On Leaving the Sermon on the Printer

Have you heard the story of the the young man preaching his 1st sermon? He mounted the pulpit, carefully placing the notes he'd spent so long preparing. Immediately a gust of wind blew his notes out of the open window. He laughed nervously and announced to the congregation, "I'm sorry. I've lost my notes. I suppose I'll just have to trust God."

"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.
For less formal sermons, or for 'all-age' or children's talks with lots of interactive activities, visual, auditory or object aids, I use a different method. I use key words or headings and only the opening and concluding sentences written out (or memorized) in full. I can do this because the activities, visual or other aids provide sufficient promts for me to remember the main message.

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?


  1. Ah, but my point was not against a pre-preaching feeling of sermon preparation difficulty. My point was that, nearly always, a sermon is still preached for all the crises that precede its production. As you seem to have proved with your combination of quick thinking and Post-it notes.

    We don't like to have a pulpit - too redolent of a hierarchical organisation. Instead we sometimes use the "preaching step". It's like the "naughty step" except that the "naughty step" is for noisy attention-seekers whereas the "preaching step" is.... hang on, I'll get back to you....

  2. Nancy, I'm with you all the way. I spend a lot of time on sermon prep, carefully working my way through my line of thought with particular language and style. I want it to be coherent and thought provoking. This won't happen for me without a script. And, too, there are times when too much is going on for me to be able to remember what I prepared. I believe the Spirit is with me in the preparation and study part and my responsibility is to give my best to my parishioners. Like you, I practice it aloud and I use large print and type in phrases so I can skim the text and look at people during delivery.

    I know that some folks can deliver wonderful sermons without a manuscript, but I am not one of them. I've had parishioners suggest that using a manuscript is inferior (they were used to a priest who did not use one), but I think that's a false distinction. I've also heard some rambling, disjointed sermons ... most of them from preachers without manuscripts. I think our people deserve better.

    Teaching, children's sermons, and short homilies at informal events are different.

  3. Thanks for the comment Archdruid Eileen and Penelopepiscopal.
    Archdruid Eileen - yes I had realized your point was about a sermon nearly always getting preached whatever the prior obstacles - sorry if I appeared to misrepresent your post. I love the idea of the 'the pulpit step' being like 'the naughty step'.
    Penelepespiscopal - I don't agree with your parishioners who think using a manuscript is inferior. It depends how you use it I think. I would probably ramble without it. I recently heard a supurb sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury - from where I was sitting I could see he had a full script.

  4. Another full script preacher here. There was a point part was through my ministry when I used to distil my full text into briefer notes, but I can no longer do this as my memory isn't reliable enough nowadays. Like Penny I use large print in phrases on A5 paper and have been told it doesn't seem as though I'm reading it, which is the aim. I can speak off the cuff (with thorough preparation) but not for a full formal sermon. People deserve better than my unscripted meanderings :-)

  5. Perpetua - it's good to know I'm not alone. As preachers we have a captive audience, so I think we should give the best we can by whatever means is best both for the preacher and the particular congregation. Some preachers do do best without a script or detailed notes, but not me.


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