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How Long is a Piece of String? (Or Sermon/Service Prep)

Recently I heard of a novice preacher who was concerned that it took them two weeks, on and off, to prepare a sermon they'd be happy to deliver.  How could they ever be a preacher if that was the case, they wondered.  The answers to that question are varied, but clearly as an occasional preacher they are already fine, as a regular, but relatively infrequent preacher they would be fine, but they are not yet at the stage of weekly, let along twice weekly preaching.  And that's absolutely fine - they are just starting out, this is all new and they are learning the craft, not just of preaching but also of preparation.

This reminded me of a NAM residential way back (at least a decade ago, maybe more) when one of the invited speakers was a very well respected preacher, whose task it was to speak to us about sermon and service preparation.  His talk was wide ranging and had lots of good stuff, but what struck me then, and has stayed with me since was his (in my view utterly impracticable) view of sermon prep.  You begin on Monday morning, he said, be reading the passage(s), checking the commentaries and noting down ideas, themes, questions, conections.  On Tuesday you create a first draft.  On Wednesday you refine the draft.  On Thursday you reduce the script to notes.  On Friday you reduce the notes to headings (he predated the term 'bullet points').  On Saturday you rehearse and tweak.  On Sunday you deliver the polished sermon, sans notes, with just a few headers to keep you on track.  So that would be something of the order of 20 - 25 hours just on the sermon.

Yeah, right!

There is so much impossible - and wrong - with this model!  It is wrong because there is no rest day, no day on which the preacher is able to relax and be refreshed.   It is wrong because it assumes that note-free preaching is de facto better than scripted preaching, that this is the epitome of how it should be done; it is not, some of the best preachers I know always use full scripts.  It is unrealistic because service preparation, at least in any church I've served, involves a whole lot more than sermon writing - hymns, prayers, all age bit, etc..  And it is impossible because, frankly, there just aren't enough hours in a week!

That said, to an extent, I follow a similar model most weeks.  On a Tuesday I will read the passages and any supporting material or commentaries I find useful or helpful - though sometimes a pure 'reader response' feels equally valid.  Usually I will try to get down some ideas and, if it's a busy week, a first draft.  Ideally I will note some ideas and leave them to mull in my subconscious overnight.  I like to have a full draft by Wednesday and am concerned if I don't have one by Thursday!  Most weeks, but not all, the draft will be refined and 'put to bed' on a Thursday, with enough time for final mulling and last minute tweaks, re-writes or whatever if needed.  I think I've only once still been working on a sermon on a Saturday; twice in my life I have woken up on a Sunday and known I had to completely re-write my sermon; a similar number of times I've abandoned my script and just spoken.  In each case, it was the discipline of preparing that meant it was possible to be flexible at the last minute.

So, a sermon is usually three or four days in the making, but obviously not the whole of those days.  And then there are the prayers to write or select, hymns to choose, interactive all age slot to develop, communion liturgy, blessing and so on and so forth.  So how long does it all take?

The answer is, how long is a piece of string.  And it is also related to how experienced a preacher is.

Choosing hymns/songs never takes less than an hour, and can take half a day, because it is important to me to get it right.  A balance of styles and moods.  Different purposes - gathering, praising, teaching, responding, praying, sending and so on.  Well known, or at least familiar, and new material.  Avoiding having the same songs every week.  Alertness to 'sensitive' hymns (those recently used at a funeral for exmaple).  Awareness of my own likes and dislikes (I am known quite regularly, if not very freqeuntly, to choose hymns I actively dislike!)

Writing prayers, or sourcing them on the days I feel devoid of inspiration (and begin to understand why RC/Anglican churches use the same words every week!), probably takes around an hour.  If it is my turn for intercessions - which it is roughly once a month - then that will at least double the time spent.  Now and then I'll do interactive intercessions which mean less time writing and more time thinking through process - asking the congregation to write, draw or symbolise prayers is not an easy way out, if done properly.

I usually create new communion liturgies ex nihilo to blend with the theme of the service.  Now and then I borrow or adapt them from published works, but even here there is the time to identify, read and copy (even electronically) the words I will use.  Probably another hour or so, maybe two if it proves more challenging.

If you tot up these times - and I have not specified the hours on the sermon, the 'all age' bit or the PowerPoint (my choice) it is clear that, even for an experienced preacher, with a fair wind and few interruptions, it's around half a day to formulate the service into which the sermon will be preached, and as much as three half days to create it.   I leave it to the congrgeation and the Holy Spirit to decide if that's ~15-20 hours well spent!  Sometimes it is longer.  Sometimes it has to be a heck of a lot less.

The other week, when I abandoned my script and spoke, I mentioned that two days earlier I had needed to give an 'address' at about fifteen minutes notice, and that frankly, if after 16 years of regular preaching, and 30 years of doing Girls Brigade devotions, I couldn't do that, there was something wrong.  At a push, I can write a sermon in an hour, pick hymns in ten minutes and pray totally extempore.

There are weeks when services are prepared in a hurry, when what I share is the first draft of something I didn't begin to prepare until Thursday.  There are weeks when, having stared at a blank screen day in, day out, I offer something I feel is inadequate.  And, yes, there are weeks when I feel chuffed with what I've achieved.

I recall the first time I came to The Gathering Place to "preach with a squint" in English-Baptist parlance.  As I prepared, it struck me very forcibly that it would be wrong, very wrong, to go all out to make this the best prepared sermon I could muster, with all the bells and whistles I could think of.  Wrong because it would not be sustainable.  Instead I deliberately treated it as a 'normal' preach in a good week... if my 'good average' wasn't good enough, then this was not the place for me, or I the minister for it.

Six years on I have preached a lot of sermons here.  Some I have been pleased with, some I felt were terrible, most have been around my 'good average'.

Service prep time has to be flexible - ministry is not just about the words spouted on a Sunday.  Sometimes it is the sermons I've toiled over, seemingly to no avail, or have thrown together in a rush, through which God's Spirit touches people.  Such is the mystery.

I wish I could speak to the young, inexperienced preacher myself and assure them that what they are feeling is normal, natural, healthy and mature.  I wish I could reassure them that it will get 'easier'.  But perhaps we have to discover these things for ourselves... and be given places safe enough in which to do so.

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