Louis Weeks: Isn’t the Holy Spirit supposed to be in this somewhere?

Advice from an elder preacher and leader to a younger: let the listeners do some of the work, and leave space for the Spirit.

“You preach too hard. Why are you doing all the work?”

Being a young man at the time, I did not appreciate the critique. But I listened.

The retired minister I respected explained what he meant. “If you do all the work, the congregation will sit back and feel off the hook. Let them share the work of comprehending the text. Let them share in the giving of energy to the job. Let them make some of the connections to the illustrations you use. Besides, isn’t the Holy Spirit supposed to be in this somewhere?”

I had been preaching and teaching for several years when I happened to have this man in the congregation. I realize now that he gave some of the best advice for leaders I’ve ever heard.

So I slowed a little, asked more questions from the pulpit, and from the lectern when I taught. Let silence “belong to us,” not just to me, to fill with words. Sure enough, people seemed to attend more closely to the sermon or the topic in class. Discussion times more often turned into real teaching conversations. I had known, intellectually, that the Holy Spirit is present everywhere. Now I came to rely more on the work of the Spirit.

From time to time, with teachers and preachers I respect, I offer something similar -- gratis (maybe for them it’s worth what it costs). But I appreciated so much the intervention of that retired preacher I am willing to risk being thought a pest or a complainer. Those receiving my admonition to “share the energy” have sometimes thanked me later.

The main problem in Christian preaching and teaching today is on the other side -- the lack of passion. So when someone has energy to preach and teach, love of the text and love of the people in the congregation, it is somewhat awkward to offer any advice at all. It’s hard to hear it when you do have passion and want everyone to be growing in Christ. But we do need to share the energy.

This admonition to share the energy, let some come from the people as well as from you, seems to me to apply in all forms of Christian leadership. I relate it now to the Christian faith itself. I have come to believe the Holy Spirit actually does move us, enlightens us, grants us faith that others will share the inspiration in worship and work together. I suppose this website -- Faith and Leadership -- is one good location for discussing our faith and reliance on God’s gift of faith broadly among the saints.

The pastor’s admonition was reinforced recently in a “Presbyterian Outlook” article by Jill Duffield, a fine pastor in South Carolina. She said a lifeguard called to her as she swam, “Glide, Mrs. Duffield. Glide!” She was, if I remember, frenetically engaged in the strokes and not getting enough distance from her exertion.

Not that I share the energy all the time, even now. I recently led a seminar in Seattle in the presence of the thoughtful author Anthony Robinson. Tony leads the Congregational Leaders Northwest network, consults throughout North America, and writes exceedingly well. His latest is, “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations” (Eerdmans, 2008). At a break, he told me, “You do work hard.”

I tried to “glide,” but I was nervous that day, working on a new topic, and didn’t succeed. Some participants still rated the experience superb, some rated the workshop mediocre. I reflect now that doing more by doing less would have helped.

Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.