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You've heard the stories about preachers who prepare their sermons well in advance. They take an annual study retreat for several days and map out sermon titles and outlines for the coming year. They return home with Manila file folders neatly labeled by date, title, and sermon text. This system allows them the freedom to spend the entire year collecting tidbits and stories, which they copy onto letter-size paper to fit neatly into the folders.
Prior to each liturgical season, these creatures of mammoth homiletic responsibility enter a second stage of study. They examine the coming Sundays and reflect on how each worship service will flow. Then they send memos to the church musicians, suggesting themes for the morning anthems.
Finally, a full week before it is preached, the finished sermon is in publishable form. This allows the preacher a full seven days to commit the manuscript to memory and make a scant pulpit outline-just in case the need arises, which it seldom does.
At 10 P.M. on Saturday evening, these preachers crawl into bed for a good night's sleep. The next morning, they rise early, eat a balanced breakfast, review the sermon one last time, and then head for the church, confident that preparation is complete.
These preachers never miss a bulletin deadline, and thereby never incur the wrath of the church secretary. They are never at a loss when a parishioner asks, "What are you preaching on next week?" They bask in the calm of a task under full control.
These preachers are the bane of my existence.
Perhaps I find them so annoying because no matter how far ahead of time I select and exegete the sermon text, no matter how long I allow the passage to simmer in the creative soup of my psyche, I simply will not begin actually writing the sermon until it is on the verge of being too late.
Don't misunderstand me. I once longed to be like those preachers who have sermon manuscripts prepared hours and even days before they actually preach them. In seminary when I heard these legends, I'd fantasize that such stories would one day float about the library break rooms concerning me. When you get out of seminary, you'll write your sermons that way, I'd assure myself as I labored over a half-finished paper due in an hour and a half.
But, alas, I soon had to accept that such legend was not to be part of my destiny. That's just the way I work, I'd comfort myself. We all have our own style. Vive la difference! Live and let live.
I cannot tell you when my thinking changed. I don't remember the day or hour the awareness came. I suspect it was one of those realizations that, for a long time, treads water in the murky subconscious before crawling up on the banks of cognition. I only can tell you that one day I was able not only to glimpse but to articulate the truth: Those hyperprepared preachers-in the cores of their beings, in the depths of who they are-really wished they could be like me!
Like passive observers who watch safely from the bridge as adventurers, attached to giant bungee cords, hurl themselves into a chasm, these obsessive-compulsive sermon writers long for the courage of those of us who wait until the last possible moment to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard in sermon preparation. They wistfully ask themselves, What would it be like to feel that rush of adrenalin when it is 2 A.M. on Sunday morning and only the introductory paragraph has been coaxed into existence?
They wonder, but wonder from afar, painfully aware of the bonds of their own annoyingly responsible approach.
My inclination is to rescue these safe souls. Perhaps we should pepper our journals with intriguing titles such as "Seven Steps to More Effective Procrastination in Sermon Writing" or "Manuscript Preparation after Midnight Saturday: Not for the Fainthearted."
As helpful as these titles appear on the surface, however, they probably would serve only to frustrate the compulsive preparers who have grown accustomed to (and even been reinforced for) their own style of sermon writing. Humans rarely are motivated to change behavior that works for them.
Even if preachers are properly motivated for change, the long-term success rate of such a conversion is doubtful, since one's approach to sermon writing often reflects one's overall style. Preachers who begin preparing sermons months ahead of time also mail their tax returns by the end of February. Before the first morning of their vacation, they already have decided where to spend it.
Such safely harbored souls seldom are able to make a genuine conversion to the homiletic adventure of procrastination. At best, they only repress their impulses to prepare in advance. When no one is around, eventually they sneak into their studies and begin a sermon for a text six months hence.
Given the considerable hindrances in attempting to convert the souls of timid preachers to a more adventuresome sermonic method, it seems appropriate simply to speak a word of grace. Even preachers who have their manuscripts prepared days in advance can be used by God's Spirit in the preaching of a sermon. There have been many practitioners of premature preparation who are yet able to establish adequate, sometimes even distinctive, preaching ministries. They should be encouraged. Of what possible benefit is it to cast shame upon them for something they really cannot change about themselves?
We all have different gifts, but it is the same Spirit. Some of us come to the pulpit with sermon manuscripts still warm from the creative oven, and others bring ones that have sat in the pantry for a while.
But however we bring them, we offer our sermons, trusting in "the power that works within us" and also, of course, in the power that works in spite of us.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
San Antonio, Texas
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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