When I went to seminary, I was required to take a Homiletics class. First, I had to learn what that long word meant... preaching. And I was terrified. I mean, sick to my stomach for days, butterflies churning, scared right down to my toes.
I asked for help from classmates. I read as many books on the required reading list as I could while juggling a full load of classes. Eventually, I did manage to stand in front of my small preaching practicum group and stumble my way through a first-ever sermon on John 10 during the winter quarter of 1990.
Then came the sermon to be graded - recorded on video for the small Scottish professor of our 90+ lecture section. Again, that Holy Terror. But, wonder of wonders, he liked it - he really liked it! And I was invited into his Advanced Preaching class and eventually became the head TA for all the large beginning Homiletics groups, a position I held for over six years, under 3 different professors. Right up until we moved to Santa Barbara for me to begin as Associate Pastor for Montecito Covenant Church.
I was taught a particular methodology for preaching - and it was a very distinct genre from teaching. I was to do the exegetical work on the selected passage - reading it in the original language, using dictionaries and commentaries and the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit as guides. And then - I was to 'say one thing and say it well, ' with plenty of reference both to scripture and to life. I was encouraged to write a manuscript for each preaching event, something I still do.
When I am teaching, I am much more extemporaneous. But when I'm preaching - I have learned to read the printed page pretty well and I stick to it.* Somehow that time in the pulpit carries deeper spiritual freight. Though I believe going off the manuscript text can be guided and supported by the Spirit, I tend to keep it close to what I've prepared, to what I've been given to say in the privacy of my own study, my own prep work.
Part of that is due to the fact that I have never preached regularly, over an extended period of time in the same setting. Preaching week in and week out to the same congregation changes the dynamic of both preparation and presentation. At most, I've preached about eight times a year (most recently, about four-five times annually) - and that infrequency doesn't lend itself to developing a rhythm. The upside of that is that I have a couple of file boxes full of entire manuscripts, which I hope to edit to blogpost size over the next couple of years.
So...this page is most definitely a work in progress.
*If any of you should have to give an oral presentation like a sermon and if having a full manuscript seems comforting to you - here are some tricks I've learned over the years to make it look and feel a whole lot less like reading! (Most of these, I learned from other preaching students, a few I've adapted over the years.)
1. Use a very large font, like 18 or 20. This will make for lots of pages, but that's okay.
2. Center your text, which allows for an easier-for-your-eye-to-follow series of indented lines.
3. Set the margin for the bottom of the page at 3 inches. This prevents ever having to turn your head down to read the last lines on any page. It is important to maintain a heads-up posture, continually scanning to make eye contact here and there.
4. SLIDE your pages across the podium, never pick them up and turn them over. When you're done, your manuscript will have to be re-assembled in the correct order (this is important if you're preaching in more than one service as I always was), but you will never have a flash of white paper to distract the listeners.
5. Keep two pages open at a time. Yes, that makes the re-assembly a little more complicated as some pages may be facing up and some down, but it makes the entire process go more smoothly and allows you - once again - to make eye contact with the congregation, which is really important to do. (As you gain experience doing this, you can loosen up, using your upper body to gesture, even stepping back or to the side, as long as you can easily step in and out of the printed page.)
6. Use your finger to guide you down the page the first few pages, until you get used to the centered layout. After the initial butterflies, you will settle into a rhythm.
7. It also helps a whole lot if you've read it out loud (with a timer) once or twice beforehand.
Please believe me that as programmatic as this may sound/seem, there is lots of space during the preparation phase for the work of the Holy Spirit to be real and powerful. In fact, it is my belief that if the sermon doesn't preach first to the preacher - then it doesn't preach.
In truth, the first and most important role for anyone preparing a sermon is that of listener, learner, disciple. We are called to sit quietly under the Word, in the presence of the Spirit, and remain open, by the grace of God, to what we need to hear. Then we can ask what we need to say.