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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Ask the Matriarch: Preaching Slump

Hello, readers! I am excited to join the Ask the Matriarch editorial team and to bring you a foundational question we all have asked at one time or another, along with four great answers from our panel. Let's start with the question:

Lately it seems that I have no inspiration at all when writing sermons.  That's so not me - sermon writing and preaching are one of my favorite parts of the job!  While I may wrestle with an occasional text now and then, usually my trouble is finding so much to say that I have trouble narrowing down a focus.

But it's been a couple of months since I felt that way.  I may get good ideas during the week, but when it comes time to write, they fly away.  I have no energy, no inspiration.  I'm in a slump.  I'm tired of writing 'good enough' sermons - barely good enough.

What are some suggestions for getting the sermonating juices flowing again?

Our first answer comes from RevHRod (aka H-Rod in this case) 

First of all, a friend once compared preaching to baseball.  He said the problem with Preacher A was that he was always trying to hit a home run.  As a result, he often didn't get "on base" at all.  He struck out a lot!  When he did well, it was great, but the rest of the time...  not so much.  Preacher B usually tried to hit a nice solid double.  As a result, her sermons were usually good and sometimes even great.  So while, you may not appreciate baseball or the fact that you are in the "good enough" range, it really is okay.

Having said that, here are some questions to consider:

  •     When you get a good idea during the week, do you write it down?  I have had some great ideas in the middle of the night, but if I don't write them down, they're gone.  
  •     Is the lack of energy really about preaching or is there something else that is weighing you down?  How are you feeling about the place, the people, the call?   
  •     Have you read any good books or seen any good movies lately?  Not preaching books but great fiction that might get the juices flowing.  
  •     Have you had enough time lately to talk to people in the congregation?  What are they concerned about or hungry for?
  •     Have you ever tried writing a sermon for one particular person?  It's a strange exercise, but when you are very intentional about your audience, it is surprising how many people will think you were talking to them.
  •     Have you had any time off lately?  Have you had the chance to hear any other preachers of late?  What's your soul hungry for?

Please know that this happens to everyone.  And if someone tells you it has never happened to them they are either fibbing or they are due for a slump any day now.  Hang in there and when someone says, "Good sermon, Pastor," believe them.  They aren't just being nice.

Next, the awesome preacher at my house, kathrynzj, offers these words of wisdom:

This comes and goes for me and I can usually attribute it to one of two things (or both) - I'm either not reading enough and/or I'm not exercising enough. The reading is less about reading churchy books and more about just reading in general. The exercise isn't hard core either (or doesn't have to be) - a walk around the block or something. Two other things I've done to shake things up - I write earlier in the week or in a different time than the usual routine (usually write on Friday morning, what if you tried to push it on Tuesday afternoon instead). Finally, I do the 750 words thing. I just write - it doesn't matter what - just write, and that helps get the mind cleared and the energy boosted.

earthchick shares some great ideas:

I have found over the years that sermon-writing inspiration ebbs and flows for me. Like you, sermon preparation and preaching are at the core of what I love about this work. Even so, the inspiration can dry up from time to time.

I'm sure you'll get some great advice from the excellent preachers here. I just have a few simple suggestions:
1 - Read. Read something other than just Bible/sermon/church/religion stuff. Read poetry. Read essays. Read short stories. Read novels. Read biographies. This isn't just for fun (though fun, too, is important), this is necessary for stretching your mind and soul, for filling you up with things other than just churchy words and thoughts. "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write." - Stephen King
2 - Write. Write stuff other than just Bible/sermon/church/religion stuff. Write to get the juices flowing. Write to get down the minutiae of every day life. You never know when some little vignette from the grocery store or the sidewalk is either going to trigger a sermon thought or become a core part of what your sermon needs to be about. (I am preaching to myself on this one. I really want to have a practice of writing a little each day of non-church-related stuff. But I haven't been doing this lately.)
3 - Move. Move your body - not just your hands on a keyboard. Get outside and walk, run, play. Make sure to breathe deeply. Moving your body will help move your spirit and engage your brain in new ways.
4 - Try a different medium. I compose almost exclusively on my computer. I have found it a good practice to shake myself out of this from time-to-time, by writing long-hand in a notebook, or by writing with colored pencils in a blank artist's pad. It's amazing how breaking away from the computer unshackles me from feeling the burden of linear thinking. Using pencils on blank page helps engage my creativity and helps me make connections I can't always make when I'm just typing words.
5 - Talk the text. I've realized recently that I sometimes never speak the text aloud until I'm actually in the pulpit getting ready to preach it! I'm trying to break myself of this habit, and get back into the oral/aural nature of the text while I'm in the actual writing process. To speak the text, and to hear myself speak it, opens my mind and heart to it in new ways that don't always happen when the text is only in my eyes and head. 

These are all very simple things, and all things I need to do more of myself. I'm looking forward to reading what others have to say!

These wise words come from Muthah+:

  •     Get some rest. OR Go on retreat OR find some serious prayer time.  Often our flat periods are due to fatigue or a flag in our own devotional practice.
  •     Read Barbara Brown Taylor's The Preaching Life. Or another good book on preaching.  Listen to the words of preaching experts.
  •     Prepare, prepare, prepare.  I find the stuff I find on helpful to give me a new point of view.  I saw a clip there for Easter that just blew me away and made the whole Triduum new for me.
  •     If you have the duty of weekly preaching, try to see if there are colleagues who would like to preach in your pulpit.  It is sometimes good to just hear another preacher.  I listen to a Baptist preacher I admire on Sunday mornings on my way to church or I get his CDs and listen to them.  Read others' sermons.
  •     Preaching Conferences are always a good chance to work on technique.  I found I learn more from other attendees rather than at the conferences.
  •     I found blogging a real boon to my preaching.  It primes my pump.
  •     Listening to my parishioners' stories of faith.  At coffee hr. or visiting or going out for lunch, talking to them revives the reasons why I preach.
  •     Remember that Christmas and Easter are the hardest sermons to preach because you preach about them every week.  
  •       I often preach ex-temporaneously but of late I have had to have a text to keep me focused.  Do not be afraid to change your preaching style to help you get your juices going.
  •     Allow yourself to trust your call and the support of all your Revgals who will always lift you in prayer.

And lastly my 2 cents worth:

First, I echo the advice to read and affirm the words of Stephen King. I also need to talk as part of the process. I suggest you find or create a preacher group. I spent ten years in a weekly lectionary group with other preachers. It formed my preaching in the beginning and always enriched it, especially when we did not agree on where we were headed. If you don't have preachers close by, consider setting up a Google Hangout or Skype meeting with faraway friends. (I'm writing this down as an idea to share at the next RevGalBlogPals board meeting!)

Other ideas, dear readers? Please share them in the comments. If you have a question for our panel, please send it to Ask the Matriarch.


  1. Great ideas! Keep this post handy for your next slump, it will happen. You will get through it. Remember the Holy Spirit has your back.

  2. These are great ideas. At 1.5 years, I'm not in a slump, but the reality of week-after-week is making itself felt.

    I totally concur about reading literature and going to movies and plays. It is essential to hear language used in beautiful and different ways, to hear a cacophony of voices from other times and places as well as out own.

    And I love the idea of writing a sermon directed (in your head) toward one particular person. I have done that a few times, only to have the person I was thinking of not show up. But that doesn't take away from the reality that it make speak to someone else in a personal way.

  3. Sometimes when I'm in a slump it's because I'm bored of myself. Then I find it's a good idea to take a risk - preach in a new style (as a monologue for example) or jump off the lectionary for a while. Last year I did a series on Ruth that was really fun for me - I got to dive really deep into her story and it was very interesting to me, which I think is reflected back in the preaching.

    I also echo those comments that say "say it out loud." When I'm driving, I sometimes tell myself a story I'm planning to use in the sermon (yes, I'm THAT woman next to you on the freeway...) as a way of testing how it sounds out loud.

    Also, this year, I've tried to have a guest preacher once a month and relieving the pressure of having to produce every week has been a huge boon.

    And I have often found a jump start (or finish) at the Saturday Preacher Party. Our unofficial motto, a gift I believe from Kathryn, "If you got a dog, walk it proud" has gotten me thru quite a few Sundays.

  4. Great advice. Agree with it all. My morning run (very slow jog) has been so helpful to my preaching and writing. Have been sidelined with a torn meniscus (surgery in the next couple of weeks I hope) and I really feel the loss.
    Hoping riding my bike will compensate.

  5. I love the "Preaching Moments" at - especially the Anna Carter Florence ones - just to hear what others say about the craft of preaching... refreshing and eye-opening.

  6. These are all great ideas. Here's a different twist on the question, though. Increasingly,at least in my mainline denomination,churches are unable to call a full-time pastor...which results in some version of what my life is like...I work a full-time job to provide for my family and also serve the church. I would love to be a full-time pastor but it just doesn't seem to be the way things are working out. So, I am doing well to do all the reading and studying and writing needed for each Sunday let alone read fiction, go to movies, be a part of a lectionary group etc. Not sharing this as "oh, poor me" but rather, as I said, I different twist on what to do when you are in a slump.(which I am, by the way)
    Thanks for being here...all of you. This community is especially important for me as I am otherwise so very isolated.

  7. After 1.5 years in the pulpit, I fear that it's not a slump but that the Holy Spirit has left me....

    1. Don't despair, dear sister in Christ. Come over to the Preacher Party and talk to us. We're here for you. 11th Hour Preacher Party


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