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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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


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

July 15, 2023

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, president emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary, recently jumped at the chance 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.”

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.”

As for what’s toxic, “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.”

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

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.”

As for what’s generative, 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.”

“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.”

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.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jieun Kim Han and Myung Han Regional Liaisons for East Asia, World Mission, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Anisha Hackney, Manager, Human Resources, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

God of the universe, we pray for your church in all places and thank you for the opportunity to join with our brothers and sisters around the globe to do your work in the world. Amen.