"I'll just have to trust God" is the thought that came to mind yesterday, when in the vestry just before a mid-week Holy Communion service, I discovered I'd left my carefully crafted 'homily' on the printer tray at home. Grabbing a post-it note I jotted down 1 or 2 words. The resulting reflection was appreciated by at least some of its hearers. The Holy Spirit can use our mistakes, including our forgetfulness.
Some people can give a speech or sermon without notes. I'm not one of them. (Well I can, but I'd rather not - too frightening.) Some preachers prefer mainly to speak spontaneouly, trusting the Holy Spirit will provide the words. I'm not one of them. I'm not saying I don't trust God to guide, but I think that process needs to happen in the study as well as the pulpit. Apart from anything else, the sermon has to be preached and responded to by the preacher first. That's why sermon preparation can be hard work in more ways than one.
At the rehearsal before the service when I was ordained priest, Bishop Mike (now Bishop of Bristol) gave 'a charge' (a pep-talk) to us curates. This included the advice that we should write out in full the first 200 sermons we preached. This was good advice for me. Although he appeared to preach without any notes at all. Many years later I've long since past the 200th, but I still prepare a full script for a formal sermon. I take the final draft into the pulpit. I often depart from it to some extent, but I need to have it there as the default fall-back in case my mind goes blank. I've noticed that some of the preachers I most admire use the same method, so I'm not alone.
Here are some reasons why I persist with this method
- it forces me to think through clearly what I want to say
- it helps me to eliminate unnecessary words or obvious gaffes
- I know how long it will take and what time is available for spontaneous expansion or pauses
- I'm afraid of becoming tongue-tied or stilted if I rely on memory
- I once had a nearly disastrous accident on the way to church and was very shaken up. I would not have been able to preach without the script, which I could have given to a churchwarden to read.
Some arguments against this method are:
- Written language is different from spoken. I agree. I use spoken language style in preparing a scipt. I test it by speaking it (or imagine I'm speaking it).
- Sermons that are read are boring. I agree, if the preacher only looks at the scipt. Eye contact with the congregation is essential. I try to maintain eye contact with the congregation most of the time and just glance at the typed page to refresh my memory. I use large font, well-spaced, with key points highlighted. It works. It's similar to doing a reading in church. You have to work very hard and know the material well (in your heart as well as memory) to lift the words of the page.
- A written manuscript works against spontaneity. I agree that this can be the case and I admit that I like to feel in control. But on many occasions I have felt free to be spontaeous, when prompted by the Holy Spirit, my observations of congregation reactions, or tangental thoughts of my own creeping in. I am more likely to be spontaneous if I know I don't have to be if not so inspired.
Whatever method used, I don't think there's any substitute for thorough prayerful preparation. And I'd rather experience the sort of Sermon Block described by David Cloake in the study than in the pulpit.
Archdruid Eileen insists There is No Such Thing as Sermon Block, but she obviously doesn't suffer my public speaking fears. Or perhaps the Beaker Folk don't allow women anywhere near the pulpit?
If you preach or speak regularly in public, what's your method for coping with fear and remembering what to say?