[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
â— 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?
â— 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.
â— 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 â€œwhat I think that you should hear/listen toâ€ it is â€œwhat 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.â€
âˆž Write what you know; avoid what you donâ€™t know or subjects that are so big that they require a lot of research (I write â€œbig researchâ€ sermons six to ten times a year, and they are extremely time-consuming).
âˆž 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.
âˆž It helps to know what your conclusion will be before you begin.
âˆž Write simply and clearly. When you go back to edit, edit for clarity. â€œWhat am I saying here?â€ If you donâ€™t know, the congregation most certainly wonâ€™t either. Keep your vocabulary accessible; if youâ€™re digging into Rogetâ€™s every other sentence, youâ€™re writing an academic paper, not a sermon.
âˆž Organize your thoughts. Donâ€™t take the congregation on a whirl-wind tour of your thinking process (eg, â€œAnd I should have made this point earlierâ€¦â€). Figure it out before you put it to paper.
âˆž I spend as much time stopping to think about what I am writing as I do writing. Itâ€™s okay to stop and think.
âˆž Use stories â€“ give the listeners something they can envision in order to make your message more effective. As the old adage says, “Show, don’t tell.”
âˆž Have one major message and support it with two or three major points. Not more.
âˆž Some sermons may end with â€œamen,â€ but they absolutely donâ€™t have to. In fact, they are far more interesting when they donâ€™t.
âˆž 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 itâ€™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. Donâ€™t fall in love with your every word. 😉
DELIVERING THE SERMON
âˆš 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.
âˆš Center yourself physically in the pulpit before you begin speaking. If you want to use the stepping stool, make sure youâ€™re comfortable on it.
âˆš Thou shalt not fiddle excessively with the microphone.
âˆš Move pages from right to left with your left hand as you read rather than flipping them over; itâ€™s quieter and much less distracting.
âˆš Print in big enough font so you can see the page easily.
âˆš Avoid sarcastic or unthoughtful â€œasides.â€ 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.
âˆš Make sure you know how you will transition out of the sermon.
âˆš 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.
âˆš Make eye contact, but donâ€™t stare at anyone in particular.
âˆš SMILE!!! Seriously, smile! If not with your lips, then with your eyes. Preaching is a gift of love. If you look like youâ€™re going before the firing squad, the congregation will be very concerned for you and will not be able to focus on your words.
âˆš If you stumble or find yourself misspeaking a sentence or word, simply say, â€œExcuse meâ€ 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.
âˆš Embody your message. Do you care about what youâ€™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 PLAGUEâ€¦
Ï‡ 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.
Ï‡ Sermons are not free therapy for the preacher, so donâ€™t preach on emotional subjects from which you have no distance and have little or no objectivity. Avoid over-sharing, blaming, or â€œdumping.â€
Ï‡ Keep your subject broad enough to minister to the gathered community in all its diversity. If your sermon is extremely narrow in focus (â€œHow I Found True Spiritual Peace Through Gardeningâ€), work with your liturgist to make sure thereâ€™s a broader spectrum of human emotions addressed in other parts of the service.
Ï‡ Sermons are not â€œtalksâ€ or lectures. They should minister to people, not merely inform them.
Ï‡ 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.
Ï‡ 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 youâ€™d like to correct before your Sunday in the pulpit.
Ï‡ Avoid flashy earrings or distracting ties.
Ï‡ 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.
Ï‡ 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 â€œwhat I was going to preach about before I changed my mind and came up with this.â€
Ï‡ Never use someone elseâ€™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