Sermonophobia

It’s been months since I’ve really written a sermon.

I love writing sermons. It is why I became a pastor. Others have told me I’m a pretty good preacher.

But I can’t preach. Or perhaps more accurately, I can’t write. I can’t put the thoughts together. I can’t concentrate. I can’t read (even other sermons). The thought of actually stringing together twelve minutes of application of the Word of God, delivering the Gospel, and putting this all together, well, it terrifies me.

Well, the fact that I am writing this to you is a sign that things are getting better. I hope to be well enough to actually write and preach a sermon soon. But we will leave this in the Lord’s hands on the timing of it all.

But I understand the fear of preaching. Anyone who truly understands the character and nature of preaching should have a holy fear of this great and awesome task. With Isaiah we cry out “I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips!” No one is worthy in their own right to preach God’s Word. It is only by the call of God to the Office of Preaching that one can preach at all.

So all of us preachers should have a holy fear of preaching. Like handling dynamite or a live fish, it must be done very carefully in the best of circumstances.

But that really isn’t what I’m talking about here. Depression and anxiety do things to us sermon writers. (These may apply in other areas as well, but I’m talking about getting back into preaching here.) Here’s some of them from depression:

  • It utterly taps your energy. Sermons, if they are done properly, are a lot of work. It is a craft, learned in the school of experience. They are some combination between poetry, prose, persuasive speaking, the way a father speaks to his children, and who knows what else. But if you don’t have the juice to get up in the morning, your run-of-the-mill sermon becomes a mountain looking down at you and laughing.
  • You come to believe everyone is judging you. My sermons aren’t what they used to be. I’m just not my old self. Why don’t I have the fire of my youth?
  • Giving is almost impossible. Depression creates such a blanket and such a darkeness that the act of actually giving to someone else (in the sense of preaching the Gospel) is like a trying to cut your leg off and give it to someone. It is physically painful at times. I’m going to write about this more, because most people don’t realize that depression isn’t simply mental. It is very physical.

Anxiety, on the other hand, does other things:

  • Makes you afraid of other people or situations of stress. While for those pastors who are truly comfortable in the chancel and the pulpit, this may not be so much. But for others, standing in front of 200 people is terrifying.
  • You become afraid you’re going to have a heart attack or something to that effect. Heart racing, mind running a million miles a second (and in suuupppeeerrr sllllooooowwww moooottiiioonnn at the same time due to depression), and you might just pass out from the whole thing.
  • You get a gargantuan desire to simply run away and hide. Not deal with it, people, the situation, whatever. Flee! Run to the hills! Anywhere but there. I have often described anxiety as basically a phobia about everything. Hard to live with, especially while preaching.

So what is the recovering preacher to do? It’s a tough one. But here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t think of this process as a failure you have to live with forever. God heals in His own time and at His own pace. You are not a failure because you’re sick and can’t preach. The fact that you have some desire to get at it again (which may take months or even years to get to that point) is a sign of healing. It will take time, but God, your church, your family, and everyone want you back. You are not a failure.
  2. Start off by using a recycled sermon, but one that is YOURS. I know this isn’t the same as getting things flowing all the way, but it can help you build up confidence to get back into the oratorical saddle.
  3. Try short spurts of work on the sermon. This is hard for me, because I usually sit down and write a sermon in one fell swoop. But it may require rethinking that process. You may not be able to concentrate for that long in one stretch. That’s okay. Things can change. It may take longer for things to percolate. Think of it as a fine wine, rather than an automatic drip coffeemaker.
  4. Pray. Short and sweet if that’s all you’ve got. Kyrie eleison. They are the Lord’s Words, not yours. He will be there for you.

Well there are my thoughts on the challenges of getting back into preaching. Anyone else have something to contribute?

23 thoughts on “Sermonophobia”

  1. I know what you are talking about. I haven’t written a sermon in two years. Actually I have only been a pastor for two years. My depression is situational. I went through a divorce two months into my ministry. I am over the depression that set on me, not quite over the anger. Yet, I have not been able to get back into sermon writing. Of course the people think my sermons are better than when I first started out and was writing them. Soemtimes I try, but it seems I write three or four sermons none of which I want to preach on Sunday morning, so I go into the pulpit with nothing but an idea flesh it out in front of them and it seems to work, but I do wish I could write a sermon again. I don’t have the luxury of sermons I wrote before.

  2. I know what you are talking about. I haven’t written a sermon in two years. Actually I have only been a pastor for two years. My depression is situational. I went through a divorce two months into my ministry. I am over the depression that set on me, not quite over the anger. Yet, I have not been able to get back into sermon writing. Of course the people think my sermons are better than when I first started out and was writing them. Soemtimes I try, but it seems I write three or four sermons none of which I want to preach on Sunday morning, so I go into the pulpit with nothing but an idea flesh it out in front of them and it seems to work, but I do wish I could write a sermon again. I don’t have the luxury of sermons I wrote before.

  3. I have soemtimes found a little play-acting or fantasy to be helpful in this regard. Perhaps I cannot imagine myself preaching, having something to say, having the authority to say it, or the like. So I imagine myself to be someone else. What wouild a sermon by Luther or Augustine or Ken Korby sound like? What would he say to these people. It is a trick, a coping device, but it helps me remove myself and my fears or anxiety from the situation.

  4. I have soemtimes found a little play-acting or fantasy to be helpful in this regard. Perhaps I cannot imagine myself preaching, having something to say, having the authority to say it, or the like. So I imagine myself to be someone else. What wouild a sermon by Luther or Augustine or Ken Korby sound like? What would he say to these people. It is a trick, a coping device, but it helps me remove myself and my fears or anxiety from the situation.

  5. Pr. Weedon,
    for me, Bible Classes are even tougher. For the sermon, they are supposed to be silent. When they are silent during Bible Class, my anxieties about not being apt to teach run wild – are they not getting it, could I say it clearer, are they bored with me, etc.? And what if they ask a question that I should be able to answer, but my mind freezes up? at least with a sermon, I have the manuscript in the pulpit to tell me what to say next when my mind goes blank…
    as far as writing sermons goes, it’s been a while since I’ve started from scratch with my own. Mostly I’ve been doing a lot of borrowing from scholia, cwirla, Petersen and you.

  6. Pr. Weedon,
    for me, Bible Classes are even tougher. For the sermon, they are supposed to be silent. When they are silent during Bible Class, my anxieties about not being apt to teach run wild – are they not getting it, could I say it clearer, are they bored with me, etc.? And what if they ask a question that I should be able to answer, but my mind freezes up? at least with a sermon, I have the manuscript in the pulpit to tell me what to say next when my mind goes blank…
    as far as writing sermons goes, it’s been a while since I’ve started from scratch with my own. Mostly I’ve been doing a lot of borrowing from scholia, cwirla, Petersen and you.

  7. I find some, no, a lot of comfort in the fact that I am not alone in sermon preparation problems. The fact is, I find it physically, mentally,and spiritually exhausting. I can’t seem to put thoughts together as I once did.

    Brother Lynch mentioned he borrows from scholia, cwirla, and petersen. I’ve done a lot of heavy borrowing, OK, almost exclusive borrowing, from the first two sources.

    Should the suffering we experience from depression be compounded by guilt when using outside sources?

    Is it ethical to do this when scholia/cwirla tell us to go ahead and borrow?

    Appreciate any answer. Thanks.

  8. Your suggestions are great. I would add an anecdote from KISS guitarist Paul Stanley – some nights he would play absolutely on top of his game and no one would seem to notice. Other nights he would play poorly in his estimation, but fans would tell him how well he performed. The moral of the story is that novices don’t know what they are looking at – if you don’t preach a sermon that would draw the praise of seminary professors…who cares – the Word is effective on account of the Holy Spirit and not dependent on your use of persuasion techniques to manipulate thoughts and emotions. Rest in this.

    Give yourself permission to not know everything in Bible class. Of course you won’t be able to snap off references like you would ordinarily. Ask the rest of the class what they think about the question. Their answers may be spot-on, or they may lack, but their thoughts will stimulate different nodes in memory that will help you produce a solid answer – and buy your brain time to process the information (which it is doing more slowly during depression). You can still maintain your authority and not turn the class into a sharing of opinions time.

  9. Your suggestions are great. I would add an anecdote from KISS guitarist Paul Stanley – some nights he would play absolutely on top of his game and no one would seem to notice. Other nights he would play poorly in his estimation, but fans would tell him how well he performed. The moral of the story is that novices don’t know what they are looking at – if you don’t preach a sermon that would draw the praise of seminary professors…who cares – the Word is effective on account of the Holy Spirit and not dependent on your use of persuasion techniques to manipulate thoughts and emotions. Rest in this.

    Give yourself permission to not know everything in Bible class. Of course you won’t be able to snap off references like you would ordinarily. Ask the rest of the class what they think about the question. Their answers may be spot-on, or they may lack, but their thoughts will stimulate different nodes in memory that will help you produce a solid answer – and buy your brain time to process the information (which it is doing more slowly during depression). You can still maintain your authority and not turn the class into a sharing of opinions time.

  10. The Apostle said: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” not “Woe to me if I do not write my own sermons.” I personally find it next to impossible to preach another’s sermons – sometimes I’ve tried, when Fenton or someone said something just so great that I wanted to share it. But it inevitably comes off badly. Very irritating.

    I think borrowing another’s sermon, though, is like the rule with helping the poor: he who shall not work, let him not eat. That does NOT apply to him who CANNOT work. Such a person is to be helped. So if you are going through a spell where you simply cannot knock out a sermon and need to borrow some, rejoice that the bread of life is there for you to hand over to others. Think of Luther’s words about the Postils: if you can’t do better, at least read THESE!

    But I would think that writing your own again is the goal – maybe using some starter thoughts from others. Since no one else speaks the way you speak or thinks the way you think, the way you give the Gospel to your people is ultimately unique (even though it is one and the same Gospel being shared), and for your own sake I would use the sermons by others judiciously to get through. Like a drug – a big help, but don’t get hooked. My $.02.

  11. The Apostle said: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” not “Woe to me if I do not write my own sermons.” I personally find it next to impossible to preach another’s sermons – sometimes I’ve tried, when Fenton or someone said something just so great that I wanted to share it. But it inevitably comes off badly. Very irritating.

    I think borrowing another’s sermon, though, is like the rule with helping the poor: he who shall not work, let him not eat. That does NOT apply to him who CANNOT work. Such a person is to be helped. So if you are going through a spell where you simply cannot knock out a sermon and need to borrow some, rejoice that the bread of life is there for you to hand over to others. Think of Luther’s words about the Postils: if you can’t do better, at least read THESE!

    But I would think that writing your own again is the goal – maybe using some starter thoughts from others. Since no one else speaks the way you speak or thinks the way you think, the way you give the Gospel to your people is ultimately unique (even though it is one and the same Gospel being shared), and for your own sake I would use the sermons by others judiciously to get through. Like a drug – a big help, but don’t get hooked. My $.02.

  12. I don’t see any problem ethical or otherwise with borrowing sermons (if they’re good ones). The worst it can do is get you out of the practice of going through the process to prepare your own. It’s nothing to feel guilty about. Face it, not everyone can write decent sermons, or may be too paralyzed by depression to do so, but you still need to deliever the Gospel to your people (and hear it yourself). If the sources are good, go ahead, and adjust it as needed to your own situation.

    All throughout church history sermons have been published as helps for the “simple” pastor. That’s part of the reason why Luther’s sermons were published as well.

    One bit of humble advice that I would offer is that, if possible, to at least do someone of the background work you would do on writing a sermon each week, even if you cannot actually bring yourself to write it. Doing the background may seem like work, but you are just receiving in this case, not having to put forth the effort of being “creative.” It is good for you to study the Greek, perhaps read Luther, Church Fathers, commentaries, etc. if you are able.

  13. I don’t see any problem ethical or otherwise with borrowing sermons (if they’re good ones). The worst it can do is get you out of the practice of going through the process to prepare your own. It’s nothing to feel guilty about. Face it, not everyone can write decent sermons, or may be too paralyzed by depression to do so, but you still need to deliever the Gospel to your people (and hear it yourself). If the sources are good, go ahead, and adjust it as needed to your own situation.

    All throughout church history sermons have been published as helps for the “simple” pastor. That’s part of the reason why Luther’s sermons were published as well.

    One bit of humble advice that I would offer is that, if possible, to at least do someone of the background work you would do on writing a sermon each week, even if you cannot actually bring yourself to write it. Doing the background may seem like work, but you are just receiving in this case, not having to put forth the effort of being “creative.” It is good for you to study the Greek, perhaps read Luther, Church Fathers, commentaries, etc. if you are able.

  14. Dear Barely,

    Good ideas. And to make it even LESS painful, sometimes I let the Fathers read their sermons to me. I find a patristic sermon for a given text (usually from lectionarycentral.com), highlight it, and tell the computer to read it to me. Then I just sit back and enjoy the sermon (and the bloopers that inevitably accompany a computer reading!).

  15. Take this for what its worth. I actually had a similar anxiety and found that poking fun at my own sermon or my nervousness in the sermon helped me to stay balanced and not worry so much. I have found it healthier for me to include some things I have not figured out and to admit some of my weaknesses from the pulpit (not dirty laundry, but general weaknesses).

  16. Take this for what its worth. I actually had a similar anxiety and found that poking fun at my own sermon or my nervousness in the sermon helped me to stay balanced and not worry so much. I have found it healthier for me to include some things I have not figured out and to admit some of my weaknesses from the pulpit (not dirty laundry, but general weaknesses).

  17. I have to admit that I have done all of the above that is mentioned here, yet nothing seems to quite settle my anxieties over preaching. However, I always remember a wise pastor telling me once “your sermons will stink and they will shine, but you are not the judge of that, and never rely on the people’s judgments. If Law and Gospel are proclaimed and the cross is preached then the Lord’s will has been done. However, he reminded me that either way, the feeding of God’s people is not soley dependent on your 12-20 minutes of talking, the liturgy of the Word and Sacraments do this as well flawlessly each and every week. This has been huge relief to me as I step out of the pulpit with the thoughts of “what a bomb of a sermon I just gave…good or bad!” My vicarage supervisor advised me in a different fashion. He showed me how to talk out the text during the week. Do your study with good exegesis and read other sermons but also try to talk out your sermon throughout the week. He would do this with a common question of “if someone wished for him to explain the text(s) what would he say?” So in turn this “talking out” would happen all throughout the week. He would would try to discuss the readings with every shut-in communion visit, every possible phone discussion or with a parishoner that would stop in the office. He didn’t have a text written out in front of him, he was just making little comments or discussions about what he had read and studied. At times he would also refer to the texts in the midweek and Sunday morning Bible classes. I found this to be very helpful in that I learned to prepare my sermons without doing a lot of writing. Preaching is anything but “relaxed”, but I have found these tips and reminders to be helpful still today with calming me down with my anxieties. Just a few fledgling cents from a fellow dark roader wearing the topless oreo.

  18. I have to admit that I have done all of the above that is mentioned here, yet nothing seems to quite settle my anxieties over preaching. However, I always remember a wise pastor telling me once “your sermons will stink and they will shine, but you are not the judge of that, and never rely on the people’s judgments. If Law and Gospel are proclaimed and the cross is preached then the Lord’s will has been done. However, he reminded me that either way, the feeding of God’s people is not soley dependent on your 12-20 minutes of talking, the liturgy of the Word and Sacraments do this as well flawlessly each and every week. This has been huge relief to me as I step out of the pulpit with the thoughts of “what a bomb of a sermon I just gave…good or bad!” My vicarage supervisor advised me in a different fashion. He showed me how to talk out the text during the week. Do your study with good exegesis and read other sermons but also try to talk out your sermon throughout the week. He would do this with a common question of “if someone wished for him to explain the text(s) what would he say?” So in turn this “talking out” would happen all throughout the week. He would would try to discuss the readings with every shut-in communion visit, every possible phone discussion or with a parishoner that would stop in the office. He didn’t have a text written out in front of him, he was just making little comments or discussions about what he had read and studied. At times he would also refer to the texts in the midweek and Sunday morning Bible classes. I found this to be very helpful in that I learned to prepare my sermons without doing a lot of writing. Preaching is anything but “relaxed”, but I have found these tips and reminders to be helpful still today with calming me down with my anxieties. Just a few fledgling cents from a fellow dark roader wearing the topless oreo.

  19. “I have to admit that I have done all of the above that is mentioned here, yet nothing seems to quite settle my anxieties over preaching.”

    As one of the hearers, I want you to know that I care about hearing God’s law used lawfully (kill me!) and the Gospel preached abundantly. I don’t care who wrote it. (Although it does drive me nuts sometimes when I hear Fenton’s or Eckardt’s words coming out of my pastor’s mouth, … until I figure out that he borrowed. The style is just too different, and personally it helps me to know that he’s borrowed a sermon; it’s easier to hear the words coming with a different voice then. But I don’t think most people are like that.)

    As a penitent, might I suggest to you men who give Jesus to me, that when you are burdened with guilt for not writing your own sermons, that you go to your father-confessor and listen to his word of forgiveness? Sometimes knowing in your head that there’s nothing wrong with borrowing sermons is not enough. Satan toys with those feelings in your gut and puts guilt into you where Christ has made you free. Confess it. Confess that you are guilty. Confess that your illness has made you unable to work like you should. Confess that you are thinking more about what you do in the pulpit than in the Word of Grace that you preach. And your pastor will forgive. And the absolution strengthens (even when you don’t recognize it).

    And then pray the line from the Litany: “accompany your Word with your Spirit and grace” because I sure don’t have anything of myself to put into the equation here. We beseech You to hear us, good Lord.

    — a no-longer-so-rebellious pastor’s wife

  20. I’m not a preacher, deacon, pyschologist, or any of the like, but I have struggled for 11 long years with severe and often life-threatening depression. I KNOW it interferes with goals and responsibilities. However, I’ve learned God usually has a purpose for our pain, or at least can create a good use for it. Why not actually write a sermon about depression and it’s influence? Why not use your own struggles to find ways of relating to those who suffer similar circumstances? I think you’d be surprised how much it can help a congregation of people to see their preacher suffer in the same ways they do. It removes the barrier of inferred “holiness” some people attribute to pastors and leaders in faith. Doesn’t Paul state in 2 Corinthians 12:9
    – But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me- ?? It’s up to you, obviously, but I think it might be good to show a little humanity at the pulpit. After all, the purpose is to worship God, not to critique our preachers.

  21. I’m not a preacher, deacon, pyschologist, or any of the like, but I have struggled for 11 long years with severe and often life-threatening depression. I KNOW it interferes with goals and responsibilities. However, I’ve learned God usually has a purpose for our pain, or at least can create a good use for it. Why not actually write a sermon about depression and it’s influence? Why not use your own struggles to find ways of relating to those who suffer similar circumstances? I think you’d be surprised how much it can help a congregation of people to see their preacher suffer in the same ways they do. It removes the barrier of inferred “holiness” some people attribute to pastors and leaders in faith. Doesn’t Paul state in 2 Corinthians 12:9
    – But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me- ?? It’s up to you, obviously, but I think it might be good to show a little humanity at the pulpit. After all, the purpose is to worship God, not to critique our preachers.

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