I have heard a lot of pastors use the phrase “birthing a sermon” to describe what the process of writing a sermon is like. At first I thought this description was something only my female clergy friends used. But, I’ve noticed many of my male colleagues using this phrase, too. It’s actually a pretty great way to describe what happens when writing a sermon. So, I wanted to share 5 ways that writing a sermon is a lot like childbirth.
1. You can’t force it. As a mom who went overdue with both of my pregnancies, I learned that you cannot force a baby to be born. Well…you can if you want to get into surgical interventions and pitocin drips, but most of the time childbirth cannot be forced. Believe me, I tried. I tried every old wives’ tale (especially once I got really uncomfortable), only to go overdue both times. Even though Sunday morning is the due date for the sermon, you can’t make yourself write a sermon before the sermon is ready to be written.
Most weeks, Thursday is the day I set aside for sermon writing. I read the Scripture very early in the week, read some commentaries, do a lot of praying and reflecting. I plan to write on Thursdays. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Spirit brings the sermon about earlier. Other times on Saturday night I’m panicking because the sermon hasn’t been born yet. But, it always happens. And somehow, once it has happened, it seems like everything happened just when it needed to.
2. Every sermon is different. Even though there were a lot of similarities between the births of my kids, there were a lot of differences, too. I thought I was doing everything to prepare the same way both times, but each labor was different. Some sermons really do seem to write themselves. You sit down at the computer or with a pad of paper – or with a dictation device if you are really fancy like some of the pastors I know – and it just happens. The dots are connected and it all comes tumbling out. Other times, you feel inspired. You are excited. You have so much you know needs to be said. And then you sit down to write, and nothing happens. Nothing. Not a word. Get up. Pace the halls. Get more coffee. Stress out a little. Pray a lot. Beg a little. Go for a walk and look for the sermon in the leaves on the trees. Call a friend. File some papers. Back to the computer. Nothing.
Some sermons are born quickly, and it almost leaves you breathless. Other sermons…well, every single word was pain.
3. No amount of training can prepare you. You go to childbirth classes. You read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. You make a birth plan. And then labor starts, and it all goes out the window. You write three drafts of the first sermon you preach in your first call, and then you quickly realize that this is not sustainable. Between pastoral visitation, brief counseling, administration, and whatever else comes up, there just isn’t time. Plus, you realize that the language you learned in seminary isn’t spoken by anyone in your congregation. You get up to preach, and all you see looking back at you are blank stares. And, as my Christian Education professor Dr. George Brown once said, “An unresponsive audience robs you of everything you know.”
Training can’t prepare you, but you have been equipped for the task. Just like you can’t predict how childbirth will go, and just like you may end up needing interventions when you had refused the idea of them in your plan, you can’t predict what every-week sermon writing will be like. But, you’ve been equipped with everything you need to accomplish the task set before you. All you need is trust and adaptability…easier said than done.
4. Even though you’re terrified of it, you get to a point where you can’t resist it any longer. I remember when I was just a couple of months from my due date with my first child. Suddenly, I was terrified. I didn’t want to do this anymore. Could we just skip labor and go right to a newborn baby? But, the closer I got to my due date, the more miserable I was. The less sleep I could get. The less I even cared about what I would have to go through to have a baby. I needed relief. Right before we went to seminary, my husband had to confront his fear of speaking in public. Our preaching professor told us that more people are afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. But, when you are called to preach, there comes a time where you can’t keep it inside anymore. You have to preach – not because the idea thrills you (frankly, the preacher who is thrilled of the idea of preaching is a rarity, and usually not someone you should listen to anyway), but because you can’t keep your calling to yourself any longer.
5. After you’re done, you need a nap. Or an Aleve. Or for everyone to leave you alone for a month. Or a ham and cheese sandwich. Whatever works for you. After both of my kids were born, I wanted to eat a sandwich and then sleep for a week. Of course, a newborn baby really doesn’t want to let that happen, but it’s what you feel like you need. Writing a sermon and then delivering it is such an exhausting process that I have heard nearly all of my colleagues talk of the “Sunday afternoon hangover.” And we all develop our own ways of coping. Some have a non-negotiable nap every Sunday afternoon. Others are prepared with migraine medicine to ward off the crash that is bound to follow worship leadership. There are lots of ways to cope with the exhaustion and crash, but the exhaustion and crash will come. Every. Time.
It might seem strange to say you are “birthing a sermon,” but it’s really not that far from reality. So, if you’re preaching this Sunday, blessings on you! And, don’t feel guilty about that Sunday afternoon nap.