Sunday, January 8, 2012

Without Notes (Preaching)

When I took the required basic class in homiletics (preaching) at seminary, I ended up with a professor whose highest priority was that we memorize our sermons.  So much to talk about in homiletics:  choice of text, exegetical work, theology, congregational demographics and circumstances, delivery . . .  and what we talked about, endlessly, were techniques for memorization.  

For me, a person whose ability to memorize anything was almost completely depleted decades ago, that approach meant that I wrote my two assigned sermons as fast as I could so that I would have as many days as possible available in which to memorize them, and that my delivery was uninspired at best, heartily sick and tired as I was of what I'd come up with.

Unlike most of my classmates, I completed my field ed assignment during my third year of seminary, after my homiletics class was behind me.   My supervising pastor has a doctorate in homiletics and, while our styles differ considerably, he offered me some excellent advice.  He was generous in his compliments about my writing, but he said that it was more appropriate to the page or computer screen, and sought to convince me that a sermon is an oral rather than a written event.

I knew that he was right, but I didn't know what to do about it.  His style is energetic and exhortative; mine is quieter and more reflective.  How would I turn the latter into an occasion of oral communication?

I can't say that I've made much effort in that direction, but it's certainly come to my attention that many of my favorite preachers preach without notes ~ including at least one person who always writes out his more academic presentations and more or less reads those.

And, very gradually, I've found myself less and less entranced by my own sermon writing, and more interested in connecting on a deeper level of communication with the congregation.

The final nudge came when I talked to someone at the Presbyterian church my brother and his wife have been attending. It's grown dramatically in the past few years, and I asked the lady in question what she thought the reasons were.

 "Oh, it's Pastor K," she exclaimed.  "He's so charismatic, and he remembers every single name."  Well, that leaves me out, on both counts, I thought.  "And he preaches without notes; it's as if he's having a conversation with you," she said.  Hmmmmm, I thought.

So I'm giving it a try. It turns out to have nothing much to do with memorization, at which I am very bad, and quite a bit to do with conceptualization, at which I'm more or less ok.  

I used to research and think quite a bit about my weekly sermon in big chunks of time until Thursday, at which point I would sit down and write most, if not all, of it down.  I might tweak it a bit over the next couple of days, but on the whole it was a finished product by Thursday afternoon.  And while I certainly didn't read it from the pulpit, I placed a lot of reliance on that manuscript placed securely in front of me.

Now I'm trying a new approach.  I start to write in my head as soon as I start to read.  All week long, I re-think, re-read, re-study, re-illustrate, and re-organize in my head.  On Thursday I write an abbreviated version, and then I proceed with what's going on in  my head and heart.

There's nothing much to memorize, because it's more of an internal dialogue with myself, and I'm keeping track of the conversation all week.  I don't need any cool techniques oriented to brain-functioning; I'm using the same skills we all use to remember our conversations and ruminations in general.

Now . . .  I've only tried this for real a couple of times, and chickened out a couple of times more.  But the response is so gratifying that I'm feeling motivated to keep working at it.  I think that if I counted the hours, this approach probably takes a lot more time ~ but when Sunday rolls around, I feel as if I am immersed in an ongoing experience of the text rather than producing a frozen-in-time explication.  I have to let go of my attachment to the perfectly worded phrase wrung from hours of consideration  and revision.  But I feel much more free to make alterations as I go, whether based on things that have come up in the congregation during the week, or on thoughts that occur to me as I'm speaking.  And . . . when I speak without notes, I'm able to leave the pulpit behind!

I used to wonder what pastors meant when they referred to the Spirit at work in their preaching.  I'm thinking that this new engagement with the spoken word might be what they're talking about.

Check back in six months, and we'll see how it's going.      

Image: None of the above means that I am immune to the allure of a pulpit in the sky.  This one is from Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg.


  1. Robin, I gave an all-ages message today with only an outline on my Kindle, which for me is the equivalent of working without a net. I'm going to reflect on that experience on my blog and will come back and link to it when I'm done! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your process.

  2. I was wondering, since you said last night that you had an outline. I'm eager to read your thoughts.

  3. I spent a couple of hours in a Presbyterian church today, which has an amazing pulpit...and wondered how your preaching had gone today! I tend to ruminate and write my columns in my head until it's ready to hit paper. I'm still trying to find ways to lift my voice off the paper, but don't get as much practice at is as you do. Next retreat is in March...

  4. The thing I most remember, and which most impressed me, about Pentecostal services was the 45-minute sermons given completely off the cuff. They had a way of emotionally (maybe too much so) connecting with the audience. Wonder if they learned that in "pentecostal preacher school" or if they simply had the talent (or the Spirit...)

  5. This makes me smile, hearing the process of change which sounds joyful

  6. You all are giving me courage to creep off manuscript preaching, and I'm thinking that Martha's Kindle method would give me the safety net to feel more confident. I tend to wander anyway, so I wonder where I could take us all on the unscripted sermon journey, and if we could find our way back!

  7. Yesterday, I put my notes on the pulpit lectern and then walked down to stand in front of the congregation. I decided that if I drew a complete blank at some point, I would say something like, "You know, I have a plan, but I've forgotten it!" and then walk back to the pulpit. My congregation would be fine with that.

    I did work hard to fix the ending in my head -- not the exact words, which would have been hopeless, but the idea -- so that I would be able to get us there, although possibly by an unintended route.

  8. I'm so happy for you. I grew to hate preaching from the pulpit because I could connect so much better from the front and I couldn't move in the pulpit.

    I also found that with concentration I could remember everyone's name. I did ask that they correct me if I got it wrong. I'd sit down with a photo directory or a membership list and put names and faces together. I still won't remember your name if I don't take a few hours to do this.

    See you Thursday!!!!!

  9. I have failed to do anything other than write up the message, ish, but in short, it seemed to go well. I boiled what I would call a sketch with numbers down to a numbered outline, and I used that as a guide, making at least one change along the way that I did not forget in the midst of things (one of my fears). I had the advantage that I was conversational with children, which people tend to like, but I think I could do this again.
    I actually don't feel constrained by the pulpit, and as a short person in a sanctuary that slopes downward, I'm not sure I'm doing people favors by preaching from the floor. I know I find it hard to understand what a speaker is saying if I cannot see his/her face. I seem to need to read the face as well as hearing the words. (Visual learner?) Anyway, it was the right choice for this day, but I don't feel so called to it that I'm going to give up writing manuscripts. :-)