I love Freed-Hardeman University for so very many reasons. I love that I “found” Melanie there. I love that I got a degree from that good place that is like a “license” to preach most anywhere I’d want to preach. I love that they value substance over style. I love that they freely host a week long reunion for preachers open to anyone every year. I love that it is isolated enough to keep a degree of innocence about it. And I love that I get to spend time with my family and my Family of preachers each year there the first week in February. On Tuesday, my brother Jeff and I got to get to be a part of a first in FHU’s 79 years of Lectureships. They began what they called “Collaborative Conversations” - Jeff and I were honored to dialog before a great crowd in Loyd Auditorium on “Fostering Healthy Relations Among Ministers.” As we worked back and forth on the material in the weeks and months heading up to this lecture I wrote down a line that bounces around in what’s left of my soft tissue: “the weight of the pulpit.” After using that term I want to take a few lines and unpack it's meaning.
I’m not talking about how much that piece of lumber or acrylic physically weighs (though I’ve seen some that would rival the control board of the Starship Enterprise). I’m talking about the emotional weight that pulls us down from soaring, that keeps us from being ourselves, that saps our confidence and that may make us hold up short of some of the things that most need to be said. The sources of this weight are numerous but known. It’s the curt comment about our style that makes us wonder if everyone hates our preaching. It’s the harsh judgement of our approach that like an internal tape reel plays over and over pressing us to second guess our volume, joy, strength, etc. It’s the cutting joke about the length of our sermons that could cause us to focus more on the clock than the Christ. It’s the “hey by the way did you know” comment given to us 5 minutes before we preach (i.e. “hey, did you know the Morris family is upset and thinking of leaving) that often deflates our energy. It’s the unprepared worship leader who throws it all together rather than crafting a time for God’s People to come before His Throne with as much of the excellence due Him as we can humanly muster that makes our sermons just the next mark in checking off worship service requirements. It’s the continual parsing of every statement designed not to learn or grow but to entrap that keeps us from taking risks or digging deeper. It’s the “did you know you mispronounced _____” every week that causes us to stutter and stammer over words that might be difficult for us. It’s the “review” that “filled you in on the fact” that not everyone likes you. It’s the questioning of any attempt at creativity that makes us forget that God is the Creator of Creativity (it’s the first thing He did in the Bible) presses us to be “cookie-cutter” preachers preaching boring predictable sermons. It’s the passed along comment of “my husband is offended when you…” It's that seemingly “crazy-off-the-wall” decision that was announced and has everyone distracted before you even get to the “plate.” It’s the financial stress that makes us feel cheap and insecure or the “I’ve not gotten a raise in four years…are they trying to tell me something.” It’s the multiple counseling sessions (in seven years a typical minister will have counseled at least one family member of 70-80% of “his” congregation) that makes you wonder if “that” person thinks you are talking about what they talked to you about in confidence and therefore can narrow your scope. The weight of the pulpit is real and powerful.
I loved preaching in Hamilton (still call it “my town”) but the Sunday after I left there and began my work at Granny White in Nashville a sister I was never close with visited (she’s now deceased) and after the sermon she said: “Now, that’s the old Dale we used to know. It’s like a weight has been lifted.” And Diane was right. In a new place the weight was not there and I felt free to be me. But after nearly ten years at Granny White the weight was back (that’s not a comment about them but about me).
So, I’m at that 10 year mark again but this time I find that Jacob Marley’ish weight is not even there most Sunday’s as I step onto the bema. What’s the difference?
I’d be unfair if I didn’t admit some of it is age and experience. Hopefully we all mature as we grow older and I hope that is part of this.
A measure of it is a decision to “cast my care upon” Jesus trusting that He cares for me and that He is both bigger than and more capable of handling my worries.
Some of it comes from the acceptance of my shepherds’ assurance of their love for me.
And I’d add in a dash of a decision that attempting to bless the larger audience is bigger than any weight satan might attempt to plant in my mind that would keep me from doing my best. he has a vested interest in muting God’s men and will stop at nothing to make us under-deliver.
Final, I’ve just made a decision to be happy anyway. To rejoice in God’s goodness and share it in spite of any of the above. I need not make an apology for being a happy person - why should I not be?
Now, I’m not perfect in this and some weeks I still lug that weight to the front but most I rejoice with in the Praise, participate in the prayers and ask God to aid me in leaving the weight on the floor (or better just giving it to Him) and loving His People through His Words. It works - and it’s a whole lot easier than moving.