoughts Thalia, especially about denominational leaders equipping pastors for this and haing to wrestle with emotional systems in the midst of busy congregational life. I think over time learning to be a non-anxious presence can be hugely liberating . But, I think pastoring during a time of church decline (which is true of most denominations at the moment) brings out more anxiety than when we’re in a growth phase. It’s pretty uncomfortable when people are leaving the church and they’re leaving because of you (the pastor). I also think equipping young pastors to realise that this is a natural cycle of movement (people leaving) that takes some time to work itself out. It’s not about you or your preaching. However, at other times it is about you and your preaching and you have to figure out whether the criticism is fair or whether you’re being asked to become something you aren’t. People left because I didn’t preach in the ways or on the things they wanted. I remember being completely stressed out about this. Over time I came to realise that I couldn’t pretend to be someone other than I was and that God had called me as me to pastor at the church. At other times I had been insensitive in my preaching and needed to apologise and grow. It is a terrifying feeling when you’re new to think “people are leaving because of me. Am I going to ruin this church?” I think we need to better equip newbies like me for this process, and I think some understanding of how anxiety functions personally and as part of an emotional system (FST) is crucial.

  7. Thanks, Andrew.

    Great point about the anxiety that comes from watching people respond to your preaching.

    I agree this stuff would be great to include in training. It may well have been in mine, but if it was I don’t think I had the context to absorb it at the time. Anyone else encountered this kind of material in their pastoral training?

    I also wonder about denominational leadership roles in sort of educating and encouraging congregations along healthy lines too.

    I guess it’s an ‘it takes two to tango’ kind of thing (actually whatever number of people in the system) – it’s all very well the pastor deciding to work on self-differentiating and modelling non-anxious behaviour, but wouldn’t it be great – and easier for the pastor to do their part – if each person in the congregation’s part in building a healthy community life was made explicit (as I’m sure it is in some places).

    So that leads to my question about the role of people external to the pastor and church, not just to support and train the pastor in their pursuit of healthy relating (vital, of course) but also to support and train congregations in their behaviour in the system.

  8. Andrew Picard says:

    You’re so right Thalia, emotional systems are a ‘two-way street’ and the whole system needs addressing. I don’t remember anything to do with healthy emotional systems, self-differentiation or anxiety in my training and I think it is fundamental to ministry. It would be a huge help to have someone with wisdom and understanding to guide church and pastor towards becoming a healthy emotional system. I think education, courage and wisdom are crucial and having someone provide this would be wonderful.

  9. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    Brian Krum talked a bit about the anxious/non-anxious leader when we did “Spiritual Leadership” with him. He also got our class to read & review “Healthy Congregations” by Peter Steinke when we did “Pastoral Care.” I had a few conversations with Charles about this also, so it was mentioned.

    Brian recommended “Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions” and “Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems, Making a Difference” both by Roberta M. Gilbert, when I was talking to him about pastoral things at MDC in June. They are both Family Systems Theory books. I have read most of the first one & found it helpful.

  10. Andrew Picard says:

    That’s great to hear Robyn, it sounds like it was well covered in your training. Have you found it helpful in forming healthy emotional systems as you navigate the early years of ministry? How have you made use of FST in ministry?
    Thalia, you’ve got me thinking. It would be interesting to hear from other denominational groups about what kind of support/leadership they get to help form emotionally healthy and mature congregations. Geoff, what do the Presbyterians do? I’d love to hear from any other traditions about support/leadership they get in forming healthy emotional systems.

  11. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    I’m certainly not an expert at FST Andrew, but I have done quite a lot of thinking about the self-differentiated leader & it has helped. I think it has helped me quite a lot with other relationships too, wider family etc.

    I read a bit of the Richardson book at college but I’m keen to reread it after your post 🙂

    1. Andrew Picard says:

      🙂 I’m not an expert either Robyn, but like you I’ve found it helpful not just at church but wider relationships too. It sounds like I’ll have to get my hands on a copy of the Richardson book too.

  12. Geoff New says:

    Hi Andrew,
    In response to your question about what the Presbyterians are doing to help form healthy emotional systems. I’m not sure that FST is strictly in view per se – but they have overhauled the minister’s review system (a rigorous process once every two years and a certificate of good standing issued), all ministers must have compulsory supervision, and there are church reviews which have been overhauled also but I don’t know the details of that yet to really comment.
    Re resources – I would recommend that anyone who has orientated (or reorientated as the case may be) themselves to FST by reading the aforementioned books; you will NOT be disappointed to then read A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman (Eds. Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal. New York: Seabury, 2007). It was published posthumously. I don’t have the book in front of me – but from memory chp 2 or 3 is a must-read for any pastor. The whole book is great, but he has some great summaries in there in chart -form which describe FST and the effects on groups of people. In essence – how through and because of anxiety, the most dysfunctional people/sub-groups tend to get their way because no-one has the strength, courage or imagination to perceive it or stand up to them. The herding instinct takes over. In this book Friedman also includes memorable analogies of likening/explaining FST in terms of electricity and immune systems. Really, REALLY helpful material! He also helpfully describes some of the journey in coming to a place of self-differentiation – you will ask yourself “How can you have it right and everyone else be crazy?” (pg 189).
    The thing is – as a preacher all this amounts to being prophetic. Elsewhere Friedman (in his first book Generation-to-Generation) quips that some of the most dysfunctional places on earth are synagogues (he was a Rabbi) and churches. Why? Because in such places people are meant to be “nice” and so dysfunctional, bullying and out-there behaviour goes unchallenged.
    Maybe the question which needs to be addressed is – How does my preaching enable unhealthy emotional systems. There is a very long-serving and effective AOG pastor in the town where I minister. He claims that you face the consequences of your own preaching in your congregation after 7 years. What do to? Leave after 6? Or…

  13. Ryan Bond says:

    Thanks to you all for your honesty. As someone beginning a preaching ministry it is helpful to know it is not only newcomers to regular preaching who struggle with these issues.

  14. Andrew Sangster says:

    Thanks so much Andrew and others for telling parts of your story so openly, and for the book recommendations. For a 1x per month preaching guy, a lot of this has been relevant for me. I think it’s so healthy this conversation is taking place.
    I’ve needed to be in a context where where “my stuff” has been rasied before I can go back to parts of my training (and other places) and understand a little more of what was being taught and discussed. In relation to anxiety with preaching and leadership, I’ve recently found helpful the challenge of having more confidence in God, particulalry in how God has made me. Cheers again.

  15. Myk Habets says:

    Hi all, I am the odd one out in a way in that I have never been a sole pastor and so have never had to carry the preaching for years on end. But I think that gives me room to comment too. Why do you preach so much you Baptist pastors you?! There are most probably at least a few people in each congregation who may be able to preach competently, or a few who could be trained to do so – like an elder perhaps (who has to be able to teach given Biblical requirements). Early Baptist pastors did not preach exclusviely but developed small teams. Why not do that? Also, while I sympathise with all your sentiments and acept them all – Andrew I wonder if you will lie awake at night and exhaust yourself with lecture preparation nd del;ivery – over a 3 hour period each time not 30 mins, and so I wonder if this has as much to do with temperament as with anything else? Ministry must be enjoyable is a mantra of mine (not 100% of the time of coruse but…). How can we develop soul competancies to sustain God’s high calling on our lives, whatever the minstiry we are involved in is?

    1. Andrew Picard says:

      Thanks all, I thought this thread had died, but I’m glad to see it’s still going. Thanks Ryan and Andrew for your contributions,, I think it’s something we don’t often talk about but the stats of burn out tell us we should.
      Myk, I think you’re right when you say it’s a huge part to do with temperament. Nonetheless, so far I’ve found lecturing much less stressful than preaching every week. I’m not sure why that is, I think I’ve really enjoyed the interaction with lecturing and I’ve loved having a general plan of where the 3 hours are going but allowing interaction with the students to shape it. This might have something to say to preaching. These are obviously very early thoughts… In terms of developing teams, I totally agree, it’s a gospel imperative. One of my greatest thrills was seeing other people preach in ways that I couldn’t. We developed a team of 5 really good preachers where I was (3 of them were excellent woman preachers). Still, the bulk of the preaching load still fell upon me and I think the anxiety issues aren’t related to work load. Anxiety, for me, was related to preaching ministry within the wider context of pastoral leadership and the dynamics of the local church as an emotional system. Like Andrew, I’ve had to learn to have more trust in God and the ongoing ministry of Christ in his church.

  16. Myk Habets says:

    Awesome! I agree with you that lecturing is very different from preaching – less emoitonally draining and more interactive. Blessings.

    1. Clay Smith says:

      Another good introductory book on FST for pastoral leaders is “The Leader’s Journey” by Herrington, Creech and Taylor, published by Jossey-Bass, 2003.

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