Chapter 4: Preaching and Mental Health

The Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 4: Preaching and Mental Health

But of course preaching, for me, has, in a sense, been personal counseling. I mean to say my definition of preaching is personal counseling on a group scale. (Interview on NBC-TV on May 10. 1959) -- Harry Emerson Fosdick

Each Sunday more than 200,000 sermons are preached. How many of these make a distinguishable difference in the lives of the hearers? How many have an energizing and renewing effect? Do the majority of these sermons stimulate the growth of persons? Do they motivate at least a few persons to throw off the shell of their smaller selves, stretch their spiritual muscles, and begin to live in larger dimensions of the Kingdom? Do they lighten the load, strengthen the arm, and feed the hungers of the world-weary folks who come seeking help? Do they open inner windows through which new understanding of life in God's world can enter? Do they communicate the "good news"? Are they channels for the healing, cleansing stream of God's grace?

The sermon offers a minister one of his most valuable opportunities to enhance the mental and spiritual health of his people. Like group counseling, effective preaching offers an efficient means of helping a number of individuals simultaneously. From a mental health viewpoint, the sermon has both preventive and therapeutic potentialities. For relatively healthy persons it can stimulate personality growth and raise the general level of their creativity. It can release strength within those who are struggling with a personal crisis. It can support those whose personality foundations are weak, and motivate some who are burdened to seek professional help.

That many sermons do not enhance personality health is obvious. A cartoon depicting a woman shaking hands with a minister as she left the church, had this caption: "Thank you for your sermon! It was just like water to a drowning man." The woman's confused compliment loses its humor when applied to many sermons. How can a preacher avoid doing harm to persons? How can he maximize the contributions of his sermons to personality wholeness?

Preaching as an Act of Worship

The sermon is an integral part of a worship service. The effective sermon is itself an act of worship -- of loving God with one's mind and heart. The mental health values of worship, discussed in Chap. 3, apply with particular force to the preaching dimension of worship. As a shared experience of meaning, the sermon stimulates the development of a sense of community. Many people gain ego support by identifying with the preacher as he proclaims the great themes of wisdom and faith, courage and hope as understood in the group's tradition. Hearing a sermon is a feeding experience, the food being more or less nourishing depending on the sermon's quality. An effective sermon facilitates the renewal of trust by communicating the eternal verities of the faith within the supportive matrix of a religious community. The sermon should be a channel of guilt-reducing grace. It should reduce narcissism by accepting confrontation of the hearer with the futility of the many and alluring varieties of self-worship and the warm attractiveness of the life of trust. Person-centered preaching shares insights concerning common human problems and explores alternative ways of handling them. Certainly, the sermon is the strategic part of the worship service for challenging persons to creative self-investment. Effective preaching is an invaluable instrument of pastoral care -- "perspective-giving, appreciation-perceiving and insight-creating discipline of the human spirit." (Edgar N. Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching (Des Moines, lowa Meredith Press, 1961), p. 94.

Preaching that Blocks and Binds

From the mental health standpoint, preaching is a hazardous activity. When a sermon communicates a distortion of the Christian message (see Chap. 2), it becomes a growth-stunting influence. Preaching is a way of relating. The preacher-listener relationship is, in a sense, one-to-one -- that is, one preacher listened to by a group listening as individuals. On a deeper level, there exists a web of relationships wherein individual listeners respond to the nonverbal communication of their fellow listeners and the minister is influenced by the response of his congregation. The constructive or destructive factors in a sermon relationship are the same factors which make any relationship helpful or harmful.

The first negative factor in some preaching is authoritarianism. To be effective, a sermon must possess a degree of "rational authority" the authority of competence. If his message lacks this self-validating quality, a minister may try to compensate by using the pseudo strength of irrational authority (authoritarianism). The coercive element in such preaching is thinly disguised. The spirit of mutual spiritual search is missing. The ex cathedra tone of the sermon tends to activate the hearer's immature responses -- compliance or defiance -- rather than stimulate his spiritual creativity.

A second negative factor which sometimes appears in preaching is moralizing (see Chap. 2). This harms mental health by creating neurotic guilt and/or self-righteousness, both inimical to robust morality. A minister who specializes in such preaching creates a guilt-laden atmosphere. Or, as a defense against guilt-feelings, parishioners may develop self-images which suffer from what one wag termed "halo-tosis." That young man who ate with publicans and sinners in first century Palestine would probably feel very uncomfortable in such a church (in spite of the fact that his name is prominently displayed). The clergyman who majors in moralistic sermons is often a very angry person. He may also be very "successful" since there are so many adults in our society whose "Child" needs to be punished by the "Parent" of an authority figure.( Eric Berne, author of Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (New York. Grovc Press, 1961), holds that each person has three "ego states," which are in constant interaction with the ego states of others -- Parent, Child, and Adult.) Regular verbal spankings help keep their neurotic guilt-feelings diminished.

A third destructive factor in some sermons is the arousal of irrational fear. Fear and guilt are effective "softeners" by which homiletical manipulators weaken the hearers' resistance to being manipulated. Studies of brainwashing have shown that if a person can be made to feel frightened or guilty enough, he becomes putty in an authority figure's hands.

A fourth negative factor is exhibitionism. Homiletical ego display is sometimes rationalized by the label "confessional." To the perceptive listener, such a minister is confessing his own intense hunger to be given attention, approval, or punishment. He is too busy feeding himself to hear the Lord's injunction, "Feed my sheep."

It is important to remember that all four of these forms of destructiveness operate, to some extent, outside a minister's awareness. They are projections of his personality problems. Most of us who preach occasionally fall into one of these negative patterns. The person who does so persistently needs therapy, not condemnation.

In addition to these destructive factors, there are two factors which make for irrelevance in preaching: oversimplification and theologizing. Sermons composed of easy generalizations about either the nature of human problems or their solutions are popular precisely because they ignore the ambiguities, paradoxes, and complexities of existence. They are agents of comfortable illusion. The comfort ends, however, when the comforted confronts the stubborn facts of everyday reality. When the simple message has a head-on collision with a snarled human problem, the irrelevance of such sermons is evident. The pampering sermon is one form of oversimplification. Grace is cheap. Goodness brings inevitable success. Challenge and confrontation are conspicuously absent.

As Fosdick has observed, a minister who is preaching a certain theological system usually misses the target of a sermon -- live persons with live problems.( Simon Doniger (ed.), The Application of Psychology to Preaching (Great Neck, N. Y.: Pastoral Psychology Press, 1952), p. 61.) Precisely the same is true of preaching a psychological system. A minister's conceptual systems must be related to the world where people live and hope, cry and die. The late Halford E. Luccock once told of a young minister to whom a parishioner commented: "Brother Conway, you seem to be preaching to the moon." (Ibid )Relevance is not easy to achieve, but it is essential to genuine pastoral preaching. Translating one's ideas into understanding language is also essential. We ministers have an arsenal of specialized jargon which unwittingly can be used to dominate an audience, making them feel stupid, angry, or both. Some ministers become charmed with their verbal style. Well-articulated words become ends in themselves, not vehicles of communication. In this connection, Charles Goff once observed that some sermons are too smooth -- like a player piano.

To summarize, all of these six factors harm persons because they diminish the self-esteem of the man in the pew, treating him as an object rather than a subject. In Martin's Buber's terms, they create "I-It" relationships. They increase the sense of "nobodyness," to use Martin Luther King's phrase.

Some Positive Effects of Preaching on Mental Health

Just what is "good preaching"? Too often this phrase refers primarily to fluency in the use of the religious vocabulary and/or saying the things laymen like to hear. In contrast, a valid test for preaching is this -- How well does it communicate the basic meaning and experience of the Christian message? The heart of the gospel is the "good news" of God's accepting love. To know the meaning of the gospel requires experiencing reconciliation (with oneself, others, and God). Growth occurs as a result of preaching when people experience the gospel message as a present reality. This experience releases the blocked inner strivings toward wholeness which are the gift of God. A minister would do well to test his sermons by questions such as these: To what extent did I communicate ideas that are true to the best in the Christian tradition? Did the quality of the relationships which were established help to bring these ideas alive in the experience of the listener? Were these relationships rich in acceptance and reconciliation?

The sermon offers a superb opportunity to communicate the Christian message in a supportive, life-affirming, growth-stimulating way. As Wayne Oates suggests, helpful messages of comfort, reassurance, inspiration, and teaching can frequently be communicated more effectively through preaching than through counseling.( The Christian Pastor (rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964). A minister has a unique advantage among the helping professions, in having a weekly opportunity to undergird his work with individuals by a message to his assembled flock. Recent developments in "milieu therapy" and the "therapeutic community" approach indicate that therapeutic goals can be achieved in much larger groups than had been thought possible in orthodox group therapy theory.( Maxwell Jones, The Therapeutic Community (New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1953)

It is wise for the minister to check his sermons frequently against mental health criteria (such as are described in Chap. 2). What he selects and emphasizes from the total biblical record and how he interprets it should be guided by his knowledge of what produces the gospel experiences of reconciliation and growth. From every possible source (including art, literature, theological thought, drama, the behavioral sciences, and his experiences with human relationships), he needs to widen and deepen his understanding of human nature and the human situation. He needs to know both what is in man and what man is in.

The message from the Bible can best come alive for individuals if the minister relates that message to their past experience, felt needs, and daily problems. John Dewey and others have demonstrated that learning is need-oriented. Learning occurs when certain ideas or attitudes are perceived by individuals as meeting their needs in some way. Whether a sermon deals with a biblical theme, a social problem, a Christian doctrine, the world mission of the church, Christian family life, or a personal problem such as doubt, it will have meaning for the individual only if it touches one of his many areas of inner need. A sermon will speak to him only if it "speaks to his condition." Somehow, in preaching, the magnificent insights of the Christian way must intersect the world of frustration, hope, and fear where most of us live. Preaching is proclaiming the good news of transforming love, but the proclamation can be heard only if it is directly related to the dilemmas, problems, and decisions which people face in their daily lives. A minister's most intimate awareness of his people's inner worlds comes from his face-to-face relationships with them in pastoral care and counseling

There is some validity in the familiar charge that sermons frequently "answer questions nobody is asking." Many people, of course, are asking the wrong questions.( For example a person suffering from neurosis often asks, "Why don't others give me the love for which I am so hungry?" This question leads to a dead-end, psychologically. The productive question which leads toward inner freedom and personal growth is this -- "Why do I relate to others in ways that keep me at a distance and prevent me from participating in the give and take of loving relationships?") They do not ask certain highly significant questions because they are unaware of those inner needs which would cause them to be asked. A sermon relationship, like a counseling relationship, should start with the question people are asking, but it should help them learn to ask new questions which can lead toward spiritual growth.

Some people ask, "How can I be comforted?" when they need to ask, "How can I be confronted," (by the demands of reality) . The common, erroneous assumption that there is an inevitable conflict between the pastoral and the prophetic, between counseling and preaching, results from a false dichotomy -- acceptance versus confrontation. Confronting a person with reality can be, in certain circumstances, the most accepting way of relating to him. This is equally true in preaching and in counseling. I can recall marital counseling experiences in which the turning toward a healthier relationship occurred when the counselor stated, in effect, "It seems to me that you both need to do some growing up in your relationship." Certainly preaching should include confrontation. Jesus' preaching and counseling offer striking examples of creative confrontation.

The key to the effectiveness of confrontation is contained in the words, "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). Confrontation is creative only when the truth is spoken in love -- that is, within a relationship of acceptance. A congregation which knows that their minister cares about them as persons will accept confrontation from him which they would automatically reject from another source. The same is true in a strong counseling relationship. The truth is spoken in love only when the minister applies the truth to himself as well as to his congregation. If he speaks of the sins of his people and his community as though he were exempt from the failings of the rest of humanity, he will, in effect, be speaking down to his people. Confrontation is most likely to be accepted if the confronter makes it clear he is aware of his involvement in the sin and sickness which are the lot of men in general.

I recall the anxiety-laden questions that crossed my mind during my first experience of preaching to a mental hospital congregation -- "What are they feeling and experiencing?" "Will my message have a positive, negative, or no effect on their illness'' "Do I dare speak as though I have answers to their enormous problems?" I am convinced that queries such as these are also worth raising when one preaches to a "normal" congregation.

The feeling-tone of a sermon often has more to do with its mental health impact than does content. Two clergymen in a given town preach on "Forgiveness." Both sermons are biblically sound and adequately preached. They are similar in content. And yet, when the worshipers leave the service of pastor A, their inner condition is very different from those leaving pastor B's service. A's parishioner's have a dull we've-heard-that-before feeling, whereas B's people feel a sense of having experienced the new life of forgiveness. The difference in the reaction which occurs is in the spirit of the man doing the preaching

The kind of preaching that enhances mental health has been called by various names. Henry Sloane Coffin and Charles Kemp have described it as "Pastoral Preaching."( Henry Sloane Coffin, What to Preach (Cleveland: Church World Press. 1926); and Charles F. Kemp, Pastoral Preaching (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1963). Wayne Oates used the term "Therapeutic Preaching," (The Christian Pastor.) and Edgar Jackson, "Person-centered Preaching."( A Psychology for Preaching.)

Truth Through Relationship

The minister's own mental health deeply influences the impact of his sermon on the mental health of others. For better or for worse, who he is as a person inevitably comes through with force. The spirit of the service is a direct reflection of the personality of the minister. Phillips Brooks's classical definition of preaching as "truth through personality," in contemporary terms could be put as "truth through relationship" (emphasizing the interaction between preaching and listener). Recent studies in communication theory and group dynamics have confirmed Brooks's insight concerning the importance in preaching of the personality of the preacher. Roy Pearson declares: "If it is essential that the preacher understand the people to whom the sermon is delivered, it is equally important that he understand the person who delivers it."( The Ministry of Preaching (New York: Harper 8. Brothers, 1959), p. 70.)

To some degree, every sermon is autobiographical -- an act of self-revelation. The more the preacher is lacking in self-awareness, the more he will project unconscious feelings and images through the sermon, with distorting effects on the Christian message. Since the most difficult secret to keep is one's opinion of oneself, the minister's self-image will inevitably appear in his sermons.

The unexpected responses to sermons, which ministers frequently receive, may be due to the hearers having "tuned in," without the minister's awareness, on feelings and attitudes transmitted between the lines of a sermon. "The sermon I didn't intend to preach" -- describes the feeling-level messages which are transmitted between the lines of a sermon. To paraphrase Emerson, what one makes his parishioners feel speaks so loudly they cannot hear what he says. The goal of preaching is to make the feeling-message undergird and reinforce the verbal message.

Most ministers who take counseling seriously find that it deepens their preaching. Not that one should ever violate a confidence by using case material in a sermon. Rather it is the experience of walking with troubled persons on their inner journey that deepens preaching, by enhancing the minister's "feel" for human problems.

Realizing that depth preaching can only come from depth encounters with persons (especially the depths of their own personhood) some ministers are increasing their self-awareness through personal psychotherapy. The Rev. Harry B. Scholefield describes the impact of an educative analysis on his preaching:

In arriving at a higher degree of self-acceptance and self-knowledge, . . . I became aware that many of the uses I was making of sermons were at variance with my conscious intents. I lived through a good many conflicts which at first I denied had anything to do with sermon composition or preaching As I lived them through . . . I began to put a fresh and higher value on the pulpit and its varied meanings.( "The Significance of an Educative Analysis for the Parish Ministry," in The Minister's Own Mental Health, Wayne Oates (ed.) (Des Moines, Iowa: Meredith Press, 1961). p. 325.)

A thoughtful Christian layman has adapted an article from Printers Ink entitled "Your Copy Is You" (by substituting "sermon" for "copy"):

Your sermon will be only as good and no better than you yourself as a thinking, analytical, understanding and sympathetic human being. If you are shallow, your sermon will be shallow: if you are blatant, your sermon will be blatant; if you are sincere, reasonable and persuasive, your sermon will be sincere, reasonable and persuasive. Because your sermon, more than you will ever realize, is you.( The original article by Walter Weir in Printer's Ink (May 5, 1960) was adapted by W. W. Reid in The Pastor's Journal July-August, 1960 issue), p. 10.)

A minister becomes a transmitter of the grace of God only if he has had a firsthand experience of that grace in his own inner life. His heart having been "strangely warmed," he is able to communicate this warmth to others. The openness and integrity of his own relationship with God will determine his effectiveness as a facilitator of healthy relationships with God.

Preaching as Precounseling

As a typical congregation listens to a sermon, there are always several persons who are sizing up the minister, attempting to decide whether or not to seek his help with a problem. Silently, they are asking themselves: "If I expose my painful problem to him will he be judgmental or accepting? Will he listen? Will he be shocked? Does he know enough about real life to understand? Can I trust him with my secret? Is he too busy to have time for me? Does he care about people?" How these silent questions are answered may determine whether these persons take the difficult step of crossing the threshold of the minister's study for help. The relationships established through the worship service and the sermon constitute either bridges or barriers between the minister and those who need his help.

One criterion for judging the effectiveness of a sermon is the number of troubled persons who seek help during the following week.( On the other hand, the sermon is of direct help to many people, some of whom may not come for counseling because they have been sustained and strengthened by it.) Any minister who is skilled in the art of pastoral preaching has heard words such as, "I haven't known where to turn with this problem. But last Sunday, as you were speaking, I felt I should talk to you about it." A sermon can help an individual overcome his inner resistances to seeking help by strengthening his sense of need and by awakening hope that something can be done about his dilemma.

In his autobiography, Fosdick describes the focus of effective preaching: "Every sermon should have for its main business the head-on constructive meeting of some problem which was puzzling minds, burdening consciences, distracting lives, and no sermon which so met a real human difficulty, with light to throw on it and help to win a victory over it, could possibly be futile." (Living of These Days (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), p. 94) This kind of "life situational" preaching will bring burdened people out of hiding to seek the minister's help.

What are some of the elements in preaching that help build bridges of rapport between minister and laymen? The warm feeling-tone of the minister's manner, his contact with his audience, his awareness of the tangled complexities of ordinary life, and his attitude toward his own weaknesses are all key factors. Charles Goff, a superb pastoral preacher, once told a group of young ministers of which I was a part, "Talk as you think you'd like to have someone talk to you when things were going badly." In a similar vein, Harry Emerson Fosdick has said, "I preach as a personal counselor . . . that is, I endeavor to address a congregation as though I were talking with an individual." (J. R. Spann (ed.), Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951), p.53)

Personal warmth and the evidence of competence are essential ingredients in a sermon that open doors for troubled people to seek help. Genuine warmth, in contrast to "pulpit radiance," comes from only one source -- liking people. Warmth is, of course, no substitute for competence. A minister who characteristically preaches intellectually vacuous sermons will have few "takers" for counseling appointments, no matter how torrid his heart. It is the communication of these two feelings "He cares about people" and "He knows what he is doing" -- which attracts counseling opportunities.

A technique for testing the relevance and empathic qualities of one's preaching is to listen to a tape of last Sunday's sermon while imagining that one is a despairing person with whom one has counseled recently. This can be shaking. That sermon on "Christian Hope" which drew an abundance of ego-feeding plaudits may seem like twenty minutes of pious platitudes when viewed from the dark chaos of an alcoholic's inner world.

Preaching as Group Counseling

In their volume on mental health and the community, T. A. Rennie and L. E. Woodward discuss the positive function of preaching:

If the preacher has acquired a thorough understanding of personality development and habitually sees people as individuals with distinctly personal histories, if he accepts their present habits and characteristics in the light of their earlier conditioning experience, he can develop a manner and method in preaching that give people the feeling they are understood.... If the preacher will talk in terms of everyday feelings, habits and aspirations, commonplace life situations, and familiar Biblical scenes and sayings rather than in technical formulations of a theological or psychological nature, he can accomplish a great deal to help his people to better understanding of themselves and better adjustment to each other.( Thomas A. C. Rennie and Luthcr E. Woodward, Mental Health in Modern Society (New York: The Commonwealth Fund, 1948), pp. 262-63.)

The same factors which cause a sermon to create counseling opportunities are also vital in making it personal counseling on a group scale. Insight into life, nonjudgmentalism, warmth, and competence all contribute to a healing-growth milieu in the worship experience. A group-counseling sermon has a cutting edge and a spirit of urgency. At the University of Wisconsin various professors are asked by the student body to give a "last lecture" incorporating what they would say if it were their last opportunity to communicate what is most important to them. The results are so impressive that these lectures always draw overflow audiences. Perhaps a minister who is bogged down in the "weekliness" of his preaching role could apply the spirit of the "last lecture" to the topic he has chosen for next Sunday. There is no reason why a chill ought not to go down the spines of the members of the congregation occasionally as a sermon comes vividly alive for them. Stories pregnant with the drama of life, striking incidents from biographies, and dynamic interpretations of scripture have the ability to reach listeners in powerful ways.

To transmit vitality a sermon must possess involvement on the minister's part. The danger of exhibitionism should not cause one to miss the real communicative power of personal witness. Think of the motivating influence of personal testimonies in Alcoholics Anonymous. The central focus of a healthy sermon should be Christian insights as they relate to concrete problems of living. In moderation, the subjective experiences of the minister in his own struggle to live the Christian life can enhance the communication of the gospel experience.

Sermons can be individual counseling on a group scale if they help people discover the living Word through the words of the Bible. It is true, unfortunately, that the historical-critical approach to the Bible has hardly touched most laymen. If the majority of churchmen are to discover the relevance of the life-changing ideas of the Bible, they must be helped to grow beyond naïve literalism. The sermon can help them understand the historical-developmental approach to the Bible as a friend that opens new windows in their spiritual lives. This requires what Paul Tillich calls "deliteralization" -- in other words, moving beyond the symbolic stories (such as the creation myth and Jonah) to discover the glowing, self-authenticating truths-for-living which are visible only when one escapes from wooden literalism. Deliteralization (or "demythologizing," to use Rudolf Bultmann's term) should not deprive a congregation of the opportunity to participate in the universal symbols of our religious tradition. Deliteralizing does not mean debunking, but means moving beyond literalism to find a deeper level of meaning in the traditional symbols such as the Lord's supper, baptism, the cross, the Christmas story, and so forth. Symbols have an important place in preaching.

In an article on "The Impact of Pastoral Psychology on Theological Thought," Tillich emphasizes this point: "Intellectual and moral preaching fails to reach those levels of the personal life which can, however, be opened by authentic symbols -- symbols which themselves have roots in the unconscious depths of individuals and groups." (Pastoral Psychology, Xl (February, 1960), 20.) He points out that "living symbols" (those which are alive with meaning for the person) are instruments of grace, vehicles for the impact of the divine presence on the unconscious as well as the conscious life of persons. Liturgical, sacramental, biblical, and artistic symbols often have an impact on the totality of a person's life, grasping dimensions of his inner world which are missed by nonsymbolic expressions. As Tillich indicates, living symbols have both revealing and healing power.

To be a form of group counseling, a sermon must involve participation and response on the hearer's part. Experiments in learning have shown that unless there is emotional involvement, relatively little is learned and that is readily forgotten. One-way communication is notoriously inefficient as a teaching method. Participation is the key means of eliciting personal involvement.

Active listening is, of course, a form of participation. It would be a salutary (though perhaps disconcerting) experience for a preacher if he could turn a switch and listen to the thoughts of his congregation during the sermon. Various listeners might be thinking: "How can you be so sure?" "Oh, yea?" "So what?" "I'd like to believe that, but I can't." "What in the world does 'eschatological' mean?" "I wonder if I turned off the stove?" "You said it, reverend!" "That's a real doll in the second row!" "I've never thought of that." "Stop shouting!" "But I've just lost my job!" "But why did God let Bill die of cancer?" "I shouldn't have cheated on my income tax." "Amen." "You make it sound so easy." "This seat feels like a rock!" "I'll have to try that this week." "This is agony trying to stay awake." "But how do I go about loving my lousy neighbor?" "He's certainly wound up today!" "O God, help me find a way out." "That idea gets to me!"

In The Miracle of Dialogue, Reuel L. Howe speaks of the "monological illusion" -- the erroneous belief that communication occurs when people are told what they ought to know. From his experiences at the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies, he observes that many younger ministers are disillusioned with preaching because they are not aware of alternatives to the ineffective, homiletical monologue.( The Miracle of Dialogue (New York Seabury Press, 1963), p. 32.) Dialogic preaching, in which the preaching-listening relationship is taken seriously, breathes new life into this pastoral function. Fosdick holds that a sermon should be a "co-operative dialogue in which the congregation's objections, questions, doubts and confirmations are fairly stated and dealt with." (Living of These Days, p. 97) In his Yale lectures on preaching, Gene Bartlett stated that "the pastor-preacher joins a conversation already going on within every man." (The Audacity of Preaching (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 84ff.) Training in counseling is directly relevant to this kind of preaching. For example, the preacher may reflect and deal fairly with feelings, attitudes and doubts which he knows people frequently have in certain problem areas. This technique is used in counseling to help the counselee know that the counselor has empathetic understanding of his feelings. It is even more important in preaching because the listener has little opportunity to express his own objections, doubts, feelings, and reactions openly.

Preaching can learn from counseling (and creative education) at another point -- that it is far less help to people, in the long run, to give them answers than it is to provide them with resources for finding their own answers. From the mental health standpoint, the spirit of preaching should be -- "Here are rich resources from many sources including our religious tradition. I invite and challenge you to use them in your search for meaning." Offering alternative ways of understanding doctrinal matters (the resurrection, for example) and then leaving the decision to the individual (who will make it in the final analysis, in any case) is consistent with this approach. The same principle applies to complex ethical issues. The preacher should share his own convictions in this spirit -- "This is the way I see it through the glass of my experience -- perhaps darkly. I invite you to consider this, but I respect your responsibility to find your own position." If a sermon is to stimulate personal struggle with the complexities of existence, it must always raise more questions than it answers.

Many ministers have experimented with techniques for creating homiletical dialogue, direct feed back, and grass-roots congregational involvement. For a number of years, Leslie Weatherhead had a question-and-answer period following his Sunday evening sermon. Post-sermon discussion groups immediately following the service or during the week are devices frequently used. During series of sermons on Christian beliefs, I found it useful to have a five-minute period for question-writing immediately after the sermon. Questions submitted one Sunday were answered at the beginning of the following Sunday's sermon. Unfortunately, most congregations are so steeped in sermonic "spectatoritis" that they respond slowly to such interaction stimulators.

The presermon "clinic" in its various forms is a procedure with rich possibilities. Dietrich Ritschl suggests that the minister take part with a select group of laymen in the study of the scripture passage from which the sermon will be preached the following Sunday. This tends to make the sermon a function of the congregation. Another approach is for the minister to share his key ideas on a topic with a lay group several days or weeks before a sermon is preached. Their criticisms, suggestions, and discussion serve as important grist for his homiletical mill. These approaches not only increase the relevance of sermons but give laymen a sense of genuine partnership in their preparation.( For a discussion of a variety of ways of stimulating dialogue, see Clyde H. Reid, "Preaching and the Nature of Communication" Pastoral Psychology, XIV (October, 1963); also see Gene E. Bartlett, The Audacity of Preaching, for suggestions concerning ways of including the congregation in sermon preparation.)

From a mental health standpoint, a sermon should stimulate action as well as interaction. Halford Luccock calls attention to the fact that the response to the sermon at Pentecost was "What shall we do?" Let me suggest a two-step approach to the action phase of the response to preaching: (a) Motivation -- Healthy motivation moves people, not primarily by guilt but by the warm, wonderful experience of reconciliation. It challenges them to live in the kingdom which embryonically is present among us, and to work for its permeation into the fabric of interpersonal relationships and the structures of society. All this is a glad response to the gift of God's accepting love. (b) Modus operandi -- Having succeeded in inspiring people to change their behavior, serve those in need, or join in social action, the next step is to help people discover a way of implementing their new intentions. The impact of many sermons is wasted because they do not include a closing section in which questions such as "So what?" and "What can I do about it, now?" are answered in terms of realistic "next steps" which the hearers can take. Some ministers prepare a study-work sheet for distribution at the close of a sermon, with headings such as "Will you Help?" "What I Can Do About Racial Segregation" or "Study and Action Suggestions." As Gene Bartlett puts it, sermons should end with R.S.V.P., not Q.E.D. There is sound mental health wisdom in the familiar line, "Inspiration is to be enjoyed, then employed."

A sermon is group counseling when it communicates within a supportive religious group the healthy values of the tradition. Many people who have unreliable inner controls need this periodic reinforcement of their value-structure to help them maintain constructive limits in their behavior. This underlines the importance of the minister's standing for something, firmly and dependably, and not simply being permissive and accepting. It is crucial that what he stands for be not moralistic trivia but the central principles of the Hebrew-Christian tradition -- justice, respect for people, trust; love, and brotherhood under God. Being a transmitter of the important values of the culture is more than a way of shoring up weak inner controls on antisocial behavior. It is one of the minister's essential roles in society.

Pitfalls and Possibilities of "Psychological Sermons"

Even a cursory inspection of the church service announcements in Saturday's newspaper shows that some ministers are taking Fosdick's group-scale counseling idea seriously but presumably are ignoring his warning against becoming "amateur pulpit psychiatrists." Topics such as "Three Secrets for Overcoming Inferiority Feelings" and "Master Your Fears Through Faith" are not uncommon. The hallmark of a psychological sermon is its focus on an emotional problem and its use of psychological concepts in discussing a solution. Like many clergymen who are impressed with the value of insights from depth psychology and psychotherapy, I have frequently preached such sermons. It is my impression that whatever benefits resulted could have been achieved in other ways without the negative effects frequently produced by such sermons.

The fallacy in such preaching is the assumption that intellectual Knowledge about an emotional problem is helpful to a troubled person. The minister trained in counseling knows that intellectual understanding is not the same as "insight," that insight involves deep self-awarenesses (reliving blocked feelings) which raise self-esteem and rectify distorted relationships. Intelligent, literate individuals often use their ability to conceptualize as a resistance to self-awareness and a defense against accepting the deeper help they need. Sermons which encourage psychological conceptualization without a therapeutic experience tend to encourage the listener to build higher walls around himself. What he needs is not theories (however valid) about love but the experience of love. If the spirit of any sermon (including a psychological sermon) communicates this experience, it will tend to enhance mental health.

Unfortunately, the thing that often unconsciously motivates the preaching of the "how to" psychological sermon is hidden moralism. The language is different; the dynamics are the same. Such a sermon may be a disguised way of spanking people for their guilts, fears, inferiority feelings, and so forth, in the name of helping them. It is moralistic in that it encourages the psychological equivalent of works-righteousness approaches to salvation -- that is, it encourages the attempt to pull oneself up by one's own rational bootstraps rather than opening oneself to the healing-growth resources in good relationships. The person who tries the bootstrap approach and fails has added another layer of suffering to his already heavy load. He may now feel guilty about his guilts or afraid of his fears.

I recall a psychological sermon on ."Let not the sun go down on your wrath." It had these major points: Unwarranted anger is a sign of immaturity; anger is bad for your mental and physical health; don't let your anger smolder but replace it with love and forgiveness. The minister obviously had read widely in the popular religio-psychological literature. Many of his comments about the roots of anger were valid. Yet I suspect that the results of the sermon, in addition to transmitting certain head-level ideas about anger, were to make his congregation feel guilty about their unresolved hostility and to arouse hidden anger toward the minister himself. The minister was inaccurate in his belief that anger as such is bad for health. Only chronic anger or anger which is pushed out of awareness to fester in a pool of guilt in the unconscious has a deleterious influence on health. The minister's oversimplified remedy for anger showed the superficiality of the sermon. Replacing anger (especially inappropriate, immature anger) with love and forgiveness is a worthy goal, but it can be done only by personal maturing.

There is no reason to exclude from preaching, insights about human life from any source, certainly not from the sciences of man.( Here are some of the titles of Fosdick's great sermons on personal problems, which made use of psychological insights: "The High Uses of Trouble," "When Life Goes All to Pieces, How to Stand Up and Take It," "The Conquest of Fear.") Relatively healthy people possess sufficient inner freedom to utilize such insights constructively. Here are some guidelines for reducing the dangers in the use of psychological concepts in preaching:

(1) Double-check the accuracy of one's facts. Seward Hiltner recommends that ministers who have professional psychotherapists in their congregation interact with them before preaching on a psychological topic.( "Editorial:" Pastoral Psychology, IX (March, 1958). A brief consultation over lunch with a clinically trained chaplain, a psychiatrist, a social worker, a psychologist, or a minister with advanced training in counseling is an excellent way of confirming one's facts.

(2) Translate psychological terms into understandable English and, if possible into the religious vocabulary. Except with an unusually sophisticated audience, psychological terms tend to block rather than facilitate communications. Many such terms elicit fear-laden associations. Psychological concepts should be employed sparingly and presented in juxtaposition with the parallel ideas from the Bible or the Christian tradition. For example, a quote from Erich Fromm stressing the importance of mature "self-love" could well be followed by indicating that the same insight is implicit in the words of Jesus "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. l9:19). Or, this statement from Soren Kierkegaard might be cited: "If anyone, therefore, will not learn from Christianity to love himself in the right way, then neither can he love his neighbor . . . To love one's self in the right way and to love one's neighbor . . . are at bottom one and the same . . . Hence the law is: 'You shall love yourself as you love your neighbor when you love him as yourself' " (Robert Bretall (ed.), A Kierkegaard Anthology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), p. 289.)

(3) Avoid anything that might be taken as an easy answer. It is wise, in fact, to go beyond this by frankly stating that most human problems are complicated, that some require professional therapy, that many cannot be solved fully, and that often the best we can do is change our attitudes toward them.

(4) Balance introspective elements in preaching with those which look upward and outward. As Viktor Frankl has observed, many people intensify their problems by "hyperreflection." The more they concentrate on introspection, the more anxious they become about their anxieties. They become psychological pulse-takers. Rather than encouraging further introspection, it often is healthier to help such persons find a challenging center of self-investment outside themselves.

In general, it is much better to include psychological insights in every sermon than to preach sermons which are mainly psychological. It is the correlation of the wisdom of our religious tradition with more recent insights from the psychological sciences that gives preaching vitality and the power to reach persons in this "age of psychology."

(5) Always stress the importance of seeking professional help when problems do not respond to self-help procedures. Regular mention in sermons of the community resources which are available helps people to implement this recommendation.

(6) Create channels for evaluative feedback. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. Several perceptive laymen should be asked by the minister to listen with a keen ear and report on the strengths and weaknesses of a particular sermon. "P.S.E. Sheets" (Post-Sermon Evaluation) encourage candor by asking specific questions about content, delivery, congregational reaction, and suggestions for strengthening future sermons on the topic. The privilege of serving as "sermon evaluators" should be rotated among the mature laymen of a church. This procedure should be handled informally and casually, without publicity or fanfare.

Allies: Preaching and Pastoral Counseling

In his Yale lectures on preaching some ninety years ago, Phillips Brooks declared, "The work of the preacher and the pastor really belong together, and ought not to be separated." (Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1877), p. 75).

Several facets of the complementary nature of counseling and preaching have been discussed -- the way in which effective preaching brings troubled persons to counseling, the function of counseling experiences in helping to keep preaching relevant to real human problems, and the ways in which training in counseling can be used in preaching.

A final point at which preaching and counseling need each other is when the preacher unwittingly threatens or does harm to an individual's mental health. A woman in her middle years was unable to remarry following the tragic death of her husband, in spite of several opportunities to do so. Something beyond her control would cause her to withdraw from every relationship which began to move toward marriage. Her problem was rooted in repressed hostile feelings toward her deceased husband concerning which feelings she felt intense unconscious guilt. To atone for her guilt feelings, she denied herself the satisfaction of remarriage. After a number of years, she was able to partially overcome this block and was about to remarry. Then, one Sunday in his sermon, her minister used a sermon illustration which plunged the woman back into her guilt. The illustration was a story which praised a lighthouse keeper's widow who did not remarry but, instead, continued faithfully to tend the light for many years. When asked how she found strength to carry on, she replied that she looked across the water to the green hills where her husband was buried and heard him say, "Mind the light, Mary." Fortunately, the woman who was about to remarry was able to make an appointment with her minister to talk about her distress. The wedding was postponed and through depth counseling she discovered and worked through her underlying ambivalance toward her first husband. Fortunately, the sermon illustration had brought her problem into the open where it could be dealt with by means of counseling. However, if the woman had not felt free to seek such counseling, she might have retreated permanently into her self-punishing pattern, making remarriage impossible.

Every sermon involves risks of this type. An inept, inaccurate or misconstrued statement can have serious negative effects on the mental well-being of someone who is present. For this as well as other reasons, it is imperative that a congregation feel that their minister is highly approachable for individual counseling. His availability for counseling should be publicized regularly in the church bulletin. In addition, he should let it be known that he welcomes the opportunity to talk individually with anyone who wishes to discuss any issue raised by his sermons. This will contribute to the dialogic atmosphere of a congregation and will also help transform the unintentional negative effects of preaching into counseling opportunities. Informed by such experiences, the minister can move toward deepening the levels of communication which occur during his sermons.

In his autobiography, Fosdick recalls the decisive turning-point in his preaching. He had known for some time that counseling could achieve results. He writes: "It was a great day when I began to feel that a sermon could be immediately creative and transforming." (Living of These Days, p. 99.) It is no wonder that after this occurred, preaching became exhilarating for him and an experience of group counseling for his congregation.



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Jackson, Edgar N. A Psychology for Preaching. Des Moines, Iowa: Meredith Press, 1961.

Jackson, Edgar N. How to Preach to People's Needs. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956.

Kemp, Charles F. Life-Situation Preaching. St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1956.

Kemp, Charles F. Pastoral Preaching. St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1963.