You Have to Be Better
Trigger warning: it’s going to get ugly. I’m about to share some things that don’t make me look good. Which is hard for me. Because I want you to like me and think nice things about me and be my friend. But I’m trying to unearth some vulnerability in the hope that the incoming light will be healing. (Thanks, Brené.)
Here goes. There’s an ugliness I face every time I write a sermon: competition.
First, I compete with myself.
After I preached my first sermon more than a decade ago, I received generous compliments and strong affirmation—which was awesome. Having gifts affirmed by peers and mentors is invaluable. I also heard from a few people that it was the best sermon (or best student sermon) they’d ever heard, or that I was their favorite preacher.
I ate up every word, carefully tucking them into my heart and mind to keep forever. Of course I know those superlatives are hyperbole. Even still, framing the sermon as the “best” set me on a long path of comparison.
The first time I preached in a church, they had flown Dave and me in for the occasion. I had just graduated with my master's, we were newly married, and it was only my second sermon ever. You could say the stakes were high. So high, in fact, that I decided I wouldn’t write the sermon until we got there that weekend. Because that makes sense.
Anyhoo, I was waiting for inspiration and it just didn’t visit me. Dave helped me wrestle something out, and it was fine, and one woman even said it was exactly what she needed that morning. But I was ashamed of how ill-prepared I was. How I had sort of or almost squandered such a precious opportunity. I knew then I was not living up to the “best sermon” or “favorite preacher” category.
And in the years and sermons that followed, the questions always loomed: Was this sermon as good as the first one? Was I still the “best” (in any sense)?
When a sermon wasn’t absolutely the best it could be, I berated myself and went into my shame corner. On just a few occasions have I truly been satisfied and felt good about how I crafted and delivered a sermon. Usually, something is off—wording I should have tweaked, something I should have said more about or less about, and the one that haunts me every time: delivery could always be better (one day I’ll go manuscript-free. Maybe).
I realize I should probably go back and correct my verb tenses because I’ve given you the impression that I no longer compare myself to “best preacher” Jen. When in fact, I absolutely do. Lord, have mercy.
Second, I compete with the guys.
There’s the belief among some of my fellow women in ministry that, in order to be received and validated as women preachers, we have to be better than the men. Whether that’s true or right or fair, the idea made its way into my thinking long ago and has been buzzing around like a pesky fly ever since.
The problem is, it sets me up to perpetually compete against the male preachers in my life, endlessly comparing myself to them. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I’m always comparing them to me. Because if you tell me that to succeed, I have to be better than someone else, I’ll make sure I can explain all of the ways that I am better.
Yikes. I told you it was going to get ugly.
Ask anyone who knows me—I’m a superstar at judging and criticizing. For years, every man-delivered sermon I heard was filtered through critical ears and eyes (and yes, this is definitely intermingled with issues around women in ministry and the prohibitions/exclusion I’ve encountered):
What do I think about how he’s handling the text?
Why did he pick that interpretation?
What would I have done differently?
Here we go with another sports metaphor.
And this guy has the stage?
Does he even realize he’s using exclusive language?
Oh, come on. Consulting a few commentaries and sharing some thoughts—that’s a blog post or maybe a journal article, but it’s not a sermon. I could preach a sermon.
On rare occasions, I would leave my judgy spectacles at home and find myself enthralled in the preaching experience—actually hearing and being moved and inspired by what was happening. But that was the exception, not the rule.
I should note that since spending several years in fully-inclusive churches, I’m able to fully engage with sermons in a way that was previously inaccessible when I was fighting for my place at the table. I’m still pretty judgy, though—in general, and definitely specific to sermons. But remember what I said about that healing light? Here’s hoping.
We all know how toxic comparison can be. And I’ve just uncovered all manner of ugliness to demonstrate that here. You’re welcome and I’m sorry.
Is there room for competition in the kingdom? I don’t think so. Would Jesus help me polish my “best student sermon” trophy? Probably not. Does being "the best" even matter in an ultimate sense? Nope.
So (looking at you now, competition) the next time you try to creep in here with your judgy side-eye and your scathing sermon reviews and your comparison and shame, I’m gonna see you for what you really are: a trap. And God help me, I’m gonna resist and reject you. And when that doesn’t work, I’m gonna tell someone about my struggle. And you’re no match for the divine dance of the trinity and a community of faith hemming me in.
That got a little preachy.
But hey, I’m not comparing myself to dudes or past-Jen, so I think it’s working.