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Preaching sans manuscript? Take note!

Preaching sans manuscript? Take note!

On her blog Until Translucent (how odd and fun is that for a name?), Episcopal priest Beth (@Beth_May) speaks of a recent decision to experiment with non-manuscript preaching after years of working pulpits with a manuscript in front of her. So far the experiment has lasted for six months.


Beth makes some careful distinctions about introverts and extroverts along the way. Now for some this will just be inside baseball, but for any preacher who has ever slaved over the question of whether to preach without a manuscript or notes, some of this is bound to come off as pretty relevant (or at least did for me).

… 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.)

None of which is to say Beth hasn’t found plenty to appreciate about the considerable (and considerably different) process of preparing to preach sans manuscript. But if I quoted her in her entirety – which I am tempted to do – you wouldn’t link over to her blog, and that’d be a mistake. This much, though:

…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.

I invite your thoughts about which means of delivery you have preferred or found most effective in your ministries over the years; or, if you have been the recipient of such work, which kinds of communications you have personally found most effective.

Last note: I vaguely recall an Alban Institute survey from at least a few years ago in which congregants were polled about the various preaching styles and means of delivery. One major learning was that churchgoers were willing to grant enormous latitude to preachers so long as they felt there was something of genuine benefit that would come from the sermon and help them along the way in their lives in God. Perhaps that’s the never-changing principle and really at bottom everything else is just a matter of preference.

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Evan D. Garner

Great post. I love seeing the inside of someone else’s process of moving away from a manuscript.

About 3 months ago, I was asked to preach at a conference that had as its theme, “Stories God’s People Tell.” It seemed artificial for me to get up and read from a manuscript. So, after writing everything out, I left the text back in my room and preached as best I could from memory. I liked it and haven’t gone back since.

Actually, I began as a preacher who didn’t use notes, but my seminary field-ed supervisor required that I write everything out. I was a reluctant convert from no-notes and quickly became a slave to the text.

This recent experiment, which has continued in my own parish pulpit, has brought strong favorable reviews from the congregation. I still write everything out–every single word. And, like Beth, that’s where my creative process unfolds. But then I leave the text in my office and preach with nothing but the scripture text in the pulpit. Scary but invigorating for both preacher and congregation.

Jim Pratt

Like Beth, I am a very strong introvert. However, I rarely preach from a manuscript.

Part of this is having started my ministry in a rural, multipoint parish. Standing in a high pulpit preaching to a congregation of 6 (my smallest point) felt awkward, and I quickly honed a style preaching without notes from the floor. The people really appreciated what seemed to them to be a very familiar, conversational, down-to-earth preaching style.

Now having moved to a larger parish, I have to preach from the pulpit (because of sightlines and the antique audio system, and now we are experimenting with videotaping the sermons for web viewing). But I still preach without a text, and maintaining eye contact with the people is a big part of it.

That’s not to say that the writing process is unimportant. During the week, I will often revised my outline 2 or 3 times, running the sermon over and over in my head; and usually after hearing myself preach it at the 8:00, I will add a few refinements at 10:00. I’m not sure that if I wrote out my sermon that it would go through so many revisions.

Recently, I have been preaching occasionally in French, at weddings or the daily Eucharist at our cathedral. On such occasions, I usually do write the sermon out, so that I can be sure I have the grammar and phrasing right. In those cases, I find that the sermon has often evolved in my head after I typed it out, and frequently I find myself scribbling notes in the margins just before the service, or adding to it as I speak. Putting the sermon on paper could easily be a way to stop the process of my reflection and engagement with the sermon.

Rod Gillis

Found the last paragraph of the piece as posted here the most insightful.

“churchgoers … grant enormous latitude to preachers …[when] there was something of genuine benefit that would come from the sermon…everything else is just a matter of preference.”

Preached week in and out for 35 years without a manuscript. I imagine its kind of like jazz, play around and improvise, as long as you know what you are doing in the first place. What my preaching did strive for was critical exegesis and pastoral application.

Not so hot on the introvert extrovert delineation. there was a time when I would eat that stuff up; but these days when someone says “I’m an introvert” or “I’m an extrovert”, they may as well be saying “I’m a Capricorn”. Besides, what about the “performance extrovert”, i.e, normally “introverted” but extroverted on a public platform and then collapsing like a Cheetah afterwards?

So, minus the psycho-babel, a very interesting article.

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