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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Changing the Sermon-Writing Rhythm

There never seem to be enough hours in the week to do all that we need to do, but for those who preach, the sermon is a non-negotiable part of the week. How much time to devote to the preparation for that, though, and when to do that preparation, is subject to the preacher's personal style/temperament/habits as well as to the other demands of the week. Study time and writing time can flex around other obligations, which can sometimes make it hard to get the hours needed to do all the prep we'd like to do.

Our question this week is my own - I've been grappling with how to change the rhythm of my sermon prep in order to better meet the needs of my family life. Read on:

I've been preaching for years and have a fairly set routine, which inevitably involves doing most of my writing on Saturdays. Ministry-wise, this has worked fine so far; I feel good about the quality of my sermons and the rhythm of my workweek. Family-wise and sanity-wise, I'm pretty tired of it. I feel like my kids are not getting enough of me on the weekends, and I'm also just tired of the scramble of Saturday writing. I know that some of you have successfully transitioned from a Saturday writing routine to a rhythm that allows for writing earlier in the week. Could you share how you have made that transition, and what your work week now looks like? How do you feel about your sermons on Sunday morning when you haven't been doing intense preparation on Saturday? Are your Saturdays now free for personal and family time, or do you find that you are catching up on other church work that didn't get done during the week? Please share any advice you have for shifting towards a new writing routine!

Martha writes:
As an unapologetic Saturday sermon-writer, I can't answer your question, but I can tell you why I landed there. It's not the day of the week that matters as much as knowing what works for you or, if you have partner/kid(s), what works for your household. Lilian Daniel made a strong case in her book, "An Odd and Wondrous Calling," for keeping Saturday free for the family. But if, like me, you have children who spend every Saturday with the other parent, in their other home, it's a different ballgame. I needed weekday afternoons free for my kids, not Saturdays.

Martha hits on two things here that I find helpful. One is that prep is a matter of knowing what works for me, and Saturday writing has certainly worked for me for a long time. It no longer feels as workable as I'd like it to, but style-wise it does still work (meaning, no matter how hard I try to do otherwise, I still find my best writing happens on Saturdays); this is making it difficult for me to shift my practice. Martha also points to the inherent flexibility of church ministry (the flipside of being on-call essentially round-the-clock). I am able to be there for my kids in the afternoons and at other times. It's hard for me (and my kids!) to remember that trade-off when they want time with me on Saturday (or when there are playdates, birthday parties, and baseball games to attend or get them to on Saturdays).

Muthah+ offers:

I am no longer preaching regularly but I do remember that I spent a great deal of time on Saturdays to prepare and it always felt a bit irregular when I needed to prepare the sermon on a different day.  But I am gratified that you have decided to change your schedule so that you can have more quality time with your family.  I wished I had done more of that.

Preparing sermons often is such a gift from God and I loved that time when I could really craft a sermon in peace and quiet.  One thing I have learned over the years is that when I am faithful to who I am, (wife, mother, community member, straight, lesbian, whatever) the sermons come more freely and tend to be on the mark.  Learning to depend that excellence needs to be tempered by our humanity is also important.  Often times we try to achieve excellence in our preaching when God is only requiring us to be faithful to the calls we live out.  

Write your sermon on Tues. if need be.  Many preachers do.  Learn to preach from your back pocket in emergencies.  Allow yourself make your preaching craft be more of your life and you will not need to worry.  God sends her word where she wants anyway.

Muthah+, thank you for the good reminder that sermons don't have to always be excellent but faithful! 

Kathrynzj adds:
At this point in my life I have stuck with the Saturday morning write and then I end up tweeking Saturday night after my son's bedtime. In the past when I shifted away from Saturday I found that meant that I had to work on my day off (Monday). And even when I did that successfully I still ended up spending at least an hour on it on Saturday at some point. The few times I have preached without looking at the sermon on Saturday, the words felt foreign. Good luck adjusting the rhythmn to a new 'what works for you'.

Your point about working on your day off is well-taken, and actually gets at a question underneath my original question. Is it possible to be a preaching pastor and still get two days off in the week? So far I have found that answer to be NO. I would love for it to be otherwise. But it seems if I don't want to write my sermon on Saturday, I will either be writing it on my day off (Friday), or I will be catching up on other church work on Saturday. Maybe that is the core issue, and perhaps I need to decide whether I'm willing to forfeit my day off to writing in order to have Saturday as a day off.

What about the rest of you? Have any of you successfully transitioned your sermon prep rhythm? If so, have you been able to do it without giving up your day off? Add to our conversation in the comments section! And as always, we'd love to have your questions at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.

25 comments:

  1. I like writing on Saturday--because I need the week to stuff my brain and let it muddle there before I can write, and b/c I work better under some time pressure. I used to feel badly about "leaving it to the last minute" but that's what works for me. And I don't have any family at home. so I'm not missing out on family time.

    Your larger question about having two days off, though, is a good one. Theoretically we are supposed to get two full days off. My boss at my last parish always took Mondays and Tuesdays off and encouraged me to take Thursdays and Fridays...which I found stressful because staff interactions could only happen on Wednesday--it was the only day everyone was there. So I ended up taking Mondays and Fridays but often working on Friday anyway. As a rector I don't really find it feasible to be out of the office completely for two full weekdays. But the truth is, taking a few hours here and there doesn't really make up for not having a second day. I do let myself sleep in and work in my jammies or go running beforeI start working if I feel like it on Saturdays when I don't have meetings, etc. But i am still working most of the day on sermon prep.

    So I would be curious to know if others have found ways to have two full days off that really work.

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    1. This is where I am, too - finding it difficult to think of being out of the office completely for two full weekdays (though there are certainly weeks where it happens, due to meetings/visits/shopping out of the office). But I like the idea!

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  2. In our diocese we don't even get a sniff of 2 days off a week so my one day is sacrosanct. I have changed it to a Monday so that I don't have to worry about Sunday's sermon.

    I usually try to internalise the readings on the Sunday before if I have time and then spend some time on Tuesday doing background research and thinking. I try to write by Friday but often end up doing it on Saturday. It goes best if I write on Friday and then revise it on Saturday. But that's an ideal situation!

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  3. When I was preaching, I took Thursdays as sermon writing day. I didn't show up at church and I spent the time crafting my sermon. I'd try to begin Monday sometime reading scripture, thinking, doing some preliminary reading (mostly textweek or commentaries). I'd ruminate on it for the next two days and then begin writing on Thursday. On Saturday, I'd go back to it, polish it, etc. Sometimes on Sunday morning, I'd be doing more to it. This way, I have a fair amount of time to let it cook. Of course funerals and so forth got in the way.
    I think pastors in general try to do too much. And I did recycle from time to time.

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  4. I started taking Monday as my day off, leaving Friday for sermon writing. I go to a lectionary discussion group on Tuesdays and try to do my reading for the coming week at the beginning of the week so it can percolate all week.
    Then on Fridays, after I go for a run (when I write quite a bit in my head), I head to a coffee shop and write. I don't always get it finished on Friday, but often I end up with 90% of it.
    When I end up with Saturday writing, (on a regular week--last week's shooting kept it from being close to a regular week) I try to do it while the kids are at soccer practice or something.
    And if needed, I get up really early Sunday.
    One of the gifts for which I am thankful is the realization that the Holy Spirit always shows up at some point. So I try to not freak out if sermonizing doesn't go according to schedule.
    That said, today I am trying to write Christmas Eve's sermon. Not sure the Spirit ever shows up on Thursdays, but one can hope!

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  5. I used to write on Saturdays, but I can't do that anymore, as time with my daughter gets prioritized. What it has meant, (in the summer, when I preach every week) is that I start thinking about next week's sermon on Sunday night. I need the 3 days of mulling and preparing the other parts (children's lesson, prayers, etc.). I write the first draft on Thursday. On Friday night, after she's in bed, I do all the necessary tweaks, with the rule that I don't get to watch TV until it's done. And watching a movie on Friday night is just required!

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    1. This is what I aspire to - the Thursday draft. I like the idea of motivation with TV time!

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  6. Suzy Garrison MeyerDecember 20, 2012 at 9:50 AM

    Laughing hard at the idea of two days off. As a tentmaker (and professional writer), I work M-F at my secular job, write on Saturday, preach on Sunday, and tuck ministry into every nook and cranny of the week. I wonder if men do better at defending the boundaries of their own time.

    I try to write notes a week ahead and add to them all week, so that some "cooking" does get done (great analogy, Joan Calvin) and the bulletin has some relationship to what actually happens in worship. By writing on Saturday, I'm still able to incorporate the events of the week, both in my congregation and in the world. Weirdly, I had last week's sermon completely done before Friday, and we all know how that worked out. I tell myself that if I were more disciplined, I'd have Saturdays off. Then again, I told myself that when my youngest child started kindergarten, my schedule would make more sense. She's 26 and I'm still waiting. The truth is that in the Holy Spirit's rounds, I seem to get a Saturday-evening visit, and that's ok.

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    1. I was bivocational for the first part of my first call, and that does indeed make days off difficult if not impossible!

      In my experience, men are not much better at defending boundaries, and often actually set the example of workaholism. My husband is also a pastor and he's worse than I am about defending personal time.

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  7. When I know I can't write on Saturday, I do what Marci described. I stay out of the office on Friday and write. It does work! But if I go to the office, even just for a couple of hours, I'm in the wrong mental space for writing a sermon. So I guess the other factor is figuring out what creates a fruitful mental space and when you can get that during the week. I was working on creating a sermon block on Wednesday afternoons, but it ended up being the time I frantically finished the bulletin. Occasionally I did a little writing. But I seem to need an early start and distractions of a domestic rather than professional nature to find a fruitful mental space.

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    1. Right. Location matters. I write better in a coffee shop than I do in either my home or my office.

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    2. I think I am going to try this coffee shop option and see how that works for me. I usually only write at home - find it almost impossible to do sermon-writing at the office (but can do all the other kinds of work-related writing). Writing at home, though, can present its own distractions, so I think I'll give coffee shop writing a try and see how that works for me.

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  8. when I was on staff, the Sr. Pastor would shut the door to his office, let the staff know he was unavailable and usually Thursday mornings he would write. Now that I'm not part of a staff and preach every week... Tuesday mornings I do exegetical stuff and let it work in me. Thursdays I write. I have Saturdays off and try to carefully protect that. If something comes up on a Sat. then I take Monday off...

    that being said... with a home office, it's both easier to find time to write and more difficult sometimes to get out of the office. Thankfully my blessed dog, literally rounds me up as if I were cattle... he walks circles around me until he "herds" me into other parts of the house to not be working. See... God uses all sorts of things around us to remind us to be faithful in not only proclamation but taking care of ourselves too.

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  9. We publish "sermon notes" for folks to follow along with our sermons...fill in the blanks for key points and if we're going to reference another text in addition to the main preaching text we include those as well. It took a while for me to start appreciating the discipline this forced upon me to give my outline ready to print to the secretary by noon on Thursday, but now that I'm married to someone with a regular M-F job I appreciate knowing that I only need a short review of what I've written before I go to bed on Saturday so that it can seep into my bones and I'm ready to go on Sunday morning.

    This means that I usually take some time on Sunday night while I'm utterly exhausted to at least move my head toward the upcoming week so that I have a starting point to share at our "worship design" meeting on Monday at noon. We preach in sermon series (not lectionary) so it is often taking the seed of an idea and deciding which direction the spirit is pushing or pulling me towards. We go over visuals and music ideas. Without this external pressure to meet the deadlines for our powerpoint and printing on Thursdays I know that I wouldn't begin writing until a lot later in the week...when I first started I was often saying "no sermon notes this week!" and staying up late on Saturday to finish...which left me too exhausted to preach three times Sunday morning and my voice was giving out during the third service. Thankfully a good night's sleep and better hydration solved the vocal strain issue immediately.

    I have often fleshed out the manuscript for a sermon on a Friday/Saturday after turning in the outline for folks...but left to my own devices I know I'd be starting my outline on Friday or Saturday....

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  10. Thank you for all your good comments. It's fascinating to hear how other people manage their rhythms and routines.

    I love the idea of taking a full weekday for a writing day, in addition to my day off, but it's hard to see how on earth to make that work. To only be in the office 3 days a week seems unmanageable in terms of everything else that needs to get done. And, like many of you, I can't seem to do any actual writing in my office at church (what is up with that? That actually wasn't the case at my previous church - I did almost all my writing in my office at church, but it was a small church in a small town, with far fewer interruptions and distractions).

    I actually stayed home yesterday (Wednesday) to try to write this coming Sunday's sermon. Results were mixed. I'm far ahead of where I would be with a Saturday writing start, so that's to the good. But I was only able to do it because our usual Wednesday night program (a student group, which I am leading this year) is done for the semester. I also still did lots of email correspondence, which happens less when I write on Saturdays (b/c of less incoming email).

    This whole conversation is a good reminder that everything is a trade-off, and I have to pick what my priorities are, and then continue to revisit those priorities and see if they still fit.

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    1. In terms of all that needs to be done, I invite you to consider if this question about sermon writing is part of a bigger question about Sabbath and time off.
      In one sense, I totally get that you can't get everything done in 3 days. In another sense, I don't know that I could get everything done if I had 20 days a week. The work of ministry is so great that at some point I have to just stop and go home and decide the rest of it will get done at another time.
      Blessings in that discernment.

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    2. Thanks, Marci. I know for sure that I will never get everything done! And I think overall, I'm pretty good at drawing lines and actually letting some balls drop. I do believe in and try to practice Sabbath, which is why I've tried so hard not to let my day off (Friday) become a writing day.

      I'm challenged by the notion of only 3 weekdays in the office, but I'm also intrigued and am considering how to designate a weekday as a writing day.

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  11. I'm a bit structured about this. It doesn't always work, perhaps it may well not work more than it does work, but a mentor taught me long ago that even a bad plan is better than no plan.

    I try to stay 3 months ahead with scripture selections - I'n "on lectionary". I choose scripture, title, and make a few sketchy notes about where my mind initially goes when reading for the first time. When I pick it up again I"m not asking myself, "what was I thinking?"

    The week prior to preaching the sermon, I start thinking on it either Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. I do some early reading and percolate. Tuesday I am usually able to do some reading or at the very least gather the resources I"m planning to use.

    Thursday tends to be a quiet day in the office for whatever reason. I love to get the first draft completed before leaving the office that day. I put it to bed until Saturday evening or early SUnday morning. I tweak and make slight changes. I have a woman who is practically deaf and likes a copy of my manuscript so I do grammatical checks at that time as well. I preach it a couple of times so the words are once again familiar and head in to the pulpit.

    I protect my Fridays and Saturdays as much as possible because I am more rested physically and mentally when I can manage the 2 days off. My congregation is pretty good at respecting this as well.

    I have certainly written sermons on Saturday but prefer not to. I find it stressful to be doing so at the last minute.

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    1. The structure you've outlined is exactly the direction I think I'd like to try to go. I do pick my texts (from lectionary options usually) 3-6 months at a time, but I haven't been making those initial notes you describe. I want to start doing that, and I love the whole routine you describe. Thursday would be my ideal writing day, with Fridays and Saturdays protected, and I'm thinking through how to make that work. Thanks for sharing how you make it happen!

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  12. I don't preach as regular as I would like and so I have changed my sermon writing. I was a Saturday writer finalizer, I love the sermon party. My kids are older and demand more of my time as well. I now write my rough draft on Tuesday afternoon. I read and do notes, Tuesday before. I let it sit, gel, and meditate. I look at again if I have time on the Thursday at work. I then look at it again on Friday and Saturday. I then look at it again on Sunday before I preach. I did this so I could be more familiar with it and not sound so much like I was reading it. It works for the most part.

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    1. Thanks, Abi. Isn't it funny how older kids are actually more demanding in a way? This isn't what I'd expected. But with the birthday parties and baseball games and other things they want to do and that I want to do with them - it's just more complicated than it used to be.

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  14. I aim for Thursday writing with a tweaking on Saturday night. What has helped my process it to plan my preaching texts a month at a time. They are published in our newsletter and on our website. Sometimes when working on one week something will trigger and be appropriate for another Sunday (both with sermon, liturgy, and hymns). The creative elements usually come fairly late in the process so I am learning to adapt to that part of my worship practice.

    I do spend a fair amount of time researching for two reasons. One, I want to be as up-to-date as I can on current information. I owe it to myself as well as the congregation. Two, it is always the cutting edge new things which keep me going in this thing we call ministry and the church.

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  15. Last Sunday, after church and hearing my sermon which addressed the horror in Newtown, my 18 year old son told me he now understood why I write sermons on Saturday and not earlier in the week. For me, fresh works, even when there isn't a late breaking crisis; sometimes it has worked better for my family and other times not so much, but as everyone else says, we have worked it out--and our family life out--in an adequate if not perfect fashion.

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  16. Thank you, all of you, for sharing your routines and processes. I've really enjoyed reading your comments and am inspired about how I might make some changes in the new year. Thank you!

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