If you count my nine year old ministry to my teddy bears, I’ve been preaching for 31 years. I preached in the inner city as a teenager. I took every opportunity I could to preach throughout Bible School. I received the Sturhahn Preaching Award when I graduated from Seminary. I preached for eleven years at Greenfield. It’s been three years now at Bethany. And I did my doctoral work in the area of preaching. I believe in preaching.
I do not believe that preaching is simply a form of communication for a certain era, but that through the spoken word God has created and recreated life from the dawn of time. (Gen. 1). God used prophets from Abel to Zechariah (Matt. 23:35) to preach his word to individuals and nations. Jesus came preaching and teaching. (Matt. 9:35, Luke 4:18). Jesus sent his disciples out to preach and teach. (Mark 6:12, Luke 9:1-2, Matt. 28:19-20). When the church began to grow, the apostles understood the importance of preaching and wisely guarded it (Acts 6:1-4), for how can people be saved without a preacher to tell them the good news (Rom. 10:14-15)? Throughout the history of the church her health has always been directly related to the quality of the preaching. The Reformation and the great revivals were movements started and maintained by Biblical preaching. In the same way, the health of each local church is directly related to the quality of its teaching and preaching ministry. I would even go so far as to say that the message of the Bible is more powerful when it is passionately and correctly preached than when it is merely read. I guard my study time, as well as my devotional time, as I believe that my on-going growth and development as a preacher is the best ministry I can give to the church (outside of my commitment to Christ and the continual development of my character).
In 2005 I decided to start working on a doctoral degree and, since preaching is such a passion of mine, I decided to pursue it in that area. Through a friend I got connected with the Doctor of Ministry program at Bethel Seminary in Minnesota, but after a year I dropped out. I had yet to take a course in preaching and I wanted my doctorate to be all about preaching, not just a general doctorate with an emphasis in preaching. When I explained my frustrations to some of my friends on the faculty at Taylor Seminary (the school I graduated from) the name Haddon Robinson kept coming up. I had never heard of the guy, but apparently he was well-known in preaching circles. I discovered that Haddon Robinson was teaching a preaching Doctorate at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary just outside of Boston. This program was all about preaching. For three years, every course, assignment, book and teacher taught us about preaching, followed by a written dissertation on the subject.
Haddon was our main teacher and, at around 80 years of age, he still had the stamina to work with us each day. How the course worked was that each year, the 24 of us who got into the program, met for two weeks of eight hour a day classes. Alongside of Haddon other notable teachers were brought in to teach on areas like “preaching to women”, “preaching to children” and the “psychology of preaching.” It was wonderful to work with a cross section of pastors from across different denominations. We had Episcopalians, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals and Baptists as part of our 24. The group consisted of men and women of different nationalities like African Americans and Koreans. Did I ever notice the difference an accent can make when we all listened to back-to-back sermons on David and Goliath by a guy from Texas and another guy from Britain!
In between our times together we read books (I probably read 100 books on this topic during the program), worked on assignments and did preaching “experiments” with our congregations where we’d try different styles of preaching. We’d then have our congregation fill out surveys in order to hear feedback. Our class also met in smaller cohorts to discuss what we were learning through conference calls.
I was able to finish my thesis in one year during the fourth year of the doctorate program because it coincided with a four month sabbatical I had from Greenfield. I used those months to do the bulk of my research and writing and then went back to Gordon-Conwell to defend it.
It was during my doctoral work that I was struggling with my depression and panic. For that reason I chose to do my thesis on “Preaching and Depression”. I was interested in looking at the high burn-out rates among preachers. I wanted to look at this from a biblical, historical, contemporary and psychological perspective and, from this, learn how to stay healthy as a preacher. My plan was to develop material that I could share with other preachers to help them in their ongoing health.
Here is an excerpt from the conclusion I came to in my thesis:
There is a strong correlation between preaching and depression. We have seen this in literature that relates to this topic, as well through a biblical and theological study. We have noticed this correlation in a number of different preachers from the Bible, history, and today. This does not mean that depression is inevitable for every preacher, but it is certainly something that most preachers will struggle with in some form and at some time(s) in their ministry. It may be the post-adrenaline depression followed by the high of Sunday. It may be caused by frustration over the “results” of their preaching. Or, it may be rooted in some of the hidden sins of the preacher. Whatever may be the cause, preachers need to know about depression and how it can affect their ministries.
The call to preach involves God’s sanctifying of the preacher to become truly and fully human. Obviously the call to Christ-likeness is for every Christian, but the preacher is one who, through word and action, lives that process out publicly. God does not simply use preachers, he loves them. Therefore, he strengthens, encourages, and disciplines them so that through them, he can do the same for others.
The method that God often uses for his sanctifying work in people is a journey through a desert experience. Ironically, it can be through the desert of depression, disappointment, failure, and God’s silence that we have the opportunity to grow the most. It is the gospel message of resurrection life coming out of death. It is the theology of discipleship through the cross that must be embraced by preachers and taught to their congregations.
Suffering, pain, death, denial, and older concepts like mortification, are in opposition with our culture’s ideology of self-fulfilment. It is difficult to grow in Christian discipleship when much of Christianity has been baptized into a way of life that is so contrary to the ways of God. The depression that is faced by many preachers, therefore, may be part of their experiencing the broken heart of God. As Jeremiah wept for the waywardness of his people as well as for the judgement of God upon his people, so should the preacher today. If a preacher does not live with this angst one could certainly question if they have really taken seriously what they have been called to.
God is continually breaking his people from their false gods so that they can see rightly and he often does so by starting with his preachers. In a society that uses people, lives by short commitments, and is centered on success, God puts his preachers through the fire to mold them so they can see and speak from a gospel perspective. Will a preacher love his congregation, continue to speak God’s Word to them, and stay committed to them even at the cost of his personal success? Many times, in order to develop a preacher’s character like this, God uses depression as one of his tools.
It is those preachers who come through these experiences, with their faith and calling still intact, who have a new vision and commitment to their ministries. They develop a biblical and counter-cultural gospel vision that makes a real impact in the hearts and lives of the members of their congregation.
A preacher’s call involves the sanctifying of the preacher’s person. It is through the personhood of his preachers that God’s truth continues to be spoken to the world. This does not make truth relative, but it does remind us that truth is incarnational. The preacher’s theology, interpretations, life experiences, and style do not happen in a vacuum. Far from obscuring the message, however, God in his sovereignty uses these things to bring clarity to the message….
Losing his life, especially losing it as an example to a congregation, is the burden of the preacher. This burden, however, must be embraced by the preacher and prospective preachers must be forewarned of this at the outset of their training. Too many preachers spend their years grumbling about the hardships of ministry. Instead, preachers must be given the theology and skills to prepare them and even help them embrace the burden of ministry.
Losing his life into Christ means a number of other things for the preacher as well. It means that the preacher must strive for holistic health by putting to death unhealthy lifestyle habits. Physical health, proper habits of eating, sleeping, and exercising must be lived and modeled. Deep relationships with others must be cultivated. Recreational and family time must be guarded. A life of continual learning, study, and prayer are non-negotiable. Depression may be a sign that something in this area of a preacher’s life is out-of-balance. Depression then, like other types of pain, can be God’s gift of warning to get us back on track in regards to our health.
To lose his life in Christ means that the preacher must allow Christ to sacrifice their ambitions, dreams, popularity, and influence. Preachers are up against the principalities and powers of the world. Yet, many times the pressure will come from within the church. Many of the congregants that a preacher will serve do not think out of a Christian worldview and the temptation to give the people the golden calf that they ask for will be immense. Preachers, however, must teach and model a biblical view of success. Obviously, we want to see people come to faith in Christ. We also want to see people grow in godly maturity, with the church and her influence growing as a result. Preachers must remember, however, that they can only plant and/or water. It is God who causes things to grow. Depression may be an indication that a preacher has gotten off course. Preachers are called to live by faith and fidelity and realize that their worth and security is found in Christ and in his love and sacrifice for us. Even though this is the core of the gospel, many evangelical preachers unconsciously live out and model a “works-righteousness”. Depression may help the preacher discover the grace of God, enabling him to truly preach (incarnate) the grace of God.
For a preacher to lose his life in Christ also means allowing Christ deal with his sin. A preacher cannot live with secret vices in his life. Sin will destroy the soul and deaden the heart of the preacher. A life of guilt, shame, hiding, broken promises, and unjustifiable rationalizations will severely handicap a preacher’s ability to listen to God, love his congregation, and prepare and preach his sermons. A depression in this case, if recognized for what it is, can save the life of the preacher if he is willing to open up and take steps to find freedom from sin. A preacher must flee from all appearance of evil and give himself over to honest accountability. This battle with sin and temptation, and the sanctification and healing that a depression may spur on, may not only save the soul of the preacher, but make for real incarnational preaching. To never live this struggle is to make the preacher’s sermons irrelevant to everyone who has – which means everyone!
As you can see then, depression may be many preachers’ “thorn in the flesh”. It is a nasty, annoying, and frustrating plague that weighs down the heart of a preacher, but in weighing him down, it keeps him grounded. This is not to belittle the pain many preachers live through. Paul prayed earnestly that his thorn would be taken away. It is, however, a call to look at depression with gospel eyes. Depression may just be a burdensome gift. Depression may be a death out of which resurrection life may spring. As preachers we may be called to die weekly in order that we can bring life into our messages on Sunday mornings. What does this mean for a preacher living with depression? It means that they should do everything possible to find out where the depression is coming from. They should do everything possible to get healthy, stay healthy, and overcome their depression. With all this being said, in the meantime they should try to see their depression as a gift from God and learn how to embrace it in a way that brings him further glory.
Throughout the writing of this thesis John Newton has been by my side as a mentor. For the past year, I have come into my office each morning and have begun my day by studying the Bible, praying, and reading one of Newton’s sermons or letters. On many occasions, especially through his letters, Newton has spoken to me both pastorally and in a timely manner. I close with a moving account of Newton describing himself as a preacher in one of his letters. His words sound so contrary to the way many believe we should think today, but I believe that, if we had more preachers who thought of themselves within the paradox that Newton did, we would have a lot more preachers truly healthy and incarnational. Newton writes:
In secret, I am for the most part dull and heartless as usual; but he is pleased to enable me and permit me to speak for him in public. I feel enough to make me frequently utter David’s prayer, “O take not thy word of truth utterly out of my mouth.” He might justly do it; he might lay me aside by sickness, or, what is unspeakably more awful, he might take away his gifts from me, and cause my right eye to grow dark, and my right arm to wither. Sometimes I am almost ready to fear the sentence is coming forth; I feel such a total inability, the Scripture a sealed book, and my heart hard as the nether mill-stone. I know not how I shall make mention of his name again; I am ready to sink at the prospect; but “It is he who supports me through all, When I faint, he revives me again.”
Completing my doctorate has opened up many opportunities. I began teaching courses at Taylor Seminary on “Narrative Preaching”, “Personal Development and Ministry” and a “Preaching Lab”. Most exciting for me has been going over to Africa to teach at the Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary. I’ve taught “Narrative Preaching” there twice, an “Advanced Preaching” course and a “Preaching Lab.” I hope to spend an entire semester teaching at that school during my next sabbatical and take my whole family there for four months. Our kids will be 16, 14, and 12 at the time and this will be great opportunity for us as a family.
- John Newton, The Works of John Newton (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988), 6:93.