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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Patterns of Preparation for Preaching

We have a great question this with which many, if not all, of us preachers have wrestled:

As of July 1, I am serving as a solo pastor in a small church. It's only been three weeks, so I haven't had enough time to establish patterns for sermon writing... So far, I've written early but typed late on one, and this week written and typed earlier in the week. However, now it's Saturday and my sermon seems stale, not fresh for tomorrow. On the other hand, I'd like to have Saturdays with my family. I also have been around enough to know no week will be just like any other, so planning these things is a bit of a myth. I'm operating on the same basis as when I taught special ed. - start with a plan and expect to change it. So my question is how do all you experienced folk handle this part of your scheduling and why?
Mid-Life Rookie

Because nearly all of our matriarchs are on vacation or away from internet access this week, I can't offer you their experience or insight. But those who are matriarchs don't possess all of the wisdom anyway!

So this week, more than ever, all of us who read this weekly feature are encouraged to chime in with responses for Mid-Life Rookie.

Please use the "Post a Comment" box to share how you prepare to preach. Do you have a point in the week when you want or need to have the sermon completed? Is your patter of preparation pretty consistent or does it change from week to week?

Let's share what we have learned, wherever we are along the journey!

May you live in God's amazing grace+
rev honey


  1. I've just come out of a solo pastorate and am looking forward to a less relentless preaching schedule.

    I rarely finished a sermon by Friday, my day off, but when I did, it was because I read the readings earlier in the week and picked at it a bit every day. I would just read them on Monday, maybe skim a few commentaries, then pick away Tuesday and Wednesday with a final draft on Thursday.

    I use religiously. I cut and paste commentary that speaks to me into one document and sort it by readings and/or themes. Then I weed out from there and start writing.

    I've only been here for three weeks and I already feel sloppy. Weekly sermon prep is rigorous but very rewarding.

    Blessings to you on your new ministry!

  2. I try to find a time to do a general overview of what I'm going to be preaching on a few months at a time, admittedly those notes don't often make sense the week of.

    I take Mondays off and so on Tuesday afternoon my goal is research of the passages, commentaries, and the other ways I have of working through the passage. By Friday I hope to be writing, and this often goes into Saturday.

    Arriving on Saturday with 2/3'rds done is a good week.

    I live by a very strict commandment of 'Thou Shalt Not Sacrifice Thy Family on the Altar of the Perfect Sermon' - so I don't get to polish/work on the sermon until late on Saturday sometimes.

    I don't flog myself over that. Sometimes it just takes that long for everything that is swimming in my head to come together.

    The key for me is to at least have stuff bubbling in my head in order to begin to write significantly on Friday.

    Good luck and have fun!

  3. Like Kathrynzj, I try to think of what I'll be doing in large chunks, so that I might have a theme or sermons that fit together rather than be this week from the gospel, next week from the epistles, and so forth (I usually preach from the lectionary.) So, I have ideas for several sermons going at once. On Mondays, I do some research on the particular passage. (Sometimes I throw the passage out then and choose a different one.) I mull and think and pray. On Thursdays, I'm at home and write my sermon. I take Fridays off. It is my day off and God says we should take a day off. Saturdays I may be still messing with the sermon or not. On Sunday mornings I get up very early and mess around some more. A few Sundays I've written a completely different sermon. This is what works for me.

  4. I was very happy to discover Chris Erdman's terrific book "Countdown to Sunday"

    Wonderfu process with some great philosophical help (as the subtitle says) "a daily guide for those who dare to preach"!

    very wise and very practical advice.

  5. i spend time on Monday researching and study the text. Then I let things simmer until Thursday, when I set down to write the sermon. On Saturday, I can polish it.
    Seems to work for me. Sometimes, I've had to work on it earlier or later depending on funerals, etc.

  6. I am tired of stayin up late on Saturday tofinish the sermon. It is easy for the sermon to get pushed back behind everything else. This week I made it a priority. Sunday afternoon I skimed the texted and wrote initial responses. Monday-commentaries, more notes. Tuesday-actual sentences. Wed.-paragraphs and outline. Today- hope to finish it. Saturday - refine. But really, I have found that after 7 months in the pulpit I view life through the lens of preaching the word. It is more than a week to week thing. It is a lifestyle of filtering my experiences through the God-thing. Pretty cool. (carry a small notepad around for those seconds of inspiration)

    Blessings and luck to you

  7. I think the way I approach sermons is very much influenced by my previous life in academia--I write sermons the way I used to write papers. I have always been a person who writes best under a bit of pressure, so trying to write early in the week doesn't work very well for me. But I do like to begin thinking about the texts by Tuesday. I always consult and The Text this Week ( as well as other commentaries. I want to get a lot of stuff into my head to percolate during the week, if that makes any sense.

    My writing process is such that I don't normally have a definite plan or outline when I sit down to write, just ideas floating around and hopefully a sense of the direction I want to go in. I usually begin writing on Saturday morning and hope to finish up early afternoon, although these days (when I no longer have a 5pm service that I have to be ready for) it may go longer.

    When I know that I have meetings scheduled on Saturday I have to adjust accordingly. In my previous job I had Fridays off and I could write then if I had to, but that works less well here b/c it means moving around Friday's "regular" tasks as well, and it all becomes a bit more catch as catch can. I think the earliest I have ever finished a sermon is Friday noon, and that felt exceptional for me.

    I am always a bit awed by those who plan sermon topics and titles months in advance! I am a lectionary preacher and I almost always concentrate on the gospel so I don't have the pressure of having to select texts, TBTG.

    I don't have kids at home anymore so I only have to worry about family obligations when someone is visiting.

    I know my process doesn't work for everyone, but that's what I do, fwiw.

  8. The Art and Craft of Preaching by Walter Burghardt SJ has some rich advice about preaching, and the rhythm of preparation.

  9. Re-read what Rev Dr. Mom wrote, as she almost exactly describes my process!

    Friday is my day off. Unless I know there will be no time whatsoever on Saturday, I don't write then at all; the exception is if some momentary flash of brilliance comes to me, in which case I will write it down but not attempt to go further. Like flavors melding in a sauce, my thoughts and prayers need to simmer all week with whatever events get thrown in during that time; I just am not ready to serve it up until Saturday. I tend to write early and late on Saturday, with the middle of the day for family.

    That said, this is one of the biggest reasons why I left being a solo vicar and went 11 years ago to a position as the associate in a congregation. My children were very young, and I resented losing every Saturday to sermon or work of some other sort. Not a healthy attitude for a preacher, and I addressed the issue before it became a problem. Lots of other ways I could've done so, but that was the right one for me.

  10. I have a Monday morning lectionary group which is a GREAT way to get alot of thoughts flowing.
    I find that I write most often on Fridays or Saturdays, but sometimes I know where I'm going before then. It seems like whenever I sit down and actually start to write, I write the whole thing. I have to write to know what I'm going to say.
    And for me, writing every week is MUCH easier than doing it occasionally.

  11. I usually look through the lectionary scriptures and pick two and a title somewhere around Tuesday or Wednesday. I then let it sit for the rest of the week and get up early on Sunday morning to write my manuscript.

    Obviously, this wouldn't work for a lot of people, but it does for me. I've given up feeling guilty about it, and I don't honestly know how I would get other things done if I worked on my sermon much the rest of the week.

    Sometimes, especially during Advent and Lent, I will look at a whole season at once and choose the scriptures or a series theme. But the writing still happens Sunday morning.

    On the few occasions when I've done my sermon ahead of time (like if I'm flying home that morning from a meeting), I do find it feel stale. Ever so occasionally, I'm very aware that the sermon needed way more polishing, but mostly it works.

  12. I'm about to go back into a solo pastorate (if all goes well on the 15th!), and am contemplating what sort of schedule will work best. I did a lot of my best sermon-writing on a Friday day off, Saturday writing schedule, but it looks like I may need to do Mondays off instead. In that case, it feels burdensome to write on Saturday, but I know from this year of Mondays off as an Associate that by Friday afternoon I was way too tired to write, even if that had been my plan all along.
    My Saturdays were different in that my kids have always spent Saturday with their dad, so my goal was to be finished by dinnertime, when they would return. It gave me a quiet head space to work in, without having to dress for the office. And I truly do write a sermon better at home.
    I've been in a Tuesday morning lectionary group for the past eight years, and that is my springboard for the week's thinking, planning and pondering. I hope to have a hook by Thursday and then write it all in a piece on Saturday. I was better about priming the pump with short pieces of writing when I was preaching every week, and I really hope I can get back to that discipline!

  13. When I was a congregational pastor I made a few notes on Monday based on what I observed and experienced Sunday if there was something I wanted to fold into the next week. I fleshed out an outline and or trajectory on Tuesday. By Wednesday I gave the title to the administrator for the bulletin and usually had a complete draft. Thursday was for revisions. (I write on my computer so there is no second typing step.) I usually left it alone on Friday and preached it and tinkered a bit on Saturday. After the first year I stopped writing full manuscripts every week and used my outlines. I'd try to fill them out afterwards with what I could remember but it didn't always work and I missed having full mss in my files. Now I'm back to full mss but only preaching a couple times a month. Blessings!

  14. My answer got way too long so I turned it into a blog post. You can find it here.

  15. Taking notes with dreams of the future... <3

  16. Reading how everyone is juggling their schedules makes me think of the much-posted article in the NY Times a couple of days ago about clergy wellness, self-care etc. I know this is a different conversation but I wonder how many of you actually take two days a week off?

    I am taking Mondays off b/c the previous rector did, so "they always did it that way" but when I come back from vacation I'm thinking about changing it to Friday. Even though Saturday is a work day, b/c I'm working from home writing it might feel like I have more continuous hours off. Maybe.

    In my previous position (as assistant rector) I took Monday and Friday off b/c the rector insisted that we have two days a week off (he took off Monday and Tuesday). In principle I agree with that--a six day work week is a long week--but I find it hard to be away from the office/off two days out of the five weekdays.

    anywho--back to your regularly scheduled programming...

  17. Rev Dr Mom, I read that article with interest; nothing new there, but I hope lots of clergy and congregants alike read it as well and are pondering the information.

    I discovered that I need Mondays in the office because my head is full of information and "to-do's" from Sunday. I like Friday off because if I have a light Saturday (no sermon or easier sermon to prepare), it does feel like I've had a real break.

    Those of you who have to publish sermon titles have a pressure I don't envy; there are times when my sermon theme suddenly changes itself late on Saturday! It has been very interesting for me to read how everyone handles this common dilemma.

  18. RevDrMom - - I practically take two full days and NEED to have them in a row to feel like I have them at all. I take Fridays and Saturdays, although, of course I'm writing Saturday, I actually don't write too much of it. Most of my writing in on Sunday morning! Really, though, I just make it work to take those days. Sure things come up usually about once a month, maybe twice. I don't usually take extra time off because of it, though, since really, one of my 5 workdays isn't a full day. We don't have Sunday afternoon/evening activities typically, so when I'm done and home from worship on Sunday, I'm pretty much done.


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