How To Write and Deliver a Sermon

[The common cold hath made me a sniffling, coughing, raspy-voiced wretch these past days so I offer this to you, and may it help those whom it helps - PB]


HOW TO WRITE AND DELIVER A SERMON

Rev. Victoria Weinstein
Workshop, October 25, 2008
First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell

PREPARATION

● What sets your soul on fire? What insights do you want to explore, explain and share that will minister to the congregation? What stories and illustrations will communicate your message?

● Draw from your life. Good sermons come from real-life questions and struggles that have application to our relationships, our work and our inner growth. Lengthy theoretical musings and esoteric expositions have their place, but it is not in the pulpit.

● A sermon is a conversation that only appears to have one participant. In fact, effective preaching is grounded in community and relationship: it is not “what I think that you should hear/listen to” it is “what we all struggle to understand/deal with/do better that I have deeply reflected upon and humbly offer as a gift of insight to the beloved community this morning.”

WRITING

∞ Write what you know; avoid what you don’t know or subjects that are so big that they require a lot of research (I write “big research” sermons six to ten times a year, and they are extremely time-consuming).

∞ A sermon usually takes an entire day of writing to prepare, and then some. Give yourself at least eight hours, preferably with some time to leave the sermon and go back to it for editing.

∞ It helps to know what your conclusion will be before you begin.

∞ Write simply and clearly. When you go back to edit, edit for clarity. “What am I saying here?” If you don’t know, the congregation most certainly won’t either. Keep your vocabulary accessible; if you’re digging into Roget’s every other sentence, you’re writing an academic paper, not a sermon.

∞ Organize your thoughts. Don’t take the congregation on a whirl-wind tour of your thinking process (eg, “And I should have made this point earlier…”). Figure it out before you put it to paper.

∞ I spend as much time stopping to think about what I am writing as I do writing. It’s okay to stop and think.

∞ Use stories – give the listeners something they can envision in order to make your message more effective. As the old adage says, “Show, don’t tell.”

∞ Have one major message and support it with two or three major points. Not more.

∞ Some sermons may end with “amen,” but they absolutely don’t have to. In fact, they are far more interesting when they don’t.

∞ As a general guideline, my 15-20 minute sermons are 7-10 pgs. of double-spaced, 12 pt. font (Palatino). I recommend that you aim for 7-8 pgs. Shorter is better. I keep working to write better, shorter sermons but it’s a real discipline. The vast majority of my sermons wind up being 14 pages on Thursday night and get edited down to 7-10 pages on Saturday. Which means that on during a typical church year, I write 100-150 pages that get completely thrown out. Don’t fall in love with your every word. ;-)

DELIVERING THE SERMON

√ Take time to transition into the sermon. The congregation should feel that the sermon is deeply connected to everything else that has happened thus far in the service. The way you move into the pulpit helps that to happen.

√ Center yourself physically in the pulpit before you begin speaking. If you want to use the stepping stool, make sure you’re comfortable on it.

√ Thou shalt not fiddle excessively with the microphone.

√ Move pages from right to left with your left hand as you read rather than flipping them over; it’s quieter and much less distracting.

√ Print in big enough font so you can see the page easily.

√ Avoid sarcastic or unthoughtful “asides.” They are usually impossible for most people to hear, and they come from nervousness and detract from your message. Preaching requires self-control as well as careful preparation.

√ Make sure you know how you will transition out of the sermon.

√ Know that the congregation is very supportive of your efforts and appreciates your courage in preaching to them. Let their care and energy fuel your delivery.

√ Make eye contact, but don’t stare at anyone in particular.

√ SMILE!!! Seriously, smile! If not with your lips, then with your eyes. Preaching is a gift of love. If you look like you’re going before the firing squad, the congregation will be very concerned for you and will not be able to focus on your words.

√ If you stumble or find yourself misspeaking a sentence or word, simply say, “Excuse me” and start over. If you lose a page or find that the computer has failed to print out a sentence or two, stop, excuse yourself, and explain that you are missing part of your manuscript. Do the best you can to summarize your point, and move on. Vent your anxiety later.

√ Embody your message. Do you care about what you’re saying? We should be able to see that in your physical presence and hear it in your vocal inflection! Many a beautifully-crafted sermon has been murdered in the cradle by zombie-like delivery.

TO AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE…

χ Sermons are not book reports. You may choose to use a book or play as your main illustration (not as easy as it looks, by the way!), but do not preach a sermon that is a series of highlights of a book you liked.

χ Sermons are not free therapy for the preacher, so don’t preach on emotional subjects from which you have no distance and have little or no objectivity. Avoid over-sharing, blaming, or “dumping.”

χ Keep your subject broad enough to minister to the gathered community in all its diversity. If your sermon is extremely narrow in focus (“How I Found True Spiritual Peace Through Gardening”), work with your liturgist to make sure there’s a broader spectrum of human emotions addressed in other parts of the service.

χ Sermons are not “talks” or lectures. They should minister to people, not merely inform them.

χ Rehearse your sermon at home and at church. Deliver it more slowly than you think you need to. And then slow down some more. Breathe. Let people have time to absorb what you are saying.

χ Speak up. Even with the microphone, you must project. Do not mumble, do not drop volume at the ends of sentences. Consider recording yourself before you preach; it can be very helpful in identifying vocal tics or deficiencies you’d like to correct before your Sunday in the pulpit.

χ Avoid flashy earrings or distracting ties.

χ NEVER APOLOGIZE for your sermon. DO NOT begin a sermon by saying how unworthy you are to be there, and (during sabbatical) do not invoke the minister unless it is to quote him/her.

χ NEVER begin a sermon by describing how hard it was to write the sermon, how nervous you are, how little sleep you got last night, or talking about “what I was going to preach about before I changed my mind and came up with this.”

χ Never use someone else’s life as an illustration even anonymously if they might be recognized by any member of the congregation; always obtain permission from anyone you will be mentioning by name.

Remember that when you stand in the pulpit as a preacher, you stand in an ancient and honored tradition. Enjoy it!

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. — Psalm 19:14

christening william detwiler
[Not preaching, but there's our beautiful pulpit there in the background. - PB]

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16 Responses to How To Write and Deliver a Sermon

  1. Christine Robinson says:

    Peacebang, my I link to this in my How to Write a Sermon online course?

    Christine [Cool! Sure! - PB]

  2. Elz says:

    Fantastic! And well-timed for me, as I enter the world of supply preaching, in which knowledge of parishioners and the week’s events in the parish are largely absent.

    Thanks.

  3. Doxy says:

    This is GREAT advice for those who actually prepare their sermons. For several years now, I’ve had a minister who prides herself on the fact that she hasn’t written a sermon in 20 years.

    It shows…

    [I'm sorry to hear it. Some people --and in fact, entire traditions -- consider sermon manuscript preparation an impediment and insult to the movement of the Holy Spirit. And there are preachers out there who truly have the gift of preaching without notes, without a manuscript, and without even an outline in their head. But those people are rare, and it sounds like your minister isn't one of them. I'm not either, so once a year or so I challenge myself to leave ms and notes behind and fly without any help from the written word. Terrifying and exhilirating, and just as much work as preparing the written manuscript! - PB]

  4. Pigwidgeon says:

    Thank you for this PeaceBang – please may I circulate it to members of the Association of Midland Union Lay Preachers And Service Leaders? Quite a few of us don’t have much experience in leading worship, and your wise advice will help enormously. [With my pleasure! Just be sure to attribute it to me and not to "PeaceBang!" - PB]

  5. LeahCate says:

    Thanks for this wonderful resource. I’m in a UU ministerial internship at a congregation with 25 minutes sermons and am finding I need all the help I can get! It’s terrifying but I’m learning a ton.

    I’d be curious to learn more about this point:
    √ Make sure you know how you will transition out of the sermon.

    [Thanks for this comment, LC! Twenty-five minute sermons are long, and definitely require lots of energy to maintain emotional connection with your congregation... but I'm sure you know that already. Thank you for the excellent question about what it means to transition out of your sermon. What I mean by that is that we must end the sermon in a way that feels intentional -- it should not seem that we have merely stopped talking, taken a breath and then announced the closing hymn or whatever comes next. Are you ending the sermon prayerfully? If so, your demeanor and pacing should indicate that. Take sufficient time and allow enough silence before going on to the next element or stepping out of the pulpit. Are you leaving the congregation with a commission? Make it a compelling one, and consider transitional words before the next element that reinforce it. Consider how what happens next connects to all that has just been said. Yesterday, I announced our final hymn by saying, "Our closing hymn is not just a song but a commission to us all. Let us sing it as a prayer for our lives, Come Down O Love Divine." In other words, do not think of the sermon as a marathon after which, when you reach the finish line, you can collapse. Your presence should remain as focused, as attentive, and as energetic as you move on to the next portion of the service (perhaps the offering, in which case the sermon should transition smoothly into words regarding stewardship) as it was during the first phrase of your sermon. Does this help? - PB]

  6. Elizabeth says:

    AMEN!

    May I also add that every pastor could benefit from two classes: “Voice & Diction” and “Acting for Non-Majors”. I was a Theatre and Christian studies double-major in college and I learned more about presence, emotional authenticity and effective communication in my Theatre major than in my Christian studies major.

    I’m pretty sure every community college offers basic acting classes or speech classes – don’t be too proud to admit you can use some further vocal training!

  7. Pigwidgeon says:

    Of course – consider it done.

  8. Pigwidgeon says:

    And thank you VERY MUCH!

  9. allisondek says:

    Consider finding and joining a Toastmaster’s group. They’re everywhere, the membership is usually quite diverse, and they introduce shy or nervous speakers to public speaking in very small, easy bites (introducing another speaker, impromptu answers to nonthreatening questions, presenting speeches, and critiquing others.) Members rotate in jobs like timing others and counting ahhhhs, ummmmms, and repeated words. Best of all, the other members of the club will not expect your every utterance to be a Word of Wisdom. [Also, you get to say that you're a TOASTMASTER, and I just think that's cool. - PB]

  10. LeahCate says:

    Peacebang,

    Thanks for the follow up about transitioning out of the sermon. I’ve already known about the importance of ending intentionally, prayerfully and with a commission. (Not saying I’m brilliant at it, but at least I know where I’m heading!) But you’re helping me think about weaving it into the next liturgical element. It does feel somewhat like a marathon at this stage in my learning and I don’t like that. The service is still happening, like you say. I’m going to try to better transition into the closing song for my next service.

    Thank you and you rock.

    Leah

  11. StarWoman says:

    Hey PB, what is the role of the sermon in a UU service? What is its purpose?

    I ask because your first few preparation steps would not make sense in a lectionary-based tradition, in which the topic of the sermon is supposed to be taken from one (ideally, from all) of the readings we just heard. It really gets on my nerves when we get a glorious (or challenging!) set of readings, and the preacher opens the sermon by telling some other story, and proceeding to preach on a topic that obviously inspires him but is only tangentially, if at all, related to the scripture we just heard.

    So I’m guessing your sermons don’t function in your liturgy the way my sermons function in my liturgy! :)

  12. Christine says:

    Peacebang,
    Thank you for your guidelines. I too am from a lectionary-based tradition but I believe that your opening suggestions still very much apply to us. A sermon grows not only from our personal response to the scriptural readings but also (and most importantly) our sensitivity to how the readings relate to the congregation. If we’re not passionate about being the bridge between the scripture and the real lives of the community, we might as well sit in silence for 15 minutes.

  13. PeaceBang says:

    Yes, StarWoman, our tradition is not lectionary-based and thank you for encouraging me to explain that to non-UU readers. I wrote these guidelines for lay preachers who will be taking the pulpit while I am on sabbatical. I’d like to think more, and post later, on the role of the sermon in our worship services. But in case I don’t get around to it, let me just say that the sermon is central in our services (as we are heirs of the Protestant Reformation tradition), and that while they are seldom Scripturally-based, they are written to illuminate the great spiritual questions as does the lectionary. Most UU ministers of my acquaintance preach thematically and UU congregations are often committed to thematic worship, where the entire service weaves together elements around one theme: sin, salvation, guilt, joy, forgiveness, service, social justice, pastoral concerns, family, moral issues, etc. We do have our own version of a liturgical year, which in my church begins with the Jewish high holy days (Days of Awe and Repentance, how powerful!) and includes the Christian holidays. We also have Flower Communion (a uniquely Unitarian observance with very poignant origins in WWII Czechoslovakia) and Stewardship Sunday and Music Sunday and the Burning Bowl ritual at the New Year, and Ingathering Sunday and each Second Sunday we highlight an outreach ministry, hear a lay person give a Faith Journey that connects in some way to that entity, and give our Offering to that organization or cause (typically sending off $900-1000). Thanks for asking!

  14. Fred says:

    I am giving a worship workshop in January which I have given before and my worship committee has asked to include something on sermon writing. You have put together such a wonderful and comprehensive post here that I would love to include it with your permission and attribution. Thank you in advance. [Happy to grant permission, Fred! Thanks! - PB]

  15. Mrs.BonyWrists says:

    PB, this is a fantastic list of suggestions for anyone in the sermon biz. As a veteran clergy spouse to someone who has an adoring following of listeners I might add two more.
    1. Give yourself time to absorb all these great concepts. Just as those ice skaters didn’t get to the Olympics by taking up skating this year it takes lots of practice to develop a style that is truly your own.
    2. Acquire the courage to NOT read your sermon even if you have it all written out. My spouse prepares/organizes with great effort, but in the end he speaks with a piece of paper with just 4 or 5 phrases on it to keep himself on track. He is ‘reading’ his congregation to make sure they are with him each step of the way. When they laugh or get teary, he gives them time and space for their own thoughts and emotions. When they look blank or bored he fills in with more explanation so they get his point or quickly covers a point that isn’t getting across. (I’ve seen him literally skip whole paragraphs/concepts if he can tell that people aren’t interested or aren’t following a line of thought.)

    People tell me they love how he is “just” up there ‘telling great stories’ or ‘just seems to speak to me’ so I guess I have a third little note…
    4. If you consistently give strong sermons your listeners will assume that doing so is ‘easy’ for you. It’s like being that gifted skater for whom those triple axel jumps seem ‘easy’ to those of us watching on TV!

  16. Becky says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’m doing my first sermon in 2 weeks and have been struggling – I have a topic and some personal stories connected to it, but have been finding it hard to get words on paper. Thanks! [May the Force be with you!! Good luck and love every minute of it!! - PB]

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