When people find out that I’m a pastor, they often ask, “What’s it like to preach every week?” Now, as someone who co-pastors with my husband, I don’t preach every week. But, I do preach consistently every other week.
The short answer is that preaching consistently is very different from writing two sermons in a semester for preaching class. Preaching on a consistent schedule in the church I’m pastoring is also different from preaching consistently over the summer at the church where I served as a seminary intern.
Preaching in the church where I’m installed as a pastor is done as part of an on-going relationship with the people in the congregation – and even with the people in the wider community. The words I speak have to take into account that on-going relationship, and they carry with them all the love, trust, heartache, and joy of all of the experiences I’ve had as part of the community where I serve.
But, beyond all of that – beyond the shared relationships and experiences – I have discovered that there’s a rhythm to preaching, at least for me. I’ve been wondering if anyone else out there can relate, so I decided to share.
After more than 8 years of consistent preaching, I’ve realized that there really is a method to the madness. The fact that the method exists brings comfort to me, even though almost every week that I preach feels a bit more like madness than method.
So, here’s what happens when I preach:
1. About a month in advance (though two or three months ahead is preferable), I sit down with my Bible and the Lectionary texts and select a main Scripture passage for each week.
Since my husband and I pastor as a team, we usually do this together as we discern the bigger picture – themes, a possible series, etc. For seasons like Advent or Lent, we will occasionally move away from the Lectionary and do something topical.
At this point, we select the focal passages for the next month or so and basic themes to go along with those passages. This is the ideal. In exceptionally busy seasons, we may find ourselves selecting Scripture passages from week-to-week, but that makes for frantic sermon preparation. Not my favorite way to go, but sometimes it happens.
2. On my off-week (two weeks before I preach next), I re-look at the upcoming passage.
One of two things happens when I do this: 1) I wonder what on earth I was thinking and am convinced no one in the history of the church has ever preached anything helpful on this passage, or 2) Get excited, think of several connections or possible directions, and look forward to digging into the original languages and some commentaries. Occasionally there is a third reaction: “Please, Lord. Why? Why do you want me to talk about this?”
Number three usually leaves me feeling on the verge of sickness every time I think about it.
3. The Monday before the Sunday I am preaching, I read the Scripture passage several times and pray.
At this point, I usually feel overwhelmed by the task ahead. And humbled. And in desperate need of God’s guidance and direction.
I read the Scripture passage several times early on in the week in an attempt to hide the word in my heart. This helps me to have the passage at the front of my mind everywhere I go. I’ve been amazed by how this has helped me be able to make connections between the Scripture passage and the goings-on of the week.
4. I read the Scripture passage(s) in community.
Every week, early on in the week, I get together with a group of pastors and discuss the Lectionary texts. This has been so helpful to me that I have made a point of attending even when it isn’t my week to preach. We read all of the Lectionary texts together, discuss the readings, and listen to how the Spirit has been leading each of us to approach the sermons for the week.
My favorite discussion sessions end with me chucking all the ideas I brought to the study session because my eyes were opened to things I had totally missed when I read the passages on my own.
5. I sit down on Thursday intending to write the sermon.
Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t happen because life and ministry get in the way. Other times it doesn’t happen because the sermon’s just not ready to be written yet. On very rare occasions, the sermon practically writes itself.
I’ve come to realize that the act of sermon-writing is a lot like childbirth. You can do everything possible to prepare for it, but at the end of the day it isn’t up to you.
6. The writing of the sermon varies every week.
Sometimes the Spirit rushes and the sermon is written in mere hours. Other times it is Saturday night and I’m panicking because it feels like it will never be finished. But it happens every single time. Every week, the sermon is finished when it needs to be, and the word is ready to be shared.
7. On Sunday morning, the sermon is “done,” but it isn’t finished.
Even though I’m a manuscript preacher, I’m not tied to what I’ve written. Sometimes in the middle of a sermon, I realize that what I’ve written isn’t what needs to be said. The sermon changes as it is being given, which makes it clear to me – every single week – that the sermon isn’t my word to the people.
Humbling. Terrifying. Amazing.
I often have people tell me I don’t seem nervous at all on Sundays, but truthfully my knees are shaking and my feet are slipping in and out of my shoes behind the pulpit the whole time. I’m convinced that solid wooden pulpits were created, not merely as a place to set the Bible and sermon manuscript, but as a way of concealing how the knees of the preacher were knocking together.
*8. The after-sermon.
There are two parts to the after-sermon: 1) my internal monologue after preaching, and 2) any reflection the listeners might be doing on what was said.
I have found that my internal monologue is a terrible gauge of the sermon. Quite often when I feel lousy about the sermon, someone will tell me it was exactly what they needed to hear. My favorite sermons to write often receive little or no feedback at all.
I also have to remind myself that while I’m reflecting on the sermon – if I delivered it well or not – someone else might be reflecting on the sermon very differently.
Somewhere within the madness of preaching there is a method – an unpredictable and variable one, but a method nonetheless. Preaching has taught me in a way that nothing else ever could that I’m not in control, it’s not about me, and God will equip the people God calls.
Are you a preacher? Do any of these resonate with you?