Of Fumes and Fire

Hidden Dangers of the Pulpit

There it stands, so innocent, at the front of the sanctuary. Yet whether it’s a modern Plexiglas lecturn, an elevated baroque booth, or a humble music stand, the pulpit should come with a “Danger” warning label. Externally, the preacher must contend with spiritually toxic fumes that collect around the pulpit; internally, there is a fire.

First, the fumes. Every time we preachers step up to that pulpit, we enter a territory of influence, of honor, of “being seen before men.” Not exactly situations Jesus would pull out pom-poms for. Clearly, Jesus did not reject public speaking or spiritual influence, but he did know about their hidden toxicities that can damage unprotected hearts.

One fume is the need for recognition.

The pulpit can’t help but have a special recognition. Think about it: for what other profession do a substantial number of people willingly, regularly, release thirty minutes to hear the same person talk? Unlike a lawyer or comedian, a preacher gets a weekly half-hour. Unlike a professor or teacher, a preacher is non-interruptable. People surrender quietly, week after week, to listen to what comes out of your mouth.

Ego trip, here I come.

On my first day of seminary a professor said that all pastors go into ministry prompted by a hidden need for this attention. I think I visibly bristled. How could this professor debase such a high calling with such a low motive? That certainly didn’t apply to me!

The Lord chuckled, “Oh, Lora, Lora, myopic Lora.” Later, after his two favorite teachers—the Holy Spirit and Experience—had schooled me in a lesson or two, I recognized myself in the professor’s statement and even in A.W. Tozer’s quote that puts the issue more starkly:

The grosser manifestations of [self-focused] sins, egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion, are strangely tolerated in Christian leaders even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. . . . Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice. (The Pursuit of God, p. 43)

But there’s a more subtle, noxious fume than this need for recognition. If the first is like helium, then the second is a greenhouse gas. The first inflates, the second absorbs.

This fume causes the pastor to take both her performance in the pulpit and the responses to it into herself. And the form of each—whether hitting a homerun or striking out, whether receiving applause or “notes of concern”—contributes to her sense of self. The preacher no longer can think of herself (or her sermons) “soberly, with sound judgment” because her thinking is too attached to approval ratings. I love the way John Ortberg describes it:

If indicators are that a speaking opportunity went well, then I feel buoyed up. I feel somehow validated as a person. . . . Maybe I’ll do a double lap around the parking lot just in case anybody’s still hanging out to tell me it went well. On the other hand, if I think it went poorly, I feel deflated. . . . Either way, I find myself obsessing about the outcome, replaying it in my mind.” (When the Game Is Over, p. 70)

There are other fumes—hypocrisy, narcissism, pedanticism, and on-but for the above pair, when the pastor is away from the pulpit for too long, withdrawal pains quickly appear.

At least, that’s how I experienced it.

I recently transitioned out of a ministry position with regular pulpit time, becoming a “stay-at-home” mom to our four young children. Without undermining any of the sweet rocking-chair blessings that attend this season of life, I must say I’ve experienced some potent side effects with the transition. I wonder if, partly, I’m “detoxing” from the pulpit. (And here I thought the sleeplessness, irritability, and anxiety were just due to the kids!)

I think I became dependent on the pulpit to give me something it ought not give: my identity.

I inhaled too deeply and something about the pulpit got, as Frank Sinatra sang, “under my skin” and “deep in the heart of me.” Whenever something seeps that deeply into us, we are in danger of idolatry. To put it another way: The identity-maker seat within us has a “Reserved for Christ” notice on it. Anything else we try to seat there, including the pulpit, becomes our idol.

We make disproportionate sacrifices for our idol. We pin “the hopes and fears of all our years” on our idol. We get defensive when someone challenges our idol.

How could something so good, like gospel proclamation, become so toxic as to be an idol? Perhaps it happens when we direct the power of the pulpit to fill our own needs, rather than directing it outward, for God’s glory and hearers’ transformation. (Worship then, for RW readers, becomes far more than just our professional activity. Worship redirects us and by doing, “de-fumigates.”)

But what about this other danger? The “fire” danger. Scripture portrays the call to preach coming with a certain disrupting, painful burning in the bones. Jeremiah put it best: “If I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in” (Jer. 20:9).

Both the “under-the-skin” idolatry and the “fire-in-the-bones” calling are located deep within us. Both speak to our identity. Both cause an ache. Indeed, each, in its own way, can make us downright miserable.

But one danger is a proper response to Jesus’ calling, the other wholly improper. One joins the rocks in crying out his glory, and the other makes eyes at its own glory. One is fire blazing forth from the All-Consuming Fire; the other is just, well, bad gas.

Since laying aside the robe and stole, telling the difference between these two aches is crucial for me. It creates crucial questions. How do I honor the flames that lick in the marrow of my calling but, not now, not while the kids need me at home? When the time does come to return to the pulpit, how do I fan the flames, but not in a way that toxic fumes result?

The professor was right—our calling often is tied to an idolatrous need for attention. But that’s not the whole story. On a far deeper level, there is the One who actually called us, who puts a divine coal upon our lips, creating a burning within so strong we join Paul in exclaiming, “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).

I don’t have the pulpit, or its dangers, figured out. But this I know: dangers are not equal. While it is a dangerous (and confusing!) thing to fall into the fiery hands of the One who calls and compels us, the alternative is impossible.

So we step up to the place of toxins and temptations, praying the words of the old Veni Creator Spiritus hymn:

Heal and refine our earthly parts but, oh, inflame and fire our hearts! O’er all may we victorious be that stands between ourselves and Thee.

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.


Lora A. Copley is blessed to be a wife, a mother of four children and an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. She teaches at Rehoboth Christian School and in a pastoral leadership program on the Navajo Nation.

Reformed Worship 104 © June 2012, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.