28 February 2013

I was very interested by an article called Finding the Sermon in a Storyboard online at The Living Church. (It looks as if it's going to be about a technique, but it really isn't; it's about trying to grow as a preacher.)  The author, Patrick Twomey, talks about moving from preaching from a manuscript to preaching from a storyboard, and I've been going through a somewhat similar process as an experiment for the past months.

I am a manuscript preacher first and foremost, but I don't at all share his sense of being unable to take flight with a written text, and I don't see anything that leads me to believe that my sermons are lacking in immediacy (rather the opposite; in fact people are often surprised to hear that I had a text in front of me.)  However, I've nevertheless come to feel that I should experiment with the potential of speaking without a manuscript, based on experiences sort of like what he describes in listening to Thomas Merton teach:
("Even more than I had expected, he was absolutely riveting. My attention was completely fixed, my heart entirely captured, my mind in flames. And yet Merton is hardly a public speaker. He rambles, tells jokes... What he says, however, is consistently filled with power directly related to how deeply he understands the material he is teaching. Simply, it is Merton himself who is so convincing, Merton immersed in his material, Merton formed by what he learned in the school of penance, study, and prayer. I could feel the inner question, sense an address: Do you know what you are preaching?")

And so I decided to try it this year -- I hope my last as a supply priest who has no consistent congregation -- not to write out texts for the most part, and to see what I learn.

Let me clarify that when I was a rector I certainly preached without a text on many occasions, just as I did all kinds of other things homiletically to vary the experience for the congregation -- but it was with the mindset that this was "a talk," more casual, cleaner, simpler than a "real sermon." So yes, I can, of course, give an edifiying and organized talk on a lectionary text for 10-15 minutes without a manuscript, but what I want to get better at doing is really to preach God's Word to us for that week without a manuscript.

I'm only 6 months into it, and I don't supply every week. Thus my interest in Twomey's piece, and these reactions and additions:

For one thing, that question Do you know what you are preaching? has hit home for me, because I've found it's very true that one does not absorb one's own message as deeply if it is written out. One can't summarize it if questioned, can't get it back when looking at the same reading another time. It's not a question of superficial engagement at the time of delivery; I can't quite put this into words, because I preach from a pretty deep place with a text in front of me, but I can tell now that I indeed don't absorb content with a text the way I absorb it without one. I couldn't get to that deep place without the text most of  the time. To be able to go there without writing the sermon out requires "more, not less, preparation," as Twomey says. Way, way more.

For another thing, I have had to accept that I cannot get as much content into a sermon without a manuscript as I can with one. This has been very difficult to adjust to, because my pacing and conceptualization of a Sunday message are keyed to what I can get in when I have minutely calibrated control over transitions, repeated phrases, sentence length, image leitmotifs, and so on. Not one word in the sermon is there without a reason (well, not when I really get to do what I really want to do.) This style allows me to say a lot in 15 minutes. A colleague who's a great writer, but mostly an extempore preacher, once gave me this moving-compliment-plus-needling-challenge: "You're like the Chinese landscape painter Li Cheng, of whom it was said that he treated ink like gold." But without a manuscript, you just can't. There is no artistry possible at that level. Your actual verbiage is copper, shot through with silver at best, and you have to depend on the Spirit and your own engagement with the material and the people for any alchemy that happens. (So, is that better? It can be. Is it always, or usually? I'm not sure.)

And another: I am developing a theory that the whole role of writing as a preacher is simply different for introverts than it is for extraverts, especially the arduousness of preparation when there's no text. I'm a very strong introvert, which means that I have to process material inside, finish a thought, and only then externalize it in finished form. If I try to make myself process outside, to verbalize an idea there first, there is a strong risk of fakery, cliche, and garbage. Verbal improvisation to a group in public nonstop for a quarter hour is well-nigh impossible for me; everything has to be thoroughly thought through, and stopping myself from thinking it through by writing on screen is difficult. So far, talking it through out loud is the only way I've found, and that takes so long I can't imagine having time to do it once I finally find a parish.

Which reminds me: the writing process itself has been where I get converted. Week by week, it's that flow of words and ideas through my fingers where the Spirit moves in my life. If I were to stop it, I'd need somewhere else to get converted.

And another comment on introversion: Having a text or even notes to look down at gives you a second or two of respite, when you can duck inside your bubble for a moment and gather energy before re-engaging. This is not negligible. It is an awful lot to ask of an introvert, that s/he do the task of remembering the structure of a sermon, while presenting it verbally, and also remaining directly engaged with a crowd of people for 15 minutes straight. You are not likely to get the best from an introvert under those conditions. (I expect that this statement makes little sense to extraverts.)

However: I have had some very strong responses to sermons preached without a written text. I'm told my own passion about the Gospel and my own love for Jesus show through more, and that's got to be good. Also, there is a sense of engagement from hearers that is at least different than what I usually get with a manuscript. (More engagement? Not sure, but different.)

I usually feel somewhat irresponsible, since I am not as sure of what I said or if I conveyed what I wanted to say well. But that could be good for my humility, I guess. I also am very aware of not being able to file away enough sustained attention/energy to maintain the kind of control over pacing and gesture that I can do without effort with a manuscript, and this embarrasses me as a seasoned preacher. And of course, it seems well-nigh impossible to get enough objective feedback to be able really to weigh whether there is actually (and this is what I'm most trying to find out) consistent spiritual value in what happens without a text that is not as available with one. But I'm sticking with this experiment for the time being, at least.

And just one more odd fact to throw in the mix: despite all the above, I can do something fairly easily that I understand many clergy find extremely difficult: improvise a complete Eucharistic prayer (that obeys the rubrics) on the spot with no preparation in front of a crowd. Because I'm talking to God, not them, it feels completely different than preaching. So what's up with that?!


spirit2go team said...

This is a rich and fascinating reflection.

I write my sermons out word for word because I love the crafting that you allude to, yet I teach a seminary class off the cuff. But that's because of the space that can be created to interact, which can't happen in a sermon.

I've never thought about it in terms of introvert and extrovert though. I will keep mulling. I'd love to see how it ends up.


RuthG said...

Absolutely fascinating; I resonate so much with all you say, up to and including praying extempore and properly. I am also a strong introvert. Somebody once asked my husband, not as a criticism, just an observation, why I sounded so different when I prayed from when I preached; without a trace of rony his answer was "because when she prays she knows somebody is listening" "There is a profound - but unsayable, I find, - difference. I am really grateful for your identification of the introvert/extrovert difference. Thank

Anonymous said...

Some of what you write I resonate with some I thought, not so sure about that generalization. My preaching prof said when the sermon was written you weren't necessarily done because it still needed to get under your skin. I found that my process was reverse, it had to get under my skin and then I could write it, which meant writing much later in the week, sometimes staying up all night. I Am an extrovert with ADD and so talking thru an idea helps me process. 2nd to that is writing about it where folks are discussing Lectionary, hand writing my own brainstorming notes and listening to Lectionary podcasts. When I first started preaching I wanted the full text, part for some variation like using a refrain which requires fairly precise placement, but in retrospect partly as security blanket... What if I forget what I want to say? That same preaching prof made us preach once where we had to have a text and once where we could only have a notecard or outline. It showed that if you had to, you could do it.@loribythesea

Anonymous said...

Now I typically preach off an outline, but do my prep the same as when writing a full text. I read lessons, start writing down ideas, questions, even full sentences or paragraphs... Usually by hand because somehow this helps me internalize more than typing. Highlight commentaries then more written notes based on what I read or heard in podcast. Late in the week it starts to gel & I have a direction & can choose what to include & the order/outline. I write the outline, sometimes with more detail or sub points, but then I still need that security or reminders, so I highlight or number notes and stack them in order related to outline. Outline on my right, more detailed notes if I need them on my left. It's kinda goofy, but works for me. I still sometimes write it out (especially funerals) and then try to write conversationally for the Ear but don't typically preach it word for word @loribythesea

Beth said...

Thanks for all these thoughtful comments, everyone.

@Steve - nice to hear from you. (Are you coming to the 2nd U2 conference? it was so fun sharing a session in '09.) I do exactly the same as you describe - MS for sermons, off the cuff for teaching. Can't imagine teaching from a MS!

@Ruth - love "someone is listening." I identify completely!

@Lori - it's so interesting how we each need to find our own ways that work for us. Your system sounds very rich. And yes, your point that one has to write for the ear even with a MS is very true.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap said...

Thank you so much for these notions. They reflect and articulate to a startling degree the experiences of my decade or so of mostly-manuscript, syllable-for-syllable preaching.

You have also well encapsulated a period of a few years in which I though I was supposed to value immediacy of message above all. Truth is, a lot of my own gifts of preparation and writing went wandering in that process. Now that I have returned to a manuscript, it seems I am better used.

A random thought or two.

Experience has also taught that the more time I've been able to put in with folks, and the more folks see that this is the style with which I am most comfortable and feel most effective, the more willing they are to adapt in expectation, hearing, and response.

Those who participate by listening (for surely it is not passive sport) know that the manuscript, though meticulous, is more of a launching pad that invites points of departure no matter how well thought-through it may have been in the construction. I like to preach what's on the page in the way it seems to ask to be preached, AND I feel free to move to extempore if called to do so; or not. Sometimes what's on the page is precisely what needs to be said.

So long as whatever is said is the God's honest truth, it's a good day.

Beth said...

Thanks, Torey. I don't think it's quite so much immediacy of expression I'm after, as it is challenging my very established (and often defended to colleagues from the "stand in the aisle and offer some observations" school) 20-year belief that "the way the Spirit uses me best is as a manuscript preacher." I appreciate hearing from someone who has returned to MS preaching. (And, if I'm not mistaken, from the author of my favorite #rejectedGOEquestion, the all-day Holy Scripture set on "what number am I thinking of?")

Brother Tom said...

I write out my sermon, sometimes more than a week in advance (I preach every other week). I reread and revise it, sometimes 4 or 5 times. I even put the printout on the pulpit. But then I stand in the center of the aisle and preach what I remember writing and perhaps what just comes to me at that moment. Finally, I post the written version on my sermon blog.

I have found that I usually add something that hadn't occurred to me during the formal process, and I often look back at what I "forgot" to say with some gratitude to God for sparing my congregation a convoluted argument or an attempted proof that I really know my way around the Scriptures.

All in all, the comments that I have received are favorable, except that some feel that all sermons should come from the pulpit. Most say that they feel more engaged with me and with what I am saying when I am closer to them, moving about, and clearly not lecturing to them.

The only time I never preach this way is at funerals. There is not enough room, the deceased is the center of attention, and it is important to say a little that is very meaningful. (I also doubt that anyone remembers much of a funeral homily.)

Tom+ OPA