Sermon writing and preaching have become for me, and perhaps other ministers, something more than just another function of church life. It has become, in fact, a whole process of self-examination, spiritual growth and development. It is easy for me to devote six to eight hours per week to sermon composition, re-writing, and delivery. Some weeks it may drop to as little as four hours, some weeks it may take ten hours or more, but six to eight is the average. That may seem like too much to some, but not to me because I look upon it as not just another job — it is a whole process of individuation.
Individuation is a term, coined by Dr. Carl Jung to describe the process by which an individual goes through personality development, meditative self-discovery and spiritual growth. Individuation, Jung said, is a kind of alchemy. Alchemy, in Jung’s terms, is a form of churning and turning an idea over and over until it has developed into a worthwhile product.
One of Jung’s students, Dr. Ira Progroff, has developed a system for internal search which he calls The Intensive Journal. It is, in like manner, a process of individuation and self-examination through writing about the issues in one’s life. Sermon writing and re-writing is likewise very revealing of the kind of issues and ideas which are relevant to the author.
It is very interesting to look back over themes I was playing with several years ago and see how I’ve passed up some concepts and dismissed them as immature or inappropriate. I find it very revealing to see which issues I was struggling with years ago and still work on today. While sermon writing has always been a process of individuation for me it’s particularly true during the last four years, since I bought my first word processor.
What to Preach About?
The best advice I ever received about sermon production came from an old preacher on the occasion of his retirement.
“Preach to yourself,” he said. “Only under this condition will your sermon have meaning for others.”
While I read through the lectionary each week, I rarely use it as I find it necessary to preach on things I encounter in daily life — the ideas and problems I’m working on for myself and/or the problems people bring me in the course of a week — things parishioners and friends seem to be concerned with as primary issues in their lives. I do of course preach on seasonal themes and sometimes even find the lectionary topic relevant to the issues of the day.
A Week of Sermon Writing
I find sermon writing as a process extends throughout an entire week. The process begins on Tuesday and runs through the next Monday. I like to start at eight o’clock each weekday morning while my mind is still fresh, when it seems easier to contemplate new ideas, and before the phone starts ringing and other issues of the day begin to press upon me. Writing alone in my study early in the morning is not only a delightful form of self-discipline and meditation, I think of it as bliss. In the winter I start by building a fire in the fireplace, then fix a cup of hot chocolate or coffee. Now I pour myself into this work with delight. In a good week here is how the process works for me.
Tuesday — Research Day
Tuesday is for researching whatever idea I’ve been working on. With the aid of a Bible Concordance I begin by looking for appropriate scriptures and reading various scriptural interpretations. I then look up the key words I’m beginning to toy with in Johnson O’Connor’s English Vocabulary Builder. This book provides a complete etymology of all words in the English language such as forgiveness, persistence, etc. I might also want to consult an unabridged dictionary. I then begin to look for appropriate quotes on these topics: illustrations, stories, jokes etc. I then put the scriptures, quotations, definitions, illustrations, etc. into the computer and let it go at that.
Tuesday afternoon is my usual time for hospital and shut-in calls. As I drive around throughout the afternoon, I’m able to mull over the ideas I started playing with in the morning. In alchemical terms now is a time for cooking. Dr. John Lilly once refered to driving as the American Mode of Meditation. I couldn’t agree more.
Wednesday — The First Writing
Wednesday morning I call up the information on the computer screen and begin writing, moving paragraphs into better position, deleting sentences and adding new ones. As the computer keeps track of character count I know exactly how much I’ve written. I find that 9,000-11,000 characters is about right for the average 15 – 20 minute sermon, so on Wednesday I try to put in something betweeen 4,000-6,000 characters. Unless I’m feeling really inspired, I stop. Now, I continue to study these ideas as I go through another day of reflection, administrative work, driving and personal encounters.
Thursday — The Second Writing
With basic ideas in the computer, I go over whatever I’ve put on Wednesday, adding more ideas and fleshing out the sermon to my expected total of around 10,000 characters. This in essence accounts for the entire body of the sermon, but it’s not yet done. I now stop till Friday — again continuing to ‘mull over’ the ideas throughout the day.
Friday — Polishing
On Friday I review the entire sermon: polishing, correcting misspellings and grammar, deleting redundancies and unnecessary adjectives. I may also find myself adding new material while deleting the extraneous. Once this is done I have my secretary go over the material while it is still in the computer to provide for further text editing and proofing of grammar and spelling. She then prints out the sermon and makes a copy.
Friday is also my day for producing the worship bulletin which is done in the computer as well. Now that the sermon is fairly complete and I’m clear about what I want to say, I work out a service built around the theme of the sermon inserting into the order of worship some of the quotes I’ve gathered as part of the sermon, or perhaps some relevant poem or piece of scripture. I try to base everything — the call to worship, invocation, invitation to silent prayer, offertory invitation, offertory prayer — around the same theme. I can usually turn the opening paragraph of the sermon into a responsive call to worship and the last paragraph into a benediction. The worshippers really appreciate this as it gives them remarkable cohesion to the whole service.
Saturday — Practicing What You Preach
Saturday is the day I like to go over the sermon ‘out loud’ in the sanctuary, if possible with the microphone on. I once surprised a parishioner who ‘snuk-in’ to the sanctuary one Saturday morning and expressed her amazement that a preacher would actually be ‘practicing what he preached.’ I usually make some additional changes at this point — the material never looks the same in writing as it did on screen, so further polishing is now possible. If I can’t get into the sanctuary I have a podium in my office and use it for the same purpose.
Sunday — Delivery
Early Sunday morning I go over the text one more time before going to church. If a sermon is well prepared I never look at my text once I’m in the pulpit. At most, I look at the paragraph heads or read a quote. If I’m insecure, of course, the text is there, but, with the very best sermons I never look at the text. Sometimes, I think of pertinent material at this point and spontaneously add it along with the other ideas. If it seems I’m going too long it’s easy to delete part of the text.
After church on Sunday we have an adult discussion group which comes together to talk about the theme of the sermon. This is remarkably helpful as I receive immediate feedback from other people on ideas I was beginning to address. Occasionally too, inspiration for next week’s sermons arises as a result of this discussion.
Monday — Rewriting for Printing
If sermons are really ‘worthwhile’ then just preaching isn’t enough. First thing Monday morning I make the editorial changes in the text I discovered on Saturday and Sunday. Then I listen to the sermon on tape and add appropriate material which came up during the delivery on Sunday. I may also want to ‘bleep out’ jokes or other material which doesn’t work well or seems inappropriate in written material. This is then proofed again by my secretary — run off, pasted up and copied in booklet form for distribution at the next Sunday service, mailed to shut-ins, absentee members, and others (like my mother) who request copies of the sermons or are on the regular mailing list.
Sometimes if something seems extra good or appropriate I’ll also revise it and send it off as an inspirational piece for a magazine, or newspaper article. Now we’re back to Tuesday and a new idea.
Of course, I don’t always have seven days a week to devote to sermon construction. If that is the case, then some of the activities of Tues-Wed-Thurs-Fri get grouped together — but that’s the general procedure for a good week. It’s the ideal I like to keep before me, and when it works well I feel good. The use of a word processor also allows me to keep an accurate record of sermon topics, themes and scriptures. The old sermon barrel is now a handy diskette.
Each of us is at liberty to find peace and fulfillment however we will. For this minister, the process of sermon writing and construction has become an invaluable form of personal discipline, meditation and self-discovery. Over the years I’ve found it an ever deepening process. It is a task which I understand I must pursue. As a dancer must dance or a singer must sing, so must I seek to communicate what I hear — to write and to preach.
While all ministers may not look at sermon composition and delivery as a process of individuation, I find it a fun and meaningful way of handling this necessary task. I profit immediately from it and so, I feel, does my congregation. As we move into the twenty-first century and more and more ministers begin to use word processors, this method of self-discovery could become even more meaningful to them and consequently the people with whom they seek to share the gospel.

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