If someone asked why we’re called to preach, we’d likely have a ready answer.
We’re practiced in the art of the spiritual answer, abdicating the role of our “self” in arriving at ministry’s doorstep, preferring to lay responsibility at the feet of a divine, outside call.
And that’s true.
But perhaps not complete.
Reading the Rev’d Dr. Mark D. W. Eddington’s book Bivocational: Returning to the Roots of Ministry* (Church Publishing, 2018), I was struck by this story:
There is a broad variety of gifts find expression in ordained ministry. There is also—let's be honest here—an equally broad range of needs that draw people into the ordained ministry of the church.
My first boss in ministry taught me this lesson in a way I'll never forget… The senior pastor brought us [new seminarians] in, sat us down, and early in the conversation asked a simple question: "Why do you think you want to be ordained?"
After you’d stammered through the answer you had likely already practiced on your parish discernment committee or congregational support group, and had deployed in your interviews with the Commission on Ministry, he smiled kindly and said, “What you've shared with me is why you think you should be ordained. But what I asked you was why you want to be—what's in it for you. Have you thought about that?"
I’m not sure what answer my colleagues in the seminarian corps offered to this question. I’ll admit that, when it came my turn for the conversation, the question stopped me cold. To that point I’d genuinely never considered it. What’s more, I wasn’t at all sure I was allowed to consider.
When my blushing face signaled my inability to respond, my boss offered me this bit of wisdom: “Nearly everyone who offers themselves to an ordination process is looking for something. They're looking for the attention, or for the respect, or for the love they didn't receive as a child. It doesn't really matter what it is you're looking for. But it does matter that you figure out what you're looking for—or else it will lead you around by the nose. (pp. 33-34).
Why do you want to preach?
While this question was posed to those seeking ordination, the same question can be asked of all of us who wish to preach.
Not Why do you think you should preach?
Or Why are you supposed to preach?
But Why do you want to preach?
If we don't recognize the answer, it is likely leading us around by the nose—whether we realize it or not.
Why does the answer matter?
There’s considerable power, authority, and attention given to a preacher.
Even in this era of post-Christendom and the “spiritual”-but-not-“religious” label, people listen to preachers.
Our words carry more weight because of our training and conferred authority.
In addition, we have certain gifts that are well placed in the preaching arts. For example:
some preachers have a gift for poetic language and soaring rhetoric.
some have a gift of observation and making connections between scripture and listener.
some are known for their courage that keeps the needs of the world at the forefront no matter the cost
still others have an ability to help listeners know they’re seen and valued.
But if we’re not self-aware, those good gifts can be used for our sakes’ more than the Gospel’s, more to build up our reputation than the people of God for service.
The Dangers of Ignorance
When these good gifts become too much of a good thing, we preach in the way that Eddington suggests.
We’re led by the nose by unmet needs, unwittingly serving ourselves before we serve our listeners.
That means we come to the text biased.
We’re not as free to discern other messages of Good News, and we miss the messages God has for the congregation while we’re working out our “stuff” from the pulpit.
We come to the text inclined to use—and possibly abuse—our gifts to feed ourselves before we feed our listeners.
The product may seem good and right, the motivation beneath it is unhealthy. For example, you may:
preach the gospel in order to meet your congregation’s expectations and preach what you think they want to hear.
preach to show you how much your congregation can’t manage without you.
preach “home runs” every time so listeners think you’re the best preacher they’ve ever had.
preach sermons of deep passion so everyone knows you’re the “real deal.”
preach to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge about all things Biblical
preach to show the congregation you’re just one of the gang and always have their backs.
preach comedy in every sermon so everyone knows what a fun person you are
preach the plight of the underdog to the exclusion of everyone else
preach all sides to keep everyone comfortable and avoid conflict.
If you recognize a small bit of the nine Enneagram types in these examples, you're right.
The Enneagram, which types people (1-9) by their primary wounding in childhood and describes the behaviors each type uses to protect themselves in relationships and life, shows us what an unhealthy preaching motive might look like for each type.
These are just examples. The manifestation of unknown wounds, fears, or motives can take innumerable forms.
But the bottom line is the same: when we’re operating out of unknown wounds or unmet needs, we can be led by our needs instead of our listeners’ needs.
How to Preach without Pretense
That’s why a preacher’s Backstory is so integral to healthy preaching.
The “backstory” of Backstory Preaching is the preacher's relationship with God. Our relationship with God is an inextricable part of ourselves, so preaching that relationship is unavoidable.
This backstory with God is rarely spoken out loud overtly in the pulpit. But it is spoken out loud covertly through our every word and action.
The more in tune we become to God’s work in our own life—the more often we honestly bring our fears and foibles before God to receive God’s grace, love, healing, and truth—the less likely we are to preach in unhealthy ways.
That’s why we at Backstory Preaching are so intentional about fostering that relationship in service of the Gospel. We want to use all of ourselves—spirits, minds, and gifts—to God's service.
But our capacity is blunted if there are fears, motives, and unrecognized desires getting in our way.
During the season of Epiphany and revelation, I invite you to consider these questions:
Why do you want to preach?
What's in it for you?
When it’s just you and God, how would you answer?
Use the answers to help you recognize your gifts and their burdens. Ask God to help you preach unencumbered by your own needs, but to preach for Christ Jesus alone.
Want to be in a community of preachers who are actively working to understand their backstory so they can preach effectively?
Join The Collective.
You’ll get practical tools and support, insights from masters of their craft, and community with like-minded, growth-oriented preachers.
*If you purchase the book through this link, Backstory Preaching will receive a small percentage of your sale. These proceeds help support our work with preachers.