Rediscover the Power of Preaching: 6 Learnings from My Year-long Sermon Hiatus

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If you’re a preacher, you probably feel some combination of excitement, overwhelm, and light dread every time you get up to deliver a sermon.

I get it.

Preaching is exhilarating work. And it’s exceptionally demanding. Preaching is exhilarating work. And it’s exceptionally demanding.CLICK TO TWEET

I preached regularly for over 25 years until last year when I decided to take a break—a year-long break. I’d been decelerating my preaching for a few years as I stepped back as Lead Pastor of our church in 2015, but I stayed on the teaching team and carried a full load until 2020. 

From 2020 onward, I kept preaching occasionally until mid-2022, when I decided it was time to take an indefinite hiatus, which ended in October 2023. 

How I Knew it Was Time to Take a Break

Calling my break a ‘detox’ is not really an exaggeration. 

For years, I had always been eager to preach and had more ideas than I had Sundays available to share them. But in my final year as Teaching Pastor, I found inspiration harder to come by. 

It wasn’t a general condition—I had ideas galore in the leadership space (here), but when it came to preaching, inspiration was wearing thin. The rest of my life didn’t feel dry. I wasn’t burned out. My personal spiritual life was very alive. And I loved my work and the other public speaking I was doing at conferences and online. It was just the preaching well that seemed arid.

My preaching professor in seminary told us to always preach from the overflow. When my overflow dried to a trickle, I knew it was time to take a break. My preaching professor in seminary told us to always preach from the overflow. When my overflow dried to a trickle, I knew it was time to take a break.CLICK TO TWEET

So I approached my Lead Pastor, and we agreed that I’d only preach when he needed me to or when I felt I was ready to come back. I only pinch-hit once or twice for him in my year off, but it was a full 15 months before I felt ready to come back and do a series on my own.

Looking back on my preaching break and with over 25 years of preaching under my belt, here are…

6 Lessons from My Year-Long Preaching Hiatus

1. Preaching Faithfully is a Lot of Work

Honestly, writing blog posts like this (or even books) is easier than preaching because, in the leadership space, I’m speaking for myself. 

When you deliver a sermon, you’re not speaking for yourself. In a strange kind of be-very-careful-how-you-think-about-this way, you’re speaking for God. 

Effective preaching involves the complex task of reading the Word in its original context and bringing it to your world and the world of your congregation. The best preaching is an equally weighted exegesis of the text and the culture. 

When I came back with my first sermon series in over a year, I was shocked at how much work it was to do both well. Worth it, but still, work. 

Sermon prep usually took me 8-16 hours per message, and this time around, being out of shape, it might have been more. 

Every preacher has ‘winged’ it from time to time. But that’s a terribly unfaithful long-term strategy. The more you prepare, the more faithful your preaching becomes. The more you prepare, the more faithful your preaching becomes.CLICK TO TWEET

2. Preaching is Far More Exhausting Than I Remembered

Okay, so maybe I was a bit rusty, but I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was after preaching three services on a Sunday morning.

Sunday afternoon and evening were complete write-offs, and so was more than one Monday—I went to work but found myself wiped.

Look, I’m not afraid of hard work. But keynoting at conferences around the world, long flights, time zones, and hotels don’t leave me nearly as tired as preaching does. 

I’m guessing part of the exhaustion is because of the spiritual and emotional energy you invest in your message and in the delivery. Not that writing isn’t spiritual, or giving a keynote isn’t spiritual. They are. But it’s just not the same level of expenditure as preaching. 

While preaching regularly will help build up your resilience to the fatigue associated with delivering sermons, I realized I was probably far more low-grade tired than I realized.

The takeaway: When you preach regularly, make rest and renewal part of your rhythm. When you preach regularly, make rest and renewal part of your rhythm.CLICK TO TWEET

3. Preaching Often Comes with Spiritual Warfare

Before you click the ‘unfollow’ button, hear me out. The problem in the church is that some people think everything is spiritual warfare, while others think that nothing is spiritual warfare. The truth, of course, is in between.The problem in the church is that some people think everything is spiritual warfare, while others think that nothing is spiritual warfare. The truth, of course, is in between.CLICK TO TWEET

I tend to be someone who looks for every natural explanation before I jump to a supernatural explanation, but I noticed during this last series that the one thing that got thrown off was my mood.

On Saturdays, I’d get uneasy. I wasn’t thinking about the message in particular, but I just wasn’t happy. 

On Sunday afternoons and sometimes into Monday, I’d feel sullen, even grumpy, discouraged, and a bit dejected. 

After preaching for hours and throwing all my energy and heart into it, that could simply be an adrenaline crash. But it didn’t quite feel like that. It felt subtly darker.

Thinking back to how often my family must have felt that sadness, that darkness over the years, I feel bad about it.

I don’t know what to do about that except to pray and have others pray for you. But I’m noting it. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, too. 

4. The Response Isn’t Nearly as Affirming as You Hoped

Don’t get me wrong, we have a great church. I issued a call to action for people, and many responded. 

But the response still seemed underwhelming.

Having had the privilege of speaking at conferences and preaching at my home church for years, I’ve consistently found the affirmation that happens on the road is maybe 10x what I’ve found at home.

I can’t say this loud enough: I am not blaming my congregation. I love them. We’re there every week when I’m not preaching; we give, we serve, and they’re amazing people. 

This is my takeaway, Pastor. If you’re looking for affirmation after you preach a sermon, you’ll be looking for a long time. Don’t expect your congregation to affirm you. You’re there to serve them. They’re not there to serve you. If you’re looking for affirmation after you preach a sermon, you’ll be looking for a long time. Don’t expect your congregation to affirm you. You’re there to serve them. They’re not there to serve you. CLICK TO TWEET

I probably need a few more years of therapy to sort this all out myself, but I’m guessing the lack of specific response to each message is one of the reasons I got unhealthily obsessed with attendance numbers, baptism numbers, and all the other statistics associated with church life. 

It can also cause you to look elsewhere for affirmation (hey, I’ll guest-preach or build a social media following, etc.), potentially neglecting your primary calling.

I’m not saying it’s healthy, but most of us like to hear ‘well done.’

Instead, too many pastors get saddled with complaints and criticisms, and it’s like you’re saying to yourself, “Did no one see me throw my whole heart into this message?” 

Even through an incredible journey—our church grew year after year, people became Christians, and they grew spiritually—there’s something inside me that wants more/demands more.  

Like I said, give me a few more years of therapy, please. But I’ll bet you can relate. 

5. Saying Fresh Things in New Ways is a Lot of Work

The joke about long-serving pastors is that everyone knows what they’re going to say before they even stand up. 

After 28 years of preaching to the same congregation, that’s very true. 

When you work hard on your message and the craft of preaching, you end up working hard on making complex things clear. To do that, you pull out your best stories, best illustrations, and best ideas to try to help people access the life-changing truths about Jesus. 

One of the reasons I scaled back my preaching (and then took a break) was that I was finding it hard to say new things. After all, when you’re preaching on a passage for the 10th time, it’s hard to have a ‘whole new take’ and still be faithful to the text.

I definitely had some new ideas for this most recent series, but I also refreshed some ideas from a decade ago.

It was a note to myself moving forward that my future messages need fresh takes and fresh motivation. So do yours. 

6. Team Teaching is the Way to Go

The final lesson: team teaching is the way to go. 

We started moving to team teaching back in 2006, but prior to that, I did 48 sermons a year and sometimes even more when we ventured into mid-week services (bad idea). 

Preaching 40+ times a year in the 90s and early 2000s made sense for a few reasons. 

First, and most obviously, the bar was lower. There was no social media and no way for the people you serve to hear other voices and learn from them. 

You were ‘their pastor’, and the standards for what a message was were, honestly, lower than today. 

Fast forward a few decades, though, and in a world in which other preachers are accessible for free on social media and YouTube, the game has changed. 

In a world where almost everyone has watched a TED talk, and millions listen to podcasts, many people now expect their preacher to be as ‘good’ as anyone else they hear. In a world where almost everyone has watched a TED talk, and millions listen to podcasts, many people now expect their preacher to be as ‘good’ as anyone else they hear. CLICK TO TWEET

Even if you don’t think that’s fair, it’s still true.

That means more preparation, more focus on delivery, and a lot more pressure.

If I’m honest, I don’t think anyone can deliver a powerful message in today’s context 48 times a year.

As my friend Jeff Henderson hauntingly asks leaders, “How many truly great messages do you have in you per year?”  The first time he asked that question, I thought, “Um, zero.”  But the real answer isn’t 0 or 48. It’s probably under 30, though. Maybe it’s closer to 20.

Which is why team teaching is such a great idea. Not only do you not have the pressure of preaching 48 times a year, but the congregation gets exposed to different voices and different styles. 

When I was a younger preacher, I was too insecure to want to have other preachers who might be better than me stand up to preach. These days, I crave it. 

You’re Leading the Way

I have a refreshed respect for preachers who are up there week in and week out (or even 27 times a year). What you’re doing is hard, but it makes such a difference. 

I look forward to preaching from time to time in the years ahead too, a little older. A little wiser. 

Hopefully, these thoughts will help you realize what you’re facing every week, make some adjustments, and keep going strong into the future.

So much depends on great preaching, and you’re leading the way.