An airplane cuts through some clouds without the slightest jostle. Other clouds jolt the plane with such turbulence that people lift out of seats as in a school bus barreling over railroad tracks at 60 miles per hour. Like clouds, the trials that generate a rough week come in all shapes and sizes. From raising kids and paying bills to coping with grief and loss, life in a broken world can weigh heavy on one’s heart and mind. Add the weight of ministry in a broken world, and the effect feels like a second wave of dog-pilers leaping onto an already suffocating load.
When Trials Come
When trials come, the already arduous task of preparing and delivering a sermon only becomes more difficult. No matter how rough the week, Sunday’s coming. The last song in the worship set will subside, and you will climb the platform to address the gathered body of Christ. On a rare occasion, you might be able to call on someone to fill the pulpit. Most weeks, however, you will preach no matter how many trials come your way. How do you push through to prepare and deliver a quality sermon? Here are six points of advice you will find helpful on your next rough week:
1. Come to Jesus
Christ invites you, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29).
On a rough week, it is tempting to try to find rest in all the wrong places. A number of destructive options lay before you—numbing yourself with media, leaning into workaholism, giving into substances or other sins, etc. Your weary soul craves rest, and the enemy crouches close by to dangle a platter of pseudo-rests within arm’s reach. Resist the temptation and cling to the True Vine. “Apart from [Him] you can do nothing” (John 15:5), but through him, you can “do all things” (Phil. 4:13).
Self-sufficiency turns sermon preparation into soul-draining toil and delivery into prideful performance. Preaching without Jesus is never a good idea. Guard against allowing trials to wiggle their way between you and him.
2. Love Your Family
On a rough week, the pressure of sermon prep heightens like the rising needle on an air compressor. Be on guard and self-aware in your interactions with your family. Be fully present with them. Drive away nagging thoughts that tug your mental presence from the dinner table or the bedtime routine. Push away pressures that would make you short or harsh. Everything else can wait—your family needs you.
Do not let the recoil of a rough week make you look back on past moments that would have been precious in the present. Furthermore, a two-hour sermon prep session tends to go much better when you have not been stressed about it the other twenty-two hours of the day. Love your family. Giving yourself fully to that precious gift grants the perspective you need to approach sermon prep with a level head in the midst of a rough week.
3. Talk to Some Friendly Sheep
Sheep bite sometimes. The roughest weeks in pastoral ministry often involve a sheep attack. From anonymous emails to direct and harsh personal criticism, the people God called you to serve sometimes resent you. This is a normal (albeit difficult) part of pastoral leadership in a broken world. Whether or not you did something to deserve it—and sometimes you will deserve it—harsh criticism hurts. The words of the critic ring through your ears, robbing your sleep and your focus. Sermon prep on the week of a sheep attack is exhausting. You can hardly read a paragraph without your mind drifting to those hurtful words. You can hardly write a paragraph without veering into a targeted diatribe.
Remember, the vast majority of the people to whom you will preach would never think of attacking you. When your heart and mind will not let you move past a sheep attack, talk to some friendly sheep. Spend time with a known encourager and remember how many precious people will stare back at you on Sunday, ready to receive the Word with humble and grateful hearts. Remember the great privilege of serving Christ’s church. Never make the mistake of dragging your ministry wounds into the pulpit. When you cave to that temptation, collateral damage is inevitable, and God’s flock goes malnourished.
4. Finish an Ugly Rough Draft Early
Even after talking to friendly sheep, some fleshliness is likely to have crept into your sermon manuscript. The challenges of a difficult week threaten to stir up fleshly motives in your heart. Try as you might, to filter these from your notes, a careful examination is likely to reveal some sentences derived more from your stress than the Scriptures.
If at all possible, fight to finish an ugly draft of your sermon early in the week. Let it sit at least twenty-four hours, then come back with clear eyes and a humble heart praying, “God, show me what belongs and what needs to be deleted.” Finishing a draft early helps eliminate bad content by granting you clarity only time can afford. After stepping away from your first draft, you will be better able to recognize fleshliness for what it is. Further, an unfinished sermon on Saturday night only compounds the stresses of a rough week. If at all possible, do yourself and your hearers the favor of finishing early.
5. Trust God
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty,” Paul warns in 2 Timothy 3:1. In other words, rough weeks are sure to come. To find strength for the struggle, Paul points Timothy to God’s Word. After outlining in grotesque detail the wicked characteristics of those who will oppose the gospel (2 Tim. 3:2–9), Paul urges Timothy to simply “continue” in what he had learned and believed as taught to him from the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:14).
The gospel-centered, God-breathed, all-sufficient Scriptures are more than enough to handle any opposition Timothy could ever face. Timothy needed no newfangled method—he needed only the Word. Paul charges, “[P]reach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul wanted to make sure that even when a rough week came that Timothy knew to stay the course. He wanted Timothy to be ready to keep on preaching the gospel from the Word no matter the season or storm.
A rough week will make you feel weak and insufficient. It is good news that you are not the one in whom you trust for the results of your preaching. Only God can transform lives. He has ordained that life transformation occurs when people hear the gospel from the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. No matter how much turbulence meets you, preach the Word and trust God for the results.
6. Let the Rough Week Weaken You
Jesus told Paul, “[M]y power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). What did Paul conclude from this teaching? “Therefore,” he says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
Because a rough week relegates you to a position of weakness, the gospel turns your trials into a pathway to Christ’s power if you have eyes to see them as such. Your sermon after a rough week can turn out to be a mighty tool in the hands of Jesus, even if you do not feel as strong and polished as on a week of clear skies. Let the rough week weaken you and find Christ there perfecting his power.