The Spiritual Discipline of Writing Sermons

by Christine Sine

Here is the last of the series of articles that was published recently in the MSA Seed Sampler.  You might also like to check out this article by Ann Voskamp on Journalling as a Spiritual Discipline

The following post is written by Mary Naegeli who has been ordained for 22 years and is a minister-member of the San Francisco Presbytery.  She is currently taking an academic break from weekly preaching to teach courses in Christian formation and discipleship, preaching, and missional leadership at various campuses of Fuller Seminary. She is also working on her Doctor of Ministry degree and hopes to be finished in late 2010.

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Many years ago, our pastor was asked, “Why do you spend 20 hours per week preparing your sermon, when you should be relying on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on Sunday morning to preach God’s Word?” The implication was that exerting the effort to research, study, and write during the week somehow hindered the work of the Spirit while in the pulpit. Our pastor replied with remarkable patience and good will, “Well, the way I see it, by giving 20 hours each week to sermon preparation, I am actually exposing myself to 20 hours of the Spirit’s inspiration rather than just 20 minutes.”

The spiritual discipline of sermon-writing involves daily spiritual exercises that get and keep a preacher in shape for that 20 minutes of heavy lifting on Sunday morning. It helps the sermon writer adopt new habits, skills, spiritual strength, and the mental tenacity required for the task to become second nature. The spiritual discipline of sermon-writing relies on other disciplines to feed into it as streams merge to create a river. Sermon preparation is a composite of silence, solitude, Bible study, meditation, prayer, journaling, worship, and practicing the presence of God.

Spiritual disciplines in general establish a living dynamic in which a person cultivates a relationship with God and receives the power to do the work God has assigned for the sake of others. Our purpose for being is not only to enjoy relationship with our Creator, but to act as God’s agent in the world and reflect his glory in ministry to others. Some pastors believe that sermon-writing takes them away from spiritual disciplines or that Bible study that is useful for preaching doesn’t “count” as “spiritual reading.” It is certainly possible to beat the spiritual value out of the sermon-writing process, but if one enters into the weekly preaching cycle to receive something personally transforming and helpful to others from God, then spiritual growth and strengthening is inevitable. One need not apologize for “using” Bible study and meditation to feed a sermon: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2Tim. 3:16). What is important, however, is our willingness to let that Scripture speak to us, correct us, shape our lives, and put us on the straight path. If we are not open to this life-changing dynamic, then whatever exposition comes out of the Bible study effort will be empty. Effective preaching on a passage or a topic does not require us to demonstrate personal perfection, but does rest on the spirit of repentance and openness of an in-process preacher.

As an example of this, several years ago during Lent, I preached each week on one of the “seven deadly sins”: pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, jealousy, and sloth. In speechless silence during my preparation for the sermon on gluttony, I realized that this topic was a sore spot for me. I asked God, “The sermon is this Sunday. How am I supposed to preach on gluttony if it’s something I’m so guilty of”? Through prayer, He led me first to confess and repent, make a commitment to practice new habits, and then out of that humility to preach honestly that this sermon was as much for me as for my parishioners. They were welcome to listen in while I recounted out loud what God’s grace could accomplish in my life in this area. You could hear a pin drop in the sanctuary, because what God was working in me was flowing out in power to the congregation.

I followed the same preaching rhythm for years, and I recommend experimenting with it. The first step, of course, was to plan ahead, and for the sake of my worship staff, I usually had sermon Scriptures and topics lined up at least four months in advance. I would take an occasional one or two days for silent retreat to read, ponder, and inquire of the Lord regarding possible subject matter. Once the preaching series was established and communicated to my staff, I would implement this weekly routine:

Like many pastors, I did not go into my church office on Mondays, but it was not a day off. In fact, I began the new sermon cycle on Monday mornings in silence and solitude, spending perhaps half a day exegeting the Scripture passage for the following Sunday, employing every tool available to understand the text as originally intended and heard. My work on this day was done when I felt I had mined the Scripture’s key points that could be carried forward to 21st-century application.

On Tuesday, I would share briefly with my staff the basic point of the passage as a way of practicing the link between it and our contemporary setting. Later in the day I would meet with the minister of music and worship, who would have designed a worship plan that would bring it to life. Our interaction was part of the discipline of accountability.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, days heavy with meetings and counseling, I had the habit of sharing one or more sermon points whenever appropriate. The informal feedback helped me to understand and appreciate the worldview and aspirations of church members. I discovered where my logic was flawed, or a choice of words was obscure or incomprehensible. Also during these two days, I was consciously on a God-Hunt, looking for analogies, illustrations, stories, or God’s interventions that would bring this Word to life. This discipline of alertness, or listening to God, helped reinforce the conviction that the upcoming sermon would be God’s Word to us, not my word to my congregation.

Friday was spent at home again, crafting the text of the sermon itself. I usually spoke from an outline, which allowed me more time to prepare the preacher and less time focused on a paper. The writing discipline itself is more “work,” but not burdensome if preceded by private worship, a long walk, and an out-loud declamation of the Scripture text. When I got stuck, I would go out into the garden for ten minutes of weed-pulling, fruit-picking, or watering. Good ideas greet me under those conditions.

Saturday was reserved only for sermon-delivery practice, but otherwise, the day was a non-work day.

This weekly cycle fed me spiritually, allowed the development of godly habits of study and meditation, thinking and writing, attentiveness to God and others, and perseverance. However, my limit was preaching eight weeks in a row, and then someone else would be scheduled to preach simply to give me a Sabbath rest. This pattern was sustainable for years, because the discipline of sermon-writing became a key ingredient in my faith as a way of life.


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