Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sermon Writer's Block

Here is the first thing you need to know: writer's block is not real. It is just laziness. Call a dog by its name and it is more likely to come.

Laziness, though not sloth, is overcome by work. That distinction is another post. But what work will overcome laziness? Not study. Laziness loves study. It goes like this, "Oh, I don't know what to say, so I'll read more." Wrong. That won't get a sermon written. A sermon gets written by writing. Just write. That is the work that needs to be done. That is the best way to overcome laziness. Vomit on the page. Clean it up later. Just write.

Along with this vomit technique, the other great secret, is this: lower your standards. Don't try to be profound or insightful or clever. Be simple. It is okay that you say nothing new. It is probably far better that you don't. It is also okay that you bore the hearers and preach in a formulaic way. The people actually need to hear the same thing over and over and over again.

If it is the right formula - "You're bad and should go to Hell. But Jesus died for you and forgives all your sins so you won't. Now He gives us His risen Body and Blood to enjoy a bit of heaven here on earth." - God be praised. The right formula, in and of itself, is a good thing. It is needed by the people - over and over and over again. Just because you’re bored doesn’t mean the angels are.

The right formula is good and salutary. Use it. Do not be ashamed of it just because you, or some professional bureaucrat in your congregation, is bored with it. I am serious about this: I am absolutely in favor of formulaic preaching. I do it, and I encourage others to do it also. Professors don’t like it. But they also don’t preach week in and week out, nor do they have the care of souls assigned to them, souls that are not in need of clever stories and great insight and hooks to keep them coming back or following along, but souls that need the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what they need. So give it to them – even if it is boring and repetitive and all been done before. Give it to them even if it isn’t “textual.” Just do it.

Here is a corollary: when you're stuck, and anyone who suffers the burden of constant preaching will get stuck, when you’re stuck: lower your standards.

So there you have it. Here is how to overcome sermon writer’s block and get done what needs to get done: lower your standards, stick to a formula, and vomit on the page. Forget the steps and processes you were taught in homiletics. That stuff has good intentions but was dreamed up by academics. It really boils down to just this: write.

And then relax. Go home early. Drink a beer. Sermon writing isn’t that hard. There is a promise in our work. In a sense, you can’t fail. The Lord will provide. He is present in the Office to the end of the age. Vomit away. God will sort it out. And even if you give them vomit, the Lord will save your hearers through the liturgy despite you.


  1. Excellent advice. That's basically what Anne Lamott says of thesis writing in "Bird by Bird." Larry Rast put me onto this book years ago when writing my thesis, and I wish I would obey it more often. Your words are exactly what needs to be done. I become too much of a perfectionist, not about the doctrine, but about the language. The sermon is going to be doctrinally sound, but it doesn't have to be a literary masterpiece every time. It needs to simply teach and proclaim the message of God's Word. Nicely done, and thanks for the reminder.

  2. Yes, write first, think later. (I believe the latter is the "cleaning up the vomit" stage.) This is helpful and encouraging counsel for writers who are blocked.

    And yet. Laziness is overcome by work, you say, but then effectively sanction lazy work--that is, by permitting, nay, encouraging the use of formulas. Can't help but read this post with the next and wonder whether such an attitude abets the weeds and cuts off the flowers.

    1. I think of, and practice, writing as a process. It may have been taught at the seminary in homiletics, but if so, I missed it. The formulaic sermon overcomes one of the excuses of laziness and frees us to write. Formulaic isn't the goal. But trying to not be formulaic almost always causes the writer to stall. So freeing the writer to be formulaic frees him to write. Once he writes, he can revise and polish.

      But there is something else here as well. The formula is structure. A five paragraph essay is the epitome of formulaic but is very effective. It delivers the goods clearly and efficiently. In my opinion, you cannot write a good essay unless you can write a good 5 paragraph essay. But once the 5 paragraph essay is understood and mastered, you can write far better essays, and there is still nothing wrong with 5 paragraph essays from time to time.

      It is a sign of our times that we hate the idea of formulaic. All the little girls outside the Avril Lavigne concert and all the snowboarders dress in the exact same way and think they are bucking the system, hating formulaic. In literature, structure is very important and useful. Those who think they are writing non-formulaic sermons rarely are. Mostly, they are simply like the concert goers - following a structure and model in ignorance.

    2. Thank you for your reply, Pastor Petersen. Since you mentioned it, let's go with "structure" as opposed to "formula." Of course, a formula is one kind of structure--our favorite one. But why should every poem be a sonnet?

      Again, I totally agree that, when one is "blocked," he should go to the tried-and-true, go back to that sonnet (or three-points-and-a-poem, or whatever). But you honor your subject when you praise it in so many different ways.

      So I don't think we're opposed. I'm an ardent supporter of structure and form (in poetry as in preaching). And you'll find that, nowadays, the homiletics department at St. Louis, at least, is as well. Tolle, lege:

    3. "So I don't think we're opposed." Of course. I never thought you were being hostile or argumentative. I appreciated the opportunity to elaborate further.

      As to the CSL site, that sort of complicated list of possible structures might have some value somewhere but I doubt if it is any help to a preacher stuck on Saturday afternoon. It is too many options, too much to think about. It doesn't encourage or help stuck writing.

      I think it would be useful for a finished manuscript. If a preacher had the luxury of time, he might go there and compare what he has to the proposed structures. Such a comparison might well lead him to revise in order to be more structured or lead him to consider an entirely different way, and more powerful or pointed way, of presenting his ideas.

      And now that I think about it, while I still don't think my homiletics profs at Ft. Wayne ever talked about writing as a process, they did give us Aho's book and Caemerrer's book which were chock full of elaborate outlines like the St. Louis site.

      Currently teaching at Ft. Wayne, Dr. Carl Fickenscher is very interested in structure, having written his Ph. D dissertation on sermon structure, but I don't think he teaches writing as a process in an overt way. It may be implied. I don't know.

      Perhaps I should confess my moonlighting job. I teach developmental English at Ivy Tech Community College. I think, the way we all do, I suppose, that my hobbies and other interests have applications and merit for the Ministry. I think a few English majors at our seminaries would be a useful thing. No doubt, they think otherwise.

    4. "That sort of complicated list of possible structures might have some value somewhere but I doubt if it is any help to a preacher stuck on Saturday afternoon."

      Not on Saturday, but perhaps on Tuesday or Wednesday. I can only speak from this preacher's experience, but I make use of them and find them most helpful, as do (I hope) my classmates who were so trained in the sermon-writing process. But as other contributors to this website are wont to say, Your mileage will vary.

  3. When I am having trouble writing a sermon I just keep writing first pages of the sermon and deleting them until I've written one that doesn't suck.

    Not sucking is the goal. It sucks if it teaches false doctrine, isn't textual, or confuses Law and Gospel. If it doesn't do those things, it stays on the page and I return to it when the whole sermon is done. Sometimes I can then move my sermon that doesn't suck to the point of being a sermon that is actually good.

    But not sucking still delivers the goods, so it's alright.

  4. > "You're bad and should go to Hell. But Jesus died for you and forgives all your sins so you won't. Now He gives us His risen Body and Blood to enjoy a bit of heaven here on earth."

    Thank you Fr. Petersen. You just wrote my sermon for Sunday.

  5. Dr. Fickenscher is absolutely process oriented. Homiletics 1, which I had the misfortune of taking from someone else, was all formula. He calls it the "Mental Matrix." Basic four part sermon with central theme, a clearly stated sentence with subject verb and object. You can guess who is usually the subject. Quote the Gospel throughout.

    It chaffed against my creative vein but after completing the Cage Rule (first 100 sermons stink), I'm coming around to recognizing the importance of the craft by formula. Plus, as you say, its inherently catechetical.

    That said, Fickenscher advocates writing a manuscript and preaching without it. His process is fascinating. It might be Petersen and Eckardt rolled into one. Now there's a mental image!

    (I should delete this whole comment vomit.)

  6. When I think of the most tried and true formula or structure that I have used over the years, it is this:

    short intro commenting on something that is provoking in the readings for the day
    move to and comment on OT
    lead to the Gospel reading
    perhaps a grace note on the Epistle
    tie back to the beginning question

    In it all, make sure that the Cross is proclaimed as gift and life and that the specific locatedness of the gifts is referenced. Use "you" preaching rather than "we" preaching - for both law and gospel.

    That's about it.

  7. First of all, Thanks to Fr. Petersen for this article - it is not only spot-on but sorely needed!

    A few (not so few) thoughts came to mind, sparked by this post. Here goes...

    We were generally taught at The Fort (I was in the class of 2004) that sermon preparation means an hour for every minute of the completed sermon (though my particular hom profs, Busher and Quill, whom I found to be brilliant and foundational, did not, as I recall, push this theorem). By this formula, the texts must all be not only read, but parsed word by word in Hebrew or Greek, and an exegetical study must follow. Commentaries and other sermon helps can be sprinkled in liberally (Luther is always a bit hit), then this is all run through the meat-grinder of Law and Gospel, and eventually out pops a sermon. And ideally this is all done by Wednesday so you can spend the rest of the week practicing it in the pulpit and memorizing it.

    First of all, no parish pastor (that I know of anyway) has the luxury of that kind of time. And even if he does, I think that time can best be spent elsewhere in the ministry (or in spending time with one's family).

    Fr. Petersen's advice to overcoming writer's block is absolutely right - get *something* on paper! You can make changes on the fly, and you might even - through the process of writing itself - find the sermon that is there waiting to be discovered. It may only take a few minutes to get the pump primed. You can't prime the pump in any other way!

    Stephen King wrote an insightful little text called "On Writing." I just reread it, and I thought as I was reading it that this should be required reading in homiletics. It will make you a better writer, and it will make you laugh while you learn. Get this book!

    Father Weedon's formula is almost identical to what has become my own approach through more or less trial and error.

    I like weaving all the texts together rather than writing only on the Gospel text (though sometimes I end up only preaching on one text). I try to make the Gospel text the foundation and weave the others in - but sometimes the emphasis might lie in the other texts. I find it helpful to also read the hymns, the gradual, and the introit and work phrases from them in as well - as well as liturgical turns of phrase. And if a line from Scripture that is not part of the assigned text suggests itself - use it! Also, keep in mind the books and movies and pop culture that people are experiencing, their concerns and fears from the news, as well as burdens affecting the parish as a whole. Think of how the texts collide with the world - the world of your hearers.

    Be fluid and flexible. Sometimes the sermon almost writes itself!

    I find that certain words from the texts jump off the page and beg to be focused on - especially words that pertain to healing, saving, and forgiving, and words that link Jesus to Old Testament typology. Sometimes the words that jump are ones you may not have seen before.

    I also recommend keeping in mind the church year. If it is Lent, hit the law harder (and the texts will help you do this). If it is Easter, hit the theme of resurrection harder. If it is Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, hit the incarnation, and the Trinity season is a kind of free-for-all.

    In the "polishing" phase, I fine-tune for clarity, grammar, as well as trying to tweak the language in a more or less poetic way - the rhythms and patter also confess and reinforce what we are saying. I use this phase also to constantly try to strengthen a connection to the cross, to the sacraments, to everlasting life, to the ultimate restoration of our Edenic state (which is, after all, the real point, isn't it?). After polishing, I do a mental read-through to see if any more polish is required.

    I also try to avoid technical theological jargon, but I also try to avoid dumbing it down. So there I go seeking a Golden Mean. Sigh. (continued...)

  8. (Continued...)

    I have found that the pressures of time have forced me to refine this process and become more efficient. Also, simply reading through these texts again and again (especially in the one-year lectionary) and in covering the scriptures through daily reading (our household has been doing the One Year Bible, read aloud, at the breakfast table for several years now) and in the normal preparation for teaching Bible class and confirmation - develops a kind-of sermon "voice" that streamlines the process. You see this in the church fathers who, without computers, preach exact turns of phrase from Scripture. Other "voices" will also eventually become part of the tapestry: Augustine, Luther, C.S. Lewis, etc. It is important to pray and study with dead Christians.

    So, if you are a newly minted pastor and find the going rough, hang in there! Sheer experience and time-in-grade won't automatically make you a better preacher, but cultivating the normal parochial duties that every pastor has will make you a better and more efficient preacher.

    The inspired texts provide an infinite number of sermons to be preached. Like Fr. Petersen says, you may say the same thing again and again (and you had better be doing just that!), but every time you engage the texts, you will see different seashells and gems as you walk this same stretch of the beach. Pick them up and see how you can string them together!

    I don't know how else to word this next piece of advice, but it helps not to see sermon writing as "work." Try to think of it as "play" - in the words of a book title (and I know nothing at all about what it is or what it is about) - "at play in the fields of the Lord." Play with the words, but in a way that you know that this is a deadly serious business. Be creative in how you say it, but uncreative in what you say. The Lord has your back. He called you and He ordained you. Pray for guidance and grace.

    He humble, but confident. Tell the same Good News over and over again; the Gospel is not complex. I know of a guy who has been in the ministry over a decade who still sends his sermons to sem profs and fellow pastors every week to vet them for erroneous doctrine. I don't want to be critical of my brother pastor, but I disagree with that approach. Take off the training wheels.

    Figure out what works for you. Unless you are a heretic, you won't preach false doctrine. Read your words carefully in the polishing phase to strike out anything that could be confusing, but don't preach like you are a vicar or seminarian in need of some kind of approval. If you really have doubts about a certain turn of phrase, just strike it or rephrase it. You don't need a Ph.D. from the sem to grade it for you.

    Yes, and read Gottesdienst! I try to put in a variety of sermons and preachers that illustrate different styles and approaches. We are blessed with a plethora of preachers in the LCMS who proclaim the Gospel. And if you really like a particular sermon you have preached or heard, please e-mail it to me. I am always looking for sermons to put in the print edition. God works through preachers, and they are all different. Be patient with yourself as you develop your own approaches and styles.

    I apologize for this stream of consciousness, and I guess I'll close the same way Fr. Weedon did: "That's about it."


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