This essay was written in the Fall of 2012 and has also appeared at mysonginthenight.com and churchleaders.com under various titles. I have since preached many more sermons but still experience symptoms of pulpit anxiety every time. JSL
My name’s Jeremy, I’m a young pastor, and I get pulpit anxiety.
I have preached roughly 40 sermons in my life, including about ten at Sojourn East, where I have served as executive pastor for over two years. As the second-string preacher, I look at the calendar and pick 10-12 Sundays that sound most exciting. Labor Day Weekend? All mine. New Year’s Day lands on a Sunday? I’m your guy. The genealogies in Genesis? I name ‘em and claim ‘em like Naaman.
The problem is, I have a love/hate relationship with preaching. Like many other young pastors, I feel called to proclaim God’s Word yet suffer from pulpit anxiety like something fierce. Sitting under Daniel’s teaching (or any of our lead pastors’ teaching) can be both invigorating and discouraging. From what I can tell from weeks when Daniel and I are preaching the same passage, he mountain bikes until Saturday afternoon, when an epiphany hits him on the trails. He doesn’t write it down but he just bounces it around in his mind, then on Sunday he preaches four almost-perfect sermons that nuance the Greek, and having just described eight new missional paradigms, takes a quick call from Crossway to see if they can publish it.
My week looks a little different.
Tuesday—I’m in my prayer closet (i.e. shared office), marking up commentaries, realizing this is the most important sermon ever. I call my friends and tell them, “You absolutely have to be at Sojourn East on Sunday. I can’t tell you why—just get in town!” I love preaching!
Wednesday/Thursday—Now I have to take my slobbery notes and prayers and turn them into a sermon. This is going to be harder than I thought. Maybe Keller preached on this and I can find his manuscript on someone’s blog. Nope, dang.
Friday/Saturday—The sermon is done but it sucks. In fact, I suck. My friends in middle school were right: I’m a total failure and my ears are so big I look like a car coming down the road with both doors open. I can’t believe my wife even loves me. I wonder if I can just call in sick Sunday morning. Crap, I hate preaching!
Sunday morning—I slept two hours last night, haven’t eaten in 24 hours, and now I have nervous diarrhea. Dang, a lot of people are here. The band’s taking stage. OK, Jeremy, get hype. This is my congregation and my pulpit—I must defend this house!! No wait, these things belong to Jesus. Has anyone seen page 4 of my notes?
Sunday afternoon—I survived! Thank you, Lord! All praise be to our Triune God, who bends his ear to the cries of the meek and weak-in-pulpit!
Sunday night—I’m so depressed I could die.
I’ve talked to some folks about my pulpit anxiety, and I usually get one of three responses. First, some point out my sin—I’m worried what people think and I overestimate my own role in preaching—and call me to Repent. Second, some remind me that all young preachers get anxiety, and they encourage me to Relax. Still others say I’m just nervous because I’m so godly and I take the responsibility of preaching so seriously, and I just need to Rehearse again.
I definitely am full of sin and selfishly want people to say things like “Oh that was wonderful” and “He deserves ‘double honor’ for that sermon.” And most weeks, I also need to Relax and Rehearse (over and over). This is all true and wise stuff. But does God’s Word have anything to say about the junior varsity preacher’s anxiety? Surely Paul wrote something about this somewhere!
Well, 2 Corinthians is not about pulpit anxiety exactly, but it sure is helpful.
Who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.…
“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life….
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God…. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…. Therefore we do not lose heart.” — 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, 4:1-2, 5, 16
Well said, old apostle. Will I continue to struggle with pulpit anxiety? Probably. But is it worth it if Christ gets preached and people see his truth plainly (and our lead pastor gets a break)? Yes.
And will I accept that, at least for now, this is part of my lot in life—sleepless nights, occasional criticism and monthly diarrhea—and simply be satisfied with being a child of God? Absolutely. I am simply a child of God, called by and sent from him as a minister of his new covenant; I have no competence in myself but rather, his strength is made perfect in my weakness!
Ah, snap! That last sentence will preach. I can’t wait to preach again.