Writing and Not Writing the Sermon

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

How do you procrastinate when you’re writing a sermon?

Most preachers experience some discomfort–even occasional agony–on the way from text and parish to sermon, and many of us avoid the difficulty in one way or another.

Maybe it’s not that you’re looking to procrastinate but that you’re trying to get unstuck. Continuing to sit at the desk and stare at a computer screen or a sheet of paper isn’t working. What then? What do you do? In this article, I’ll consider the benefits of “taking a break” from the preparation of a sermon and identify the breaks that seem to do good things for my preaching and those that don’t.

Based on a thoroughly unscientific poll, here are some common things preachers do when they are supposed to be “working on the sermon:”

  • Take a walk.
  • Clean the garage (or anything else).
  • Mow the yard.
  • Take a nap.
  • Read one more article on Working Preacher.
  • Check one more commentary.
  • Check email (for the twelfth time in two hours).
  • Eat.

I know about most of these not-writing practices from experience, and some of these ways of not-writing seem to be better for creating good sermons than others. When I read brain scientist John Medina’s book, Brain Rules,
I started to think there might be some physiological reasons why it seems like such a good idea to get up from the desk after working on a sermon for a while.

And Now, for Something Completely Different

In Brain Rules, Medina discusses twelve insights about brain function. The first rule is, “Exercise boosts brain power.” Research has identified increased cognitive function over a few months as a result of moderate increases in aerobic activity. Taking a 20-minute walk three times a week makes you smarter.

Moving the body (walking, cleaning the house or garage, mowing) during the sermon-writing process gets more oxygen to the brain. It also lets the brain do something completely different from reading and writing. For me at least, this has the effect of letting good ideas sneak up on me. I sort of “hear” my sermons before I write them, and exercise breaks help me listen better when I return to the computer. The cobwebs clear so when I sit back down to write, I recognize connections between texts and lives that I was too tired or oxygen-deprived to notice before.

Like anything else, exercise can become a way simply to avoid writing rather than recharging for the sermon. The four-hour bike ride on Saturday morning is probably bad stewardship unless Sunday’s sermon is done. But some exercise in between listening for the sermon is usually a good way to not-write.

Sleep Well, Preach Well

Another of Medina’s brain rules is “Sleep well, think well.” Our brains perform better when we sleep about a third of our lives away. All sorts of brain functions get worse when we’re sleep deprived. Medina comments that we do not really know what the brain is doing with all that sleep time, but we do know that it is very busy. Neurons continue to fire throughout our sleep cycle. It seems that the brain may be consolidating or processing what we have learned while we were awake.

Is this why many of my best ideas for the way a sermon should come together occur to me as I’m waking up, either from a night’s sleep or a nap? I don’t know, but it has happened often enough that I think it’s at least as much physiological as it is mystical. Trying to push through exhaustion to finish a sermon is counterproductive. For me, napping is as important to the sermon as reading is.

Enough is Enough

The other ways of not-writing are as popular as moving and sleeping, but for me at least, they are not as effective at inspiring the sermon. Usually, after I have started writing, I do not need to read another article, or check another commentary, and I really don’t need to surf the web or comb through emails in my inbox. There may be times when more “inputs” help the process. More often, however, these activities are likely to leave me more tired and more stressed when I return to actually writing the sermon because it’s no farther along than it was when I left it.

Eating is also a tried and true method of avoiding almost anything! A clergy couple I know has a house rule: when you are writing a sermon, you can eat anything you want and as much of it as you want. So, when one says, “Have you seen that bag of tortilla chips I bought yesterday?” all the other has to say is, “I’m writing a sermon,” and no further questions or comment are offered.

With this form of not-writing, as with reading, enough is enough. With a little reflection, most of us can recognize when we are crossing the line between nourishing ourselves and dulling our senses.

Break It Up

I used to believe that every time I wanted to get up from writing a sermon, I was just procrastinating. I thought that breaks from sermon-writing like those listed above were something that experienced preachers got past. They were something that disciplined preachers rose above. Now I think that many of these not-writing activities actually help the sermon-writing process. Breaking up the work is OK. In fact, it can help the work to be more productive.