aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On the crafting of sermons

A friend attended a preaching seminar at a conference recently, and was posting notes from it online. The seminar’s emphasis was on the rhythm of preaching, which I took at first to be a reference to euphony, but it turns out was about the planning and writing cycle of coming up with something to say, week after week through the year. This reminds me of one of my mother’s favorite stories. I think she knew some of those in it. Anyway, when World War II broke out on top of the Great Depression, and the world seemed to be coming apart, several IU students aspiring to the ministry asked a Religion professor they looked up to, “What do we preach about?” To which the kindly old prof replied, “Well, you preach about God . . . and you preach about twenty minutes.”

I kept up the discipline of coming up with something to say for many years. By the time I was halfway through my career, I had settled into a rhythm of planning and writing that suited me well. Nobody asked me for it, but here it is. Make of it what you will.

Planning Periods

For the purposes of planning my preaching, I divided the year up into about six periods of about 6-13 weeks apiece. If a given period ended with an exhausting climax or if I were going to take vacation immediately after, I would extend the period to plan another Sunday or two, so that I wasn’t faced with coming up with something to say the week after having left my all on the altar, so to speak. The six major planning periods were:
Advent and Christmastide;
Ordinary time between Epiphany and Lent;
Lent and Holy Week;
Note these don’t correspond exactly to the liturgical seasons. For one thing, there is no liturgical season between Pentecost and Advent. Nevertheless, each of these periods has a particular feel to it, and there are special emphases of each one. Advent/Christmastide and Lent/Holy Week tie one pretty closely to the Biblical narratives of the Incarnation and Passion/Resurrection. The time between them lends itself to telling early narratives of the calling of the disciples and so on: Missions is a good emphasis for this time. During Eastertide, I would preach on the Church a lot. Summer begins the long trek through Ordinary Time, and I would often do a lot of Old Testament preaching during this period. Fall brings with it a lot of church business (like stewardship programs and Charge Conference), back-to-school thoughts, as well as a sprinkling of one-off observances (World Communion Sunday, Reformation, All Saints’ remembrance, Christ the King). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Laying Out the Calendar

For whatever period I was dealing with, the first thing I would do is to lay out the calendar, week by week – or rather, service by service, for if there were special observances like Christmas Eve or Maundy Thursday, they counted as a “Sunday.” Then I would identify special days and emphases for any services, such as communion Sunday, Boy Scout Sunday, Recognition of Graduates, Palm Sunday, etc. Then I would plug in any guest speakers we were having (either because I was away from the pulpit or because we were bringing somebody in special). These notes, together with my general feel for each period as noted above would form the matrix upon which I would form my preaching plan.

Being a great believer in re-preaching old sermons (especially to congregations that hadn’t heard them before), I would be very open to repeating myself here and there. Sometimes, that would be because I had just the sermon in mind from some past occasion. But frequently, I would especially mark a Sunday as a day when I needed to preach something from the barrel. These were Sundays when I knew I would be brain- or body-tired and needed time to recuperate before being creative again.

Initial Sermon Planning

Having laid out the matrix, I then addressed myself to thinking up something to say for each week. I frequently planned sermon series of varying lengths, but sometimes just spent some time in prayer and meditation, plugging in things that seemed to need saying. What’s with the emphasis of this period? What’s going on in the world/community/congregation? What are people dealing with? What am I dealing with/thinking about/learning? Each sermon would have a kernel of an idea, an approach, a need to be addressed. And each sermon’s kernel would then be fixed in my mind with a text and a title. Sometimes, I knew where I was going to go from that text and title; sometimes, I had only a vague idea. But at this stage, it was simply important to nail down a text and title for each Sunday.

I am not a lectionary preacher. The lectionary was just beginning to be widely used when I was in seminary. I was aware of it, but didn’t follow it. But in matching principal preaching texts to the theme of each planning period, I was in effect creating my own lectionary, with its own internal logic. And I typically had only one principal text of the day, though scripture would show up in many other ways when it came time to plan the rest of the liturgy.

Filling Out the Liturgy

After I had a text and a title for each sermon, I would then fill in the other liturgical details. We would have a Psalm, or occasionally a Creed or Responsive Reading each week. There would be a Collect each week. And, of course, there were Calls to Worship and Eucharistic Prayers and so on. These would all be keyed to match the sermon kernel.

I would also pick hymns for the entire planning period at once. Most times, I would go through the entire hymnal(s) and create a short list of songs that matched the emphases of the period and the general drift of my preaching. Then I would go through and plug in Opening Hymns, Hymns of Response, and Closing Hymns. My rule was, I would not repeat a hymn in any given planning period. And all would, again, be keyed to the kernels of the messages.

If I had a guest speaker in the rotation, I would plan everything except the Hymn of Response. I let the guest speaker know that he or she was free to change anything else in the plan, but I found that many speakers don’t want to have to do all that. Just planning a sermon and song to sing in response to it was enough for most of them.

And then I would distribute the filled-out matrix to all my co-leaders/staff. The Secretary didn’t have to prod me for bulletin fodder while I was trying to come up with something, because everything was ready to be plugged into the order of service. Musicians didn’t have to wonder what hymns we were singing or what the special emphasis of the day was: they were empowered early to plan their work in harmony with mine. And I was released from these mundane aggravations to do the real work of preaching: listening.

The Stock Pot

My ear is open like a greedy shark,/To catch the tunings of a Voice divine (to quote John Keats). Rather an alarming way of putting it, but still: the most important part of having something to say each week is learning to listen. Listen to God. Listen to what is being said (and what is not being said) by those you are ministering to. Listen to your own heart, for you are your most important parishioner; time and again, the most powerful sermons I would preach would be those addressed principally to myself. A parishioner said to me one time, “How do you KNOW?” meaning, how do I know exactly what is going on in his head or his heart? And the answer is, I don’t. I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to me; you just got in the way. But the better I know my own heart, the better and more powerfully I speak to other hearts.

For those of us in the preaching trade, who, like Winston Churchill, “live mouth to hand,” there is probably never a time when we are not thinking about what we are going to say. Experiences resolve themselves into sermon illustrations constantly (to the annoyance of our families). An internal dialogue about everything we read, everything we think, is constantly going on in us. It makes finding peace and rest difficult sometimes. It’s an occupational hazard. But you can learn to use it without letting it drive you crazy.

Having set out my preaching plan for the period, with its texts and titles, I now just let everything simmer in the Stock Pot of My Mind. We talk about putting things on the back burner, as if that delayed thinking about them. But the back burner is where the stock pot is, and it is slow-cooking many things together. When you are ready to use its contents, you can dip into it and make many a luscious sauce. The preaching plan guided my random thoughts without my working at it. The tendency to always be thinking about how something would fit into a sermon was, without my effort, being channeled into coming up with things that would fit those particular sermons.

Getting It All Down

Each week, then, I would eventually sit down and address myself to writing up my sermon notes. I tried to do it early, at least by Friday; all too often, it was Saturday night, I confess. At the very least, I tried to make a time to get it done when I wouldn’t be dog-tired.

I started out years ago writing my sermons in 5x8 or 6x9 spiral notebooks, one on top of the other. When I had filled a notebook, I would index the sermons and put the contents on the front, so I could find them again. When my handwriting got so bad that even I couldn’t read it after it got cold, I switched to writing sermons on the computer. But I experimented with the size font that matched my handwriting and the number of pages that equaled my usual length of sermons, and typing became as natural as writing (almost). For a computer-written sermon, I would lay out a page in Landscape, divided into two columns – mimicking the layout of a spiral notebook.

My typical sermon was about eleven pages* of notes. (I organize spatially rather than temporally.) That meant a three-movement sermon would require me to make the points I wanted to make in about three pages each, with a page for a good conclusion. There was some elasticity in this, of course, and sometimes I would deliberately write a shorter sermon (like for the main service on Easter Sunday morning, when the regulars were all tired, the visitors were restless, the choir was on a roll, and I probably had a confirmation class to receive). One time, I deliberately wrote a longer sermon, with about three extra pages of notes. The youth helping with children’s church had told me that they didn’t bother to check with what was going on in the main service to come back in to help acolyte; they just knew when I would be finishing up, since I always took the same amount of time. That Sunday, they came strolling in while I was still going strong, and looked like they’d stepped on a whoopee cushion. Everyone else was restless, too, jingling their change and whatnot, as I talked blithely on. That’ll learn ‘em.

I wrote for ear, rather than for eye. I used almost no punctuation, bar commas and dashes. I used space to indicate pauses and transitions. In other words, my notes were in phrases as I habitually used them, in sound bites easy to catch with my eye and speak naturally. I wasn’t reading a manuscript (though my notes were almost as extensive as a full manuscript); I was more reciting a speech as written for a character in a play. Not that I was completely locked in; I could make spontaneous remarks as I went, but the notes before me made sure I didn’t stray too far and that the connections between what I was saying didn’t get lost. If I had a story, I would add it in brackets with only enough info to remember what story it was – sometimes just the punch line. If I wanted to read a verse or two of the text, I would put that it in brackets, e.g., [v 12-13]. If I wanted to repeat a line for emphasis, I would just follow it with, [x2]. And I would use all kinds of personal abbreviations and symbols that allowed me to compress thought, such as wd for “would,” J and Ptr for “Jesus,” and “Peter,” & for “and,” F standing for the script F that means “there are” in mathematics, etc.

I gave particular attention to getting it all said in the time and space allowed. The particular shape of some phrases was something I labored over, but mostly I was writing in the same conversational style I spoke in. (My idiolect is a confusion of registers, so this could be a hoot.) There are times to reach for the grand, and there are times to get funky. Being able to control your mode of expression is important.

Knowing when to quit is important, too. Too many preachers don’t know when or how to finish. So they wind up beating the same horse, by now quite dead, trying to reach a conclusion they think the Holy Spirit will give them by miracle. They’re still trying to do it as they give the benediction, One. More. Time. I was being “taken in” by a DS to a new church one time, meeting with their PPRC. The Chair asked me, “Do you preach with notes?” Something in the politely challenging way he said it made me think my predecessor had probably made a big point of not using notes, as if he were channeling the Voice of God directly or something. I replied without hesitation, “Yes. I use extensive notes when I preach. That way, I know when I’ve come to the last page, it’s time to stop.” I never got a single complaint about my preaching in that congregation, ever.

Perhaps the lack of closure and general running over of sermons is due to our thinking that there ought to be an altar call here somewhere, if only the Spirit would move. But what if the Spirit isn’t moving? What if you think it’s just not going over? The tendency is to just keep talking. Planning how you’ll finish is as important as planning how to begin. Closing the subject requires as much thought as opening it. I usually assumed we were NOT going to have an open invitation, since my congregations had gotten out of the habit and would have to be taught how to do it all over again. So I would leave them with a memorable ending, and then move on the Hymn of Response which would help them make the hoped-for response by singing it. On those rare occasions when I did want them to get out of their seats and do something, I fully intended it, expected it, and called for it. But as a general rule, there were other fish to fry on that Sunday. I would remind you that Spurgeon never gave altar calls. The great evangelist said if anyone was moved to pursue what he had said further, they could meet with him at the opening of his office on Monday morning; and it was a rare Monday he didn’t have someone waiting on him when he got there. I followed up on people who might be moving toward a commitment in my pastoral care; I didn’t hold an entire congregation hostage while I tried to talk those few into jumping from the burning building into the net.


There are times for all of us who preach when we enter the pulpit in fear and trembling. Either we’re not sure that what we’ve got is very good, or we’re pretty sure someone could get offended by it, or we wonder if God will show up and do the part we’ve left blank for him. In such times, I would go back over it all and say a prayer, something like: “Lord, it all sounded exactly right when I put it down on paper, just like I thought you wanted it. Give me the courage to say what I knew last night needed to be said.” Then I would approach the pulpit, silently praying the prayer Frank Bateman Stanger taught me years ago: I. Am. Enabled.

And we would begin. I generally cut way down on preliminary remarks. Too many preachers try to warm up the crowd with folksy blather, which doesn’t get them ready for the Word of God; it only betrays the preacher’s nervousness. Likewise, a lot of preachers fall into the trap of telling them what they’re going to tell them before they get around to telling them in the body of the sermon. My usual opening line was, “Today’s Scripture reading comes from . . .” And as soon as the Scripture was read, I would begin. Any preparatory remarks or link-backs to sermons in a series were written right into my notes (and counted against my self-imposed page/time limit). The sermon is a big moment. Dithering deflates the expectation, it doesn’t make people more comfortable. Get on with it, is my rule. The exception: if you’re a guest speaker, and you haven’t had any chance to talk in order to make connections, you might give a line or two – but no more – about how nice it is to be here and maybe a memory of someone you know. But don’t get enthralled with the sound of your own voice talking. You’re stepping on your best lines.

Pacing is important. Knowing how to build up and how to slow down helps concentrate attention on the key passages. Knowing when to increase and when to decrease volume can help. Enunciate clearly. If you read something out of a book, or recite a poem, practice beforehand. And if you’re not familiar with how to pronounce Bible names or Greek theological terms or whatever, make it a point to rehearse them. For what it’s worth, I pronounced biblical names that people might recognize the way they already said them, but the more unfamiliar they were, the more I shaded toward the Hebrew or Greek pronunciation. Thus, Joshua son of Jehozadak usually came out JAW-SHOO-UH son of YE-HOTZ-A-DAK.

When introducing an unfamiliar word, I defined it in context. Never recite dictionary definitions. First of all, everybody’s brains turn off while you mouth a bunch of schooly stuff, and you’ll have to gather their attention back up after losing it. Second, by citing an outside authority you forfeit your own authority. As the preacher, you stand in a place of prophecy. You shouldn’t be arrogant about it, but you should approach things from a pretty high authority stance. Define your own words as you go; better yet, avoid defining words and just talk about stuff in words they already know, as much as you can.

Don’t worry about whom you’re preaching to. The way I got around this was to write my sermon as addressed to an ideal parishioner. I never wrote to specific persons or specific situations (that person either won’t get it, or won’t be there that Sunday, anyway). And mostly, the ideal parishioner I preached to was some version of myself (see above). So it didn’t matter if I were talking to coal miners or farmers, or professors, or bishops. I blithely re-preached sermons first preached to one kind of congregation in another. They’re all sinners like you are, they all carry the griefs you know all too well. Half the time, I didn’t even see them clearly. Maintaining a short focal length to catch the words and phrases in my notes meant that I couldn’t always adjust to see particular faces. I looked toward them, but my eyes were usually slightly out of focus. Of course, everyone thinks the preacher is looking right at oneself, but when someone would say, “You were talking right to me today, preacher,” I would just smile. Sometimes, it was the first time it registered on me that they were in church that day. Occasionally, I would preach with only a bare outline, or speak from the foot of the chancel instead of the pulpit. In those cases, of course, I was constantly aware of the visual feedback from faces. But that was just like doing chapel at Scout camp or a children’s lesson, and usually those messages were less complicated than a full-dress sermon.

When I planned to re-preach an old sermon, I didn’t have to do much re-writing. After all, it was all there. I just had to run through it a couple of times, especially aloud, in order to get back into it. Occasionally, I would make an emendation or correction in my notes, or change a dated story, but in many cases, all I had to do was open a can of sermon and add heat (so to speak): it was ready to serve as is. The live performance is what counts in such cases, not how much you (didn’t) labor over it that week.

I usually stood behind the pulpit. I’ve never understood the attraction of the bare stage, or why being called a “pulpiteer” is a condescending remark. And I preferred preaching in a robe. For one thing, it slowed me down. I didn’t make nervous gestures with my hands and arms as much, since the weight of the sleeves made me move more gracefully. Also, I didn’t have to worry about how I was dressed. I remember one summer Sunday years ago. (I usually didn’t wear robes in the summer.) Anyway, a young mother told me after the sermon, “I didn’t hear a word you said. I kept trying to figure out what you had on your tie.” Which was the last time I wore my Spiderman tie to church unless it was going to disappear under my alb.

Given my generation, I didn’t use overheads, either. I know how to do that, since when I lecture I use posters and blackboards and whatnot very effectively. But too many times, the stuff on the screen either detracts from the message or overwhelms it. And while I don’t roam a bare stage, I appreciate the skill of stand-up comedians who do. You’ll notice they don’t use a lot of props and overheads. That’s because they know how to use words to focus and hold attention. Their writing is crisp, and so is their delivery. They don’t step on their lines, and they don’t blather. Even when they look like they're blathering, it’s part of the whole set, and has a purpose. Take a lesson: if you’re good, you don’t need the extra bells and whistles.

I will conclude with one of my Patented Pastoral Profundities™:
Sermons are like children:
conceiving them is a pleasure;
carrying them to term is a burden;
delivery is sometimes painful;
and you’re never quite sure what they’re going to do once they leave home.

*These are half-pages, of course: one column, mimicking one page of a notebook
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