More than 7 years into ordained ministry, and 19 years since I first entered seminary, I have renewed my practice of preaching – both delivering and preparing the sermon.
I had always preached with a manuscript
Most of these manuscripts were not paragraph’d pages looking as if they belonged in a book, but a more free-form movement of phrases written not for reading but for speaking. I took pride in my words, in the development of my argument, and in the construction of these manuscripts that helped me to speak, I thought, naturally.
My process for writing manuscript sermons usually involved a reading Scripture, perhaps a commentary or two, and reflection, all geared toward finding that thread, that hook, that angle for my sermon. I would then spend hours sitting at my computer and writing the manuscript, usually over two or three sittings. With my thread for that Scripture set, I would work in a more-or-less straight line fashion from start to finish. Most of my sermon-prep time was spent on that manuscript, on that thread that got the ball rolling, on one particular insight into the text.
Army chaplaincy changed my preaching
7+ years into my ordained ministry, and many more years into my experience as a preacher (I preached several times/year prior to ordination), I went to my final phase of training at the US Army Chaplain Center and School for my Basic Officer Leaders Course as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard. In addition to preaching for classroom assignments, I was given the opportunity to preach for a Holy Thursday service during our class five-day capstone field experience.
While at the Chaplain school, where I heard from experienced chaplains and had the opportunity to preach in a variety of training settings, it became clear to me that preaching to a very small group of Soldiers huddled around a Humvee in the field required a different method. For one, my computer-based writing process was all but impossible in the field. But more, delivering a polished manuscript sermon for a small group of Soldiers in the field who are experiencing the fatigue of training – or deployment – seemed to miss the mark. A manuscript designed for pulpit preaching wouldn’t work for such a setting.
I heard fellow students – mostly from traditions fairly distinct from my Lutheran church – preach. I found myself jealous as many of them proclaimed effortlessly without notes. I learned that the context of military preaching may require impromptu “Word of the Day” messages, or unexpected words of comfort spoken at a moment’s notice to a group of battle buddies grieving a fallen Soldier. No manuscripts for these settings, either.
Given these experiences and insights I committed to leave the manuscript behind – in my military ministry setting, but also in my civilian ministry. I had considered this years ago, wondering if the altars and pulpits in our churches served, unwittingly perhaps, as barriers between people and pastor. Making this decision to set aside the manuscript resonated with my earlier concerns about the relationships between worship leaders and the congregation of worshipers.
To be sure, the first few times trying this manuscript-less preaching in my civilian ministry were rough. My baseline for sermon preparation was still the manuscript, and I was trying to replicate my manuscript-writing process for my manuscript-less sermon. What resulted were very detailed, almost manuscript-like, notes prepared on my computer. As I tried to pare back my manuscript, I found myself almost vomitously uneasy just prior to preaching.
Journaling as sermon preparation
But then I bought a notebook and a good mechanical pencil and began journaling the Sunday texts by hand. I first write the text in the notebook, leading me to give more attention to each word than I ever did by simply reading the text. After writing the Scripture in my notebook, I simply write. Disconnected phrases. Questions. Insights gained from reading commentaries or other Scripture. Parallels to my life, to my congregation’s life, to my community and country. Connections to music or film or television. Anything. There is no structure yet. There is no thread I’m trying to weave. Just reflections and thoughts and questions. I do this for several days.
By Friday or Saturday I pull together a rough outline, prepare some slides to accompany my preaching (using Canva), and write a “Good News Statement” that concisely defines the point I’m trying to make, the Good News I’m trying to proclaim. Some or even much of what I had journaled in the past few days ultimately gets set aside.
It is not until Sunday morning that I actually rehearse. I’ll run through the sermon 2-5 times on Sunday morning before worship, focusing especially on my opening, transitions, images, and conclusion. Very little new material makes its way into my sermon at this point, but sometimes that happens.
And then I preach. I preach perhaps with a few notes in front of me, but also perhaps with nothing in hand at all. I preach with that outline and projected slides guiding me, and days of journaling, reflecting, wrestling, praying supporting my proclamation. I have a comfort level with the entire passage that I never had in my earlier manuscript method, which too early in the process narrowed my message down to a single thread or angle that perhaps wasn’t ultimately fruitful. And, free from the precision of a manuscript, I am able to add last-minute insights or images, perhaps that were noted only as I greeted people on their way into worship 20 minutes before I begin preaching. Again, my comfort with the Scripture text and the outlined movement of my message allow me to make such adjustments on the fly.
I have received very positive feedback since making the switch. “Pastor, your sermons without notes are 20 times better than when you use notes,” one church member said to me recently. The feedback is consistent – I’m more natural, “myself.” In this way, I’m more effective as a preacher, which is the goal.
For any who have made their way through this post, I hope that perhaps my experience can be helpful for you if you’re working on renewing your practice of preaching. Or, I hope that my example might help any clergy considering reserve component chaplaincy to see just one of the many ways in which the military ministry can positively impact your civilian ministry.