Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Former seminary president looks at what’s toxic and what’s generative for a preacher’s soul

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes is the most recent guest on the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

What’s toxic and what’s generative for a preacher’s soul was the subject of a webinar held earlier this month featuring the Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, the president emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. (File photo of the Rev. Amy Mendez)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, president emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary, jumped at the chance earlier this month to speak to preachers as part of Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series.

“I love pastors and I get pastors,” Barnes said during the 90-minute webinar, “Caring for the Preacher’s Soul,” which can be viewed here. “I know how we are wired and how we can get in trouble. I know how we are called and gifted, and I know the sacrifices you all make in fulfilling the calling.”

“I don’t have the secrets for taking care of ourselves,” said Barnes, who led Princeton Theological Seminary for 10 years before retiring in December. “But I think it’s an important topic, and I’ll spend the rest of my days continuing to think about it and write about it.”

“I see preaching as a sacred conversation the pastor is conducting all week long between the God who has called the pastor to this service and the congregation who the pastor has actually vowed to love and care for,” he said. “The pastor can never let the congregation and God give each other the silent treatment for too long, because after all, Sunday’s coming, and you have to have something to say that’s flowing out of that holy conversation.”

The preacher’s “own soul has been the crucible in which the holy words of God that you have studied and been ordained to proclaim are mixed together with the very ordinary words that you’re gathering all week long from your parishioners — words of lament, words of hope, words of anguish and despair, words of anger, and sometimes even profane words,” Barnes said. “Out of that sacred mix between holy words and ordinary words, I think the pastor finds the poetry for the sermon on Sunday.”

All that assumes “that the soul of the pastor is healthy enough to engage in that holy of holies activity of being the meeting place between God and the congregation,” Barnes said, turning to the meat of a talk that explored what’s toxic for a pastor’s soul and what’s generative.

What’s toxic to the pastor’s soul

“Number one on my list is the notion that you should be exceptional,” Barnes told the preachers gathered for the webinar. “All this exceptional stuff puts the focus on the wrong place. The reality is we are serving an exceptional Savior, and our call is to be a witness to this Savior.”

That drive to be exceptional manifests itself for a lot of preachers in “the burden that thinking that every sermon has to be great … It makes it really hard to enjoy preaching. If the preacher’s not having a good time, no one else is.”

Another toxic pressure is what Barnes labeled “the dust of boredom.”

“There comes a season you have weathered the crisis moments and gotten beyond the mountaintop moments, a time when every pastoral ministry hits long plateaus,” he said. “The pastor becomes bored with the routines, the déjà vu experiences.” The kind of boredom pastors are most susceptible to is boredom with their own competency, according to Barnes. “After a while we figure out how to do the job. There may be challenges that come along — Covid, for example — but eventually we kind of get our heads around what we were doing there.”

A third toxicity for preachers is “being more worried about God’s will than God’s word.”

That situation “doesn’t make room for the pastor to make mistakes,” Barnes said. Congregations need to hear this message occasionally from the pastor: “I thought we were supposed to do this. I got it wrong. We got it wrong. It’s time to move on to Plan B.” The Scripture is full of people who had to move on to Plan B, he noted, including Moses, David, Peter and Paul. “We can move on to Plan B,” Barnes said, “but only if we’re not preoccupied with getting God’s will right.”

Finally, “it’s toxic when we will not let our wounds heal,” he said. “You cannot be a pastor of a congregation without being wounded by the congregation. Anyone who’s been installed for 30 minutes has figured that out.”

“It doesn’t mean they don’t love you and respect you,” he said. “It just means to be the shepherd of the sheep you inevitably find that some sheep bite.” It’s the pastor’s job “to find ways of allowing the wounds to scar over … The scars you have lead to the development of your gravitas,” a word that literally means attraction, he noted, adding, “People are drawn to you by your gravitas.”

What’s generative for the pastor’s soul

For one thing, it’s being “possessed by great ideas,” Barnes said, employing the metaphor of a guide: “If the pastor is a wilderness guide on the journey through life, there’s a part of the wilderness about which you’re an expert because you’ve spent a lot of time there. You know where to find the stream that flows in that part of the desert. You know where the snakes are … There are some parts of the [sacred] texts you can turn into poetry. You can make it sing because it just rises out of you.”

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes

“You don’t go out and shop for these great ideas. They shop for you,” Barnes said. “They’re actually part of your call story.”

A second generative practice for the pastor’s soul is nurturing what the poet John Keats called “our negative capability,” being someone “who’s capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubt” without what Keats called “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Pastors constantly encounter questions like “why do babies die?” and “why is the war in Ukraine going on so long?” and “why can’t we turn this climate crisis around?” Barnes said that “any attempt to paste answers to these questions” is what Keats labeled “irritable reaching.”

In the Book of Job, the title character spends chapter after chapter struggling with the ‘why’ question before walking away from it, “and that’s the pastor’s job and it’s what we’re trying to do in the crafting of sermons,” Barnes said. “We’re trying to nudge people on the journey of ‘why’ until they can get to an encounter with the Holy.”

A third generative quality for pastors’ souls involves nurturing their capacity for wandering. “Maybe it’s the positive side of the boredom thing,” Barnes said. A strategic thinker himself, Barnes said he found pastoral ministry was much healthier “when I gave up being preoccupied with where we are going.” Churches need strategic plans, but Barnes said they also need “to stand with open hands with humility, realizing that some of the best things that are going to happen in the church probably aren’t in the plan. God may have a longer road than you and the session had in mind.”

Or, put in Exodus terms, “you can’t get people to the Promised Land quicker than God wants them to get there.” Good preaching is more of a spiral than a linear argument, he said. “I’m not doing all the talking. We’re going back and forth in conversation kind of wondering what God is doing.”

Barnes called the fourth generative practice “really critical. It’s nurturing your capacity for surprise.”

“Preachers as they move through their calling ought to be able to say, ‘These are the places in which I’ve changed my mind along the way.’ There’s always some surprise God has in revealing this to you.”

Take, for example, when Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener following the resurrection. When he calls her name, she recognizes him and moves in for a hug. Jesus says to her, “Don’t cling to me.”

“You know, if I were writing the gospels, I would have had a big hug right there,” Barnes said. “We can’t cling to the Jesus we knew when we graduated from seminary or last year. There’s more of Jesus on this side of Covid than we knew on the other side of Covid.”

“So, what does salvation look like? It’s constantly reintroducing the congregation to the surprising work of the Savior.”

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.