There Must be Something to Say

Today has been an on-and-off productive day for me. I'm going in spurts. On my plate for today is continuing to work on my sermon for Sunday and continuing to write my approval essay (a four-part beast of an essay to be written in these last stages before ordination that exhibits my preaching ability, my capacity for theological reflection, my integration of theological theory and practice, and my self-understanding as a person in ministry).

The sermon is an interesting challenge for me. I've been encouraged to preach without notes at some point during this internship year, and I've decided that this is going to be the Sunday. This, it turns out, completely messes up my process. I don't want to simply write a sermon and memorize it. Nor do I want to stand up and babble. I'm undecided, therefore, about exactly what to write up as I work on it. Do I write out a sermon manuscript and then focus on remembering the key movements to it (as opposed to memorizing it word-for-word)? Or do I make a general outline of key ideas and ponder them at length, and then preach extemporaneously on Sunday? I started this process by writing a number of pages of stream-of-consciousness thoughts on the texts, and have come to realize that not only do these texts lend themselves to at least 10 different potential sermons, but also that the texts speak quite directly to some of the current issues and conflicts in the congregation. This means that my sermon is likely to be frank and challenging to the congregation...meaning that it's quite challenging to me as well. How do I best speak honestly to the congregation's situation without coming across as harsh? How do I speak hard truths without being judgmental? How do I speak about controversial things in a non-anxious way? How do I assure the congregation that the sermon will take us to difficult places, but that there is indeed good news? How do I promise them that it's worth sticking with me? It makes "writing" an extemporaneous sermon difficult when you have to choose your words carefully. My only comfort right now is that if the words come out wrong, they congregation may just chalk it up to "she didn't have notes" instead of "she's being controversial." And if the delivery suffers, hopefully they will think "it's because she's talking about hard stuff" instead of "wow, that was a flop."

On the approval essay side of things...I'm analyzing and explaining a sermon I preached a few weeks back, and trying to get into a mindset to best talk about the themes of death resurrection that are addressed in the sections of the essay. I'm trying to gauge how much self-generated content they want and how much outside research they want. All of the questions could be easily answered without any need for outside reference, except that they want me to include some of that. So the challenge will be to figure out how much outside material to use, and how to use it in an appropriate, organic, helpful way.

I'm fooling myself into believing I'm being productive because I have both of the aforementioned documents open on my computer. I stare at them and they stare at me. And somehow that makes me feel like I'm working on them, even if all I can figure out to do is reread what's already there. Meanwhile, one of the women in the office made an incredible pot of coffee, so I'm enjoying that, and thinking about the birthday potluck we're having at lunchtime for another staff member, and looking outside at the blue sky, and listening to music that I've been meaning to get more familiar with, and contemplating how I can both preach and play flute with the jazzy worship combo on Sunday, and wondering if I'm going to have my supervisory meeting today since we had a long conversation yesterday about most of the things we would've covered today. My mind is all over the place, hence my being productive only in spurts.

But at least I have Microsoft Word open. At least I can pretend I'm getting a lot done.


  1. Chuck Campbell at Columbia Seminary (soon to move to Duke Div) pushes all his students to preach without a manuscript at least once. I did, and Chuck told me not to do it again;)

    He recommends preparing similarly in terms of exegesis and such, and to use a clear outline--especially your first time. Also, he recommends students use a page of outline/notes.

    I witnessed some fantastic sermons in his class given by students preaching without a manuscript for the first time. It was like they were freed to be themselves.

    Hope the experiment is a good one for ya.

  2. I've never preached without a manuscript. I don't see myself ever doing it either. My homiletics prof once asked if I've ever tried it, perhaps suggesting that I should, but I don't have the guts.

    But the first question he always asked the class after one of us preached a sermon to the class was, "Did you hear the gospel?" I think that even if you think you might be confronting the congregation with some hard words make sure they hear the gospel.

    As for your approval essays. I wouldn't sweat too much over them. Like, what, are they not going to approve you for ordination if they're not worthy of a doctoral dissertation? I found that once I left seminary I had to relearn how to write like an ordinary person again rather than an academic. I don't know but I'm guessing they want to read these essays and find out a bit of what you've learned and if your cut out to be a pastor but after years of interviews with CTEL committees (or whatever you might call them) they should already have a good idea.

    Good luck with the sermon. Don't sweat the other stuff too much.

  3. I like your last line...I can relate. Just passing through...