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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Help with Preaching

No matter how new or how seasoned, surely all preachers deal at some point with the dreaded preaching rut, where nothing we say feels fresh or inspired to us (or, we fear, to our congregation). Yet Sunday continues to come. How do we keep offering a word that is good, needful, and inspired? Our question this week comes from one seeking guidance and resources for preaching the good news in fresh and relevant ways:
Hello preacher friends. I'm looking for some advice/guidance/prayers in my ministry. At only two months into my first call, I am already feeling in a bit of a preaching rut. I enjoy preaching, and have received very positive feedback, but feel that I am being overly repetitive in the conclusions of each sermon and in my preaching style. Any ideas on how on to jump start some creativity?

Jennifer writes:
I always benefit from listening to/reading the sermons of others for inspiration. DayOne, the Text This Week and church websites all have oodles of sermons for your listening/reading pleasure. I find that reading prose and poetry also invites some creativity and that challenging myself to write at least one sermon a month in a different voice is a great way to switch things up. I have also benefited from reading about preaching. Jana Childers' books are full of ideas.

I'm a fan of Julia Cameron's Artist's Way for a place to experiment with different types of writing. Her suggestion of writing three pages a day of thoughts has been a great way for me to try out some alternatives.

I think preaching can benefit from conversations, too. Study groups in your area among local clergy, online conversations, and conversations with friends and family are often sources of new approaches and can affect one's preaching voice.

I hope this helps! God bless you for being excited about preaching and concerned about
keeping things fresh and interesting!

Martha offers:

Preaching is a spiritual practice, and like any spiritual practice it will have its dry spells and its moments when you wonder what you actually believe or why you ever thought you were called to this in the first place. But don't despair!

I'm presently teaching "Introduction to Worship" at Bangor Theological Seminary, and so I also want to recommend two of the books we've used in class this semester, if they are not already on your shelf. 
First, there is Barbara Day Miller's wonderful and practical manual, "The New Pastor's Guide to Leading Worship.Second, there is Ruth Ducks's "Finding Words for Worship." Both cover general worship leadership, but their sections on how you prepare to preach are excellent.

I highly recommend finding or starting a "preacher group." We have discussions here on RevGalBlogPals, but I also participate in a weekly, in-person, lectionary study with other pastors, aimed at what we are preaching. Being in community with other preachers may not solve a problem in any given week, but the cumulative effect is (1) I don't feel alone and (2) I'm challenged by the different ways we approach the texts. 

And Muthah+ responds:
There are several things that could be going on if you are gassed out early in your career:  Actually it is often the let down that comes after all the hullabaloo around ordination that makes us think one is stale. If your process towards ordination is as complex or crazy-making as most, it is not surprising that you are a bit flat--the adrenaline is just a bit used up. 
  1. Are you getting enough rest?  Are you getting enough time alone with God for prayer?  Both of these can curtail one's creativity even early into your preaching life.  Whenever I have hit dry patches, I have also noted that my prayer life is suffering too.  Go on a retreat, take a part of a day each month to spend with the Holy One.  Go back to a familiar devotional practice.  Dry patches come regularly in this business.  The laity often do not understand that.  But revgals do.  The important thing to do is to remain open.
  2. Are you reading?  Spiritual and professional reading are a must--ALWAYS!  You can't preach if you are not being refreshed by new ideas.  I always have at least one book of spiritual/professional reading all the time. Remember professional reading is part of your work load.  Schedule it into your work time. It is often the thing I read myself to sleep with or have in the car so when I stop for a coffee or am waiting for an appointment.  Put something on your phone that fills you that you have easy access to.
  3. Are you journaling?  I find that writing regularly keeps the pump primed.  Even if these writings are never read by anyone but you, allow you to verbalize the wonder of your relationship with God.  It allows you  to develop metaphor which is the preacher's craft of communication to others the wonder of God.  I started journaling as a part of my prayer when I first came to know Christ 45 years ago.  Now that we have pads and notebooks, we can do it electronically but I still love having a good notebook in which I can both write and draw.  Sometimes it is just a turn of a phrase that gets things going.
  4. I am part of a Lectionary-based tradition so I never have to choose my own readings, but if you are not, perhaps following the Lectionary for a while will help you out of a rut.  
But most of all I want to assure you, getting in a rut in preaching and plateauing in one's spiritual life is a part of this 'preaching life.'  It is a malaise that we all encounter.  And while you may think that you are being boring, if you allow God to direct your preaching, you will always have something to say to someone in the congregation. Read Isaiah 55:1-11! Do not become anxious about it, just remain faithful to your personal disciplines of prayer and devotion.  If you think you are missing skills, go to a good preaching workshop and get some help.  I know that the 'sistern' can direct you to one of those appropriate to your denomination.  (Actually I found good help when I went to ones outside my denomination.)

Meanwhile, I am praying with all of you who find preaching difficult.


Thank you, matriarchs, for your helpful responses! What would the rest of you offer? Please join us in the comments section to contribute to the conversation. And, as always, send your questions for our discussion to askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I agree w/the above comments and I recall the words of a NT prof, sharing about a pastor/seminary grad who went 'dry' after only a couple of months. The new pastor wasn't doing exegetical work, instead relied on the 'bag' he'd brought from seminary. Now, I am not a Hebrew or Greek scholar, I don't like to parse, but I do appreciate the gifts of those who do. I read several commentaries each week ( is a good source) and background articles through Atlas. I let the scripture 'simmer' for a few days before I begin writing, in my mind first.

    Six years ago, when I was a new pastor, I read a book that helped me a lot:
    Birthing the Sermon-Women Preachers on the Creative Process [Paperback]
    Jana Childers (Editor) - this is a collection of essays and sermons by women preachers and is about the creative process - some use the birthing analogy but not all. What helped most and was humbling was realizing that all, even well know preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor, struggle with sermons. They also are often uncertain about the value of their message, trusting the Holy Spirit. Blessings as you continue to share God's Good News.

  2. I second the recommendation of "Birthing the Sermon." I read it my first year after ordination and it was very helpful--in no small part because it helped me recognize that there is no one right way to prepare or preach. I know for example that writing at the last minute works for me -- I need to stuff my brain and let it stew for awhile before I start--but that's not for everyone. And I know that I am not as much of a story teller as many of the preachers here, but what I do seems to work for me. And I had to learn to accept that.

    You've probably heard it said that we all only have one sermon in us and everything else is a variation. Sometimes I feel that is exactly the problem when I too feel like I'm always ending the same way...I don't know how to get around that except to acknowledge the extent to which it may in fact be true,and then to keep reading and thinking and praying as everyone else has mentioned.

    And join the the preacher party and Tuesday lectionary discussion...they can be immensely helpful in planting the seed for new ideas, fresh approaches, not to mention a great place to bring our whines when we need to!

  3. The best book in my seminary preaching class was Surviving the Sermon: A Guide for Those Who Have to Listen (by Shafer, I think--amazon is not cooperating). Despite the title it has tremendous wisdom for preachers the most impmortant being to create a sermon preparation and response group not from other clergy (though that can be helpful too) but from your laypeople. Meet with them before the sermon to get their insights on the readings, church season, life of the community; work these into your sermon; and meet with them afterwards for evaluation. Most clergy don't have the courage or humility to do this but it profoundly respects the privilege of being given the community's voice and builds in listening to their voices and wisdom as a key part of that. You could also pray about the possibility of raising up gifted lay preachers in your congregation to ensure a diversity of voice and wider use of the Spirit's gifts which are rarely given to only one person in a community, and/or making room for sharing and response in the sermon time if the congregation isn't too large (though even in that case you can do small group or partner sharing--there are all kinds of creative options).

  4. Great thoughts and suggestions in this conversation so far - thank you, everyone!

    I want to add something about reading. Muthah+ advocated for making sure to do both professional and spiritual reading. I would highly recommend that a preacher should also make sure to do reading that is neither professional nor spiritual. I find that other reading - fiction, poetry, and nonfiction (history, science, psychology, sociology, essays, biography, memoir) - is HUGELY important to my preaching. For one thing, it can help me shore up ideas/content/illustrations for future sermons (keep good notes, if possible) - those really shouldn't all come from ministry or spiritual sources. Additionally, reading good writing helps me become (I think!) a better writer myself. Reading poetry and fiction really helps get me out of my own head and really stretches my own sense of writing style.

    It's hard to find/make the time to read fiction and other writing that isn't directly ministry-related, but I think it is so crucial.

  5. Echoing many of the comments here, esp earthchick. And going to movies helps me too - I often get good sermon ideas that way.

    Another book I found invaluable in finding my voice as a woman preacher was Anna Carter Florence's book preaching as testimony.

    In terms of style, you don't say what style you use, but I alternate between manuscript preaching and preaching from notes and those 2 require different kinds of creativity and reach different kinds of people, so you might try switching from what's comfortable to another style. Years ago, I wrote out a method for how to preach without notes, which you will find here if you are interested. This works really well for the monlogue type of sermon, where you speak in the voice of a character.

    Another thing that people here enjoy is a series - sometimes done a topic, or preaching thru a book of the bible (post Easter 2013, I'm following the lectionary thru Revelation! excited and nervous about that one!). A series is good for my prep too, because then if I find an illustration or quote I cant use one week, I can often find a use for it at another time.

    Hmm, that's probably enough for now. Most of all, take it seriously, but hold it lightly. There's always next week!

  6. while I also feel at times that my sermons are saying the same thing, when I look back a few years, there has been change. I wonder if the people hearing your sermons feel the same way that you do. There are times I have to remind myself, that just because I live with the readings each week, and spend time writing and polishing the sermon, and have it written in front of me, the congregation get to hear it, once, in the midst of worship.

  7. Yes to Anna Carter Florence's book - definitely my go-to preaching recommendation. When I fell into a rut, I found it really helpful to listen to other people's sermons; a nice change from always listening to the sound of my own voice. There are several excellent sermon podcasts out there; my personal fave is from the Society of St John the Evangelist (Episcopal order of brothers) - you can find them on iTunes under "ssje" or on their website,

    WorkingPreacher has sermon podcasts as well, as do many of the big churches in the US. Find something that feeds you, and it will feed your preaching. I think, too, that being solo pastor is an adjustment from being a student, and learning how to be The One Who Preaches rather than One Who Listens is part of the adjustment. In other words, these are growing pains, and you will find your groove! :)


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