Preaching in an Anxious Age:  How to Preach God’s Peace to Ourselves and Our Congregations

On the first Wednesday of every month, I strive to keep a sacred appointment: I gather with a group of evangelical pastors in my area. The aim is simple: share a cup of coffee, chit-chat, then discuss life and ministry. And last but not least, we pray for one another. We have to pray for one another because we suffer from tremendous stress and anxiety. 

Indeed, when I glance around the table, I observe pained expressions, furrowed brows, bags hanging beneath weary eyes, crow’s feet wrinkles, age spots, and an abundance of premature white hair (or was that just me looking in the mirror?). These features are the result of the following pressure-packed circumstances: 

  • One pastor recently lost his unborn son to a rare genetic disorder. He and his wife are enduring profound grief. 
  • Another pastor had a mental breakdown amid a sizable building and fundraising campaign. 
  • One pastor began serving his current church two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our state and has since been diagnosed with acute congestive heart failure, requiring a transplant. 
  • Another pastor supports his wife as she faces complicated medical problems, moonlights part-time (co-vocational ministry), and is working through the myriad of issues related to transforming his congregation’s ecclesial model during the pandemic. 
  • One pastor succeeded the founding pastor of his church during the pandemic, is revamping the church’s mission, vision, bylaws, and systems, and faces the pressure of paying a large debt load on the church facility. 
  • Another pastor seeks to finish a faithful career while raising an adopted daughter on the autism spectrum while his denomination undergoes a historical, global split. 

And then there’s me. I’ve become acquainted with anguish, sorrow, and worry as I’ve toiled and battled in the ministry trenches. As a lead pastor and denominational leader for over fifteen years, I have faced and preached through all kinds of anxiety-inducing challenges, including: 

  • Congregational conflict over renovating the church facility (e.g., removing the pews to put in chairs) and reconciling worship music preferences, to name a few. 
  • An ugly church split. 
  • Moral failures of key leaders. 
  • Parishioners defect to other local churches without giving notice or reasons. 
  • A spectacularly botched attempt at planting a new campus. 
  • High congregant turnover due to a unique ministry serving active-duty military personnel. 
  • Shifting ministry strategies instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a subsequent outbreak. 
  • A flooded church basement (5,000+ square feet devoted to our children and teen ministries) at the hands of Hurricane Ida (Sept. 2, 2021) and a daunting restoration project. 
  • Toiling on the revision team that successfully restructured a two-century-old denomination, along with renewing its mission and values 
  • Navigating complex decisions as a member of my denomination’s executive board 

So yeah, it’s been a bumpy (and often beautiful!) ride. 

The Stats Reinforce this Reality 

But lately, ministry seems to be getting harder—more complex, confusing, and draining. The statistics capture this reality. Recent surveys indicate that more than one-third of Americans express clinical anxiety or depression symptoms.

Clergy is not immune to these trends. The Barna Group asserts that 68% of pastors “have felt overwhelmed regularly in the last four weeks.” It should be no surprise that “As of March 2022, the percentage of pastors who have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year sits at 42 percent…[this reveals] a sharp increase in pastoral burnout, and it confirms the growing number of pastors who are considering resignation—up 13 percentage points from 29 percent in January 2021.”

Yikes! That’s the condition pastors and ministry leaders find themselves in, and it’s not good. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if this warped trajectory continues, it can only produce damaged leaders, dysfunctional churches, and a dystopian witness. Something has to change. 

Thankfully, for years now, there’s been a conversation addressing the mental health of clergy. I am grateful for writers such as Eugene Peterson, Gordon MacDonald, Peter Scazzero, John Mark Comer, Carey Nieuwhof, and others, who’ve warned about the danger of ministry burnout and proposed spiritual disciplines that promote balance and sustainability. Additionally, I appreciate the insights of those like Tod Bolsinger, Edwin Friedman, and Mark Sayers, who’ve emphasized the importance of developing a resilient mindset. I, and many others, have benefited from these valuable voices. 

However, this question remains: how can we as preachers best process our struggles and stressors so we can proclaim the gospel of peace to ourselves and the anxious people we lead? 

Defining Anxiety 

Before I answer that question, a definition is in order. Neuroscientist Judson Brewer defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” It is instructive to note that “anxiety has three main components: emotional, physiological, and cognitive.” Anxiety expresses itself in our feelings, bodies, and thoughts. 

Helpfully, Dr. Gregory L. Jantz distinguishes between worry, anxiety, and stress. Generally speaking, worry “centers on a specific trigger, is usually cognitive, [and] goes away when [the] situation/trigger is over” whereas stress “results from an unfavorable, difficult, or exhausting situation [and] can be positive (eustress) or negative (distress) depending on how you respond.” Investigating these differences will help us better care for ourselves and those under our employ. 

Proposing the Preach P.E.A.C.E. Model 

To be clear, I do not consider myself an expert on preaching, anxiety, or preaching through anxiety to anxious people. Instead, this model derives from my attempts to shepherd a congregation and declare the gospel of peace in the face of their struggles and my own. Alright then, here we go! 

Participate in God’s Plan 

God’s purpose for his people is to be and make disciples (cf. Matt. 4:18-22 & 28:16–20). This entails growing in maturity (cf. Matt. 5:48) and Christlikeness (2 Cor. 3:18). Consequently, God is not primarily concerned with our comfort, educational/career ambitions, financial prosperity, or achieving a killer “beach-body.” Rather, he wants us to become like His Son, and He will use whatever means He deems necessary for that to occur (Rom. 8:28). 

The proclamation of the Holy Scriptures is central to our discipleship. Scott M. Gibson offers this timely reminder: 

Preaching is a means of discipleship, a shaping of men and women into the people God wants them to be—growing, deep believers able to face the world in which they live because they have been nurtured to do so by the Word… Perceiving preaching as discipleship gives preachers a more meaningful way of approaching those to whom they speak. No longer are their listeners an audience or even a congregation; they are believers, followers of Jesus Christ, disciples. 

If we preach to make disciples, we align with God’s Word, will, and mission. This gives us a measure of peace despite the circumstances we, and the disciples we address, wade through. We can take solace knowing God will bless and honor His work done His way. 

Perhaps now is an opportune time to ask ourselves: Are we primarily preaching to form disciples into Jesus’s image? Or have other desires surreptitiously crept in and muddled our motives? What about popularity, e.g., views, follows, or likes? Or how about pride: demonstrating our theological correctness (“rightness”) or our hermeneutical erudition–oratorical superiority? Maybe financial considerations are at play, and we preach more passionately about tithing and stewardship to stabilize the church’s financial outlay. 

How can we ascertain if our preaching is discipleship-driven? Take some time to review your preaching calendar. What books or topics have you preached on over the last year? What is on tap for the upcoming year? This exercise may give insight into your priorities. 

Here’s the crux: if anything less than making disciples captivates us, we cannot expect God to anoint our preaching nor distribute his satisfying succor. 

Evaluate Yourself & Your Context 

One of the occupational hazards of preaching is the potential for self-deception and hypocrisy. If you’re like me, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of proclaiming a peace we fail to possess. 

I confess that self-evaluation is incredibly hard. I am an Enneagram 3, an achiever, the most outward-facing — and least introspective — of the nine personality types. When it comes to emotions, I tend to devote far more attention and energy toward being a thermostat rather than a thermometer. As a result, I become disconnected from my heart and spiritual condition. If I don’t shine a light inward frequently enough, I’ve found that worry, resentment, ungodly anger, lust, and other sinful weeds, can sprout quickly in the dark corners of my soul. 

How can we avoid the danger of disconnection? I maintain regular practices such as reading Scripture devotionally, processing my thoughts through journaling, sharing struggles with trusted pastors and friends, and meeting with a ministry coach. I aim to become “an emotionally healthy leader,” “a non-anxious presence,” or a leader who is “well-differentiated” and “mature.” 

What’s more, the astute preacher moves beyond himself to discern the condition of the congregation. What are they dealing with? Are they anxious over the steep rise in gas prices or groceries? Are they concerned about the mental health of their children? Are they grieving losses? Are they burned out due to strife in the office or the family unit? 

Whatever the size of your church, make an effort to hold one-on-one meetings with church members regularly to gauge their lived experience and the condition of their souls. This facilitates us getting to know them, encouraging them, discipling them, and better grasping their challenges and joys. Reflecting upon their lives will sharpen our preaching, making it more dynamic and effective. 

Announce the Gospel of Peace 

After participating in God’s plan and evaluating our personal and congregational condition, we can move confidently toward the activity we most cherish: proclaiming God’s precious and powerful Word. Our primary ambition is to declare the gospel’s core, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3–4). These convictions undergird the Christian life. 

However, how can we address the narrower topics of anxiety and peace? To start, underscore that our Heavenly Father is “the God of peace” who, through intercessory and praise-filled prayer, gives us “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding [and] will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4–8). Christians are united to Jesus Christ, the “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6). 

More can be said. It is essential to explain that we find two kinds of anxiety in Scripture. The first is unholy anxiety, a fear incited by the terrible triumvirate of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Jesus and Paul command us to forsake this type of worry as it lacks trust in God’s goodness and provision (cf. Matt 6:25-34, Phil 4:6). On the other hand, there is holy anxiety, a conviction from the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 7:10), or godly concern for others (cf. Phil 2:20). Indeed, there are bad and good forms of anxiety. 

To announce the gospel of peace effectively, let me pose three suggestions. First, pray and discern if a sermon series on anxiety would be timely and fruitful for your congregation. Many characters and books in the Bible portray people dealing with tremendous stress, including Exodus, Esther, Job, Daniel, Paul (e.g., 2 Timothy), and James, to name a few. 

Next, if your sermon schedule is set, consider the approach Matt Kim recommends regarding pain: unearth examples of anxiety and peace in the book you are teaching, devoting a little time in each sermon to bracket out and highlight them, similar to a sidebar or secondary point. 

Finally, consider utilizing appropriate disclosure in your sermons. Can you share ways God has given you calm and comfort amid your worries and fears? Is there an issue you are wrestling with right now that you can incorporate into the sermon? The point is to illustrate the authentic ways we are wrestling with and depending on God. 

For example, when preaching on money or stewardship, I admit I carry some baggage from my childhood when we endured financial hardship due to my single mom raising three kids on a teacher’s salary. My past led me to be thrifty, avoid debt, and stockpile savings. Nevertheless, as God grows me, I am dedicated to tithing and strengthening my “generosity muscles.” 

Calibrate Expectations 

The fourth part of the P.E.A.C.E. paradigm is calibrating expectations. This is the leadership step: judicious pastors seek to moderate people’s presumptions. It entails offering realistic mindsets and clear boundaries for ourselves and congregants. 

Specifically, we must tell ourselves there is a difference between equipping and enabling. Put differently, we must dodge cultivating any seeds of co-dependency. Preachers are not heroes, gurus, or talismans possessing magical powers that will dispel people’s worries or phobias. It reminds me of Bob Wiley chasing his therapist, Dr. Leo Marvin, in the movie, What About Bob? Bob rejects Dr. Marvin’s advice of taking “baby steps” because he’s convinced only the doctor himself can heal him. Likewise, I’ve run across parishioners who think, “if only my pastor will pray for me, everything will be better.” 

In contrast, we wholeheartedly embrace, model, and declare the apostle Paul’s intertwined maxims that our Heavenly Father alone is “the God of all comfort” and that in all things, “our competence comes from God” (2 Cor. 1:3, 3:5). Only God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. 

Calibrating expectations call for communicators to consistently promote “both-and” or paradoxical thinking when we preach. Yes, Jesus conquered death. On the other hand, if he does not return soon, I will still experience death. And while it is true that He sovereignly reigns over everything and that His Spirit empowers His people to do His work, nonetheless, we remain broken, sinful residents of a fallen world, one that is “groaning” to be “liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21–22). It is thus naïve (or perhaps overly triumphal) to think we can fully overcome anxiety, worry, and fear while we remain tethered to this earth in its present form. 

Importantly, this affords us the opportunity to reiterate what Scripture teaches: our weaknesses and failures can be a gift since they drive us to trust God and push us to pursue a more intimate knowledge of Jesus, the one who suffered on our behalf (cf. Heb. 4:14–5:10). Our preaching would do well to highlight this divine reframing of our sufferings. 

Let us thread these needles with God’s grace. 

Emphasize Community 

The fifth and final component of P.E.A.C.E. is to emphasize community. I am convinced one of the dominant factors feeding our historic levels of anxiety and depression is isolation and the accompanying loneliness. This is true of parishioners and pastors. 43% of pastors “have considered quitting full-time ministry” because they “feel lonely and isolated,” which is the second reason after “The immense stress of the job.” This is tragic given the Scriptures teach that Christian identity is fundamentally social or communal.

Preachers then practice and pronounce that for Christians to be healthy and whole, they must be wedded to and embedded within an ecclesia, a local expression of the family of God. Why? Let’s not forget that community occupies the center of reality. There is one God, but this God is triune: He exists as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. John 14-17 reveals snippets of the profound relationality and love the Trinity has enjoyed from time immemorial. 

And this same God fashioned human beings in His image so they can know Him and one another. Jesus underscored this truth in his life and ministry. He “did not write a book, but formed a community” and this “new reality that he introduced into history was to be continued through history in the form of a community, not in the form of a book.”

How can we fulfill God’s intention? Do a relational inventory. Using a scale of 1–10, with one being low and ten high, what is the quality of your relationships: familial, friend, and work? Jesus had nine solid friendships and three deep ones (Peter, James, and John). How many do you have at present? What does it say about us if we are not striving to imitate Jesus in this area? If the Son of God needed at least twelve friends, how many more do you and I need to thrive? 

And to what extent are you providing opportunities in your church for people to form spiritual friendships? Do you have a small/community/life group ministry? How often do you preach on the cruciality of community? How often do you make it a significant thrust in your applications? 

Being connected to a community helps us bear the crushing load of our anxieties, worries, and suffering. God made us this way. There is no substitute or workaround. 

Now go and preach P.E.A.C.E.! 

The burdens of ministry will not decrease, so we must take the initiative and pursue spiritual, emotional, and physical health. The preach P.E.A.C.E. framework gives biblical and actionable ways pastors can promote peace internally and externally, in their hearts and in their congregants. 

Be encouraged: the God of peace is with us as we proclaim the Prince of Peace. May this particular “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22) be manifest and experienced in our churches, for God’s glory and our good, now and forever. 

Paul A. Hoffman is Senior Pastor of Evangelical Friends Church in Newport, Rhode Island.