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?!