The pressure cooker

Pastors grapple with a deep-seated worry: how can I get everybody to believe?

By Amy Butler

There are seasons of intensity in any line of work, and in the world of ministry Holy Week and Christmas run neck and neck. I personally think Holy Week is harder, not in small part due to the fact that you don’t get to go home and open presents after Easter worship. At least at my house.

It seems to me that my colleagues feel similar, as my past week’s Facebook feed has been full of updates along the lines of, “The Lord is risen, the pastor is dead.”

The extra stress this time of year is just part of the job — we knew it when we signed on. So, I wondered to myself in the wake of Holy Week this year: just exactly what is it every year that makes me feel the stakes are so high, the pressure so intense?

Part of it, of course, relates to the practicalities of the week’s workload. While most of the Christian world is consuming excessive sugar and exclaiming over small, cute animals, I usually find myself juggling bulletin production, cutting stamens off lilies and trying to figure out a way to make absolutely sure that this year, unlike the past five, my waders really, really won’t leak during baptism.

For me, that practical pressure begins to build in my mind like this:

Wow. Easter is coming up. There are going to be so many visitors at church on Easter! I should really think of something that is going to impress those visitors so much that they will be back next Sunday. And the next, and the one after that, after which they will join the church, instantly begin tithing and offer to serve in the nursery rotation. What could that be? A liturgical dance, maybe? Raffle for a fun-filled Caribbean cruise? The best, most brilliant, engaging, life-changing sermon in the history of sermons ever?

See what I mean? No pressure.

In these dust-settling post-Easter weeks, though, I’ve begun to think that it isn’t the practical details of pulling off Easter that cause the most anxiety. In fact, I think perhaps those worries mask a deeper worry I feel: how can I get everybody to believe?

That’s my job, right?

Easter could be my one shot to convince everybody that this story we tell is something they should bet their lives on. How can I, in approximately 20 minutes of sermon time, hold in tension peoples’ legitimate suspicion of the church and hundreds of years of rational thought that inevitably raise questions about whether this story is … true?

This self-imposed expectation is a heavy burden to bear. So, as I carefully examined my waders for leaks this year (I failed again, as it turns out), I decided: I reject the expectation that this Easter, if I do my job right, everyone will believe the story.

Why? Because it’s not the pastor’s job to strong-arm people into believing, to execute the most deeply moving liturgical dance through which all the nations of the world come to believe.

No, the job is to issue an invitation, over and over again, to join the story.

After all, a struggle to believe is shared by even the first disciples, who had a very hard time piecing together the facts. But here we are, 2000+ years later, still declaring resurrection. Why? Because all of us need a voice to offer hope; to name the dis-ease that we share with the folks at the tomb that day; to acknowledge these truths: that love is greater than hate, life wins out over death, justice will carry the day, wholeness can come out of broken, jagged pieces, and God is bigger than we are.

It’s all around us — Easter is our invitation to open our eyes and see it everywhere.

How much better would Holy Week be for us preacher types if we could manage to lay down the arrogant expectation that anything we might do would inspire belief? If we could set that expectation aside, we might be able to see what a holy honor it is to hold such an invitation in our hands, to lift it up for everyone to see, and to say with awe: “Here it is!”

Next year I am just going to get a new pair of waders. And I’m also going to try to see the preacher’s task at Easter like this: the task of issuing an invitation to hope. If I can manage that, I think Holy Week might actually be filled with expectation, and the Easter sermon the easiest sermon to write all year long.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.