Rev. Victoria Weinstein is a Unitarian minister, and she put a bunch of tips on how to write and deliver a sermon on her blog, PeaceBang. Although there are probably some things that don’t translate perfectly to the land of the d’var Torah, there are a lot of good thoughts in here, so for those of you who give over a little vort now and again–or for those of you who might ever want to in your minyan or community–you might find this of interest.
Speaking personally, I’m not a fan of writing out drashot that are shorter than 15 mins (and 5-10 minutes strikes me as plenty of time to say something smart on your average Shabbos morning, but every community has its own standards. And really, if you’re well-prepared and your thoughts are tight, you don’t need notes (save maybe the quotes/prooftexts you plan to use) for something that’s that short. But that whole well-prepared thing? Not optional.) But really, everybody works differently, and some of the best drashot I’ve heard have been written out and some of the worst I’ve suffered through hearing have been with no paper in hand, so I guess the most important thing is to find a method that works for you–written, not written, in outline form, whatever. Anywhichway, Rev. Weinstein’s got some good advice here for people trying to get their drash on:
? What sets your soul on fire? What insights do you want to explore, explain and share that will minister to the congregation? What stories and illustrations will communicate your message?
? Draw from your life. Good sermons come from real-life questions and struggles that have application to our relationships, our work and our inner growth. Lengthy theoretical musings and esoteric expositions have their place, but it is not in the pulpit.
? A sermon is a conversation that only appears to have one participant. In fact, effective preaching is grounded in community and relationship: it is not “what I think that you should hear/listen to” it is “what we all struggle to understand/deal with/do better that I have deeply reflected upon and humbly offer as a gift of insight to the beloved community this morning.”
? Write what you know; avoid what you don’t know or subjects that are so big that they require a lot of research (I write “big research” sermons six to ten times a year, and they are extremely time-consuming).
? A sermon usually takes an entire day of writing to prepare, and then some. Give yourself at least eight hours, preferably with some time to leave the sermon and go back to it for editing.
? It helps to know what your conclusion will be before you begin.
? Write simply and clearly. When you go back to edit, edit for clarity. “What am I saying here?” If you don’t know, the congregation most certainly won’t either. Keep your vocabulary accessible; if you’re digging into Roget’s every other sentence, you’re writing an academic paper, not a sermon.
? Organize your thoughts. Don’t take the congregation on a whirl-wind tour of your thinking process (eg, “And I should have made this point earlier…”). Figure it out before you put it to paper.
? I spend as much time stopping to think about what I am writing as I do writing. It’s okay to stop and think.
? Use stories – give the listeners something they can envision in order to make your message more effective. As the old adage says, “Show, don’t tell.”
? Have one major message and support it with two or three major points. Not more.
? Some sermons may end with “amen,” but they absolutely don’t have to. In fact, they are far more interesting when they don’t.
? As a general guideline, my 15-20 minute sermons are 7-10 pgs. of double-spaced, 12 pt. font (Palatino). I recommend that you aim for 7-8 pgs. Shorter is better. I keep working to write better, shorter sermons but it’s a real discipline. The vast majority of my sermons wind up being 14 pages on Thursday night and get edited down to 7-10 pages on Saturday. Which means that on during a typical church year, I write 100-150 pages that get completely thrown out. Don’t fall in love with your every word.
DELIVERING THE SERMON
? Take time to transition into the sermon. The congregation should feel that the sermon is deeply connected to everything else that has happened thus far in the service. The way you move into the pulpit helps that to happen.
? Center yourself physically in the pulpit before you begin speaking. If you want to use the stepping stool, make sure you’re comfortable on it.
? Thou shalt not fiddle excessively with the microphone.
? Move pages from right to left with your left hand as you read rather than flipping them over; it’s quieter and much less distracting.
? Print in big enough font so you can see the page easily.
? Avoid sarcastic or unthoughtful “asides.” They are usually impossible for most people to hear, and they come from nervousness and detract from your message. Preaching requires self-control as well as careful preparation.
? Make sure you know how you will transition out of the sermon.
? Know that the congregation is very supportive of your efforts and appreciates your courage in preaching to them. Let their care and energy fuel your delivery.
? Make eye contact, but don’t stare at anyone in particular.
? SMILE!!! Seriously, smile! If not with your lips, then with your eyes. Preaching is a gift of love. If you look like you’re going before the firing squad, the congregation will be very concerned for you and will not be able to focus on your words.
? If you stumble or find yourself misspeaking a sentence or word, simply say, “Excuse me” and start over. If you lose a page or find that the computer has failed to print out a sentence or two, stop, excuse yourself, and explain that you are missing part of your manuscript. Do the best you can to summarize your point, and move on. Vent your anxiety later.
? Embody your message. Do you care about what you’re saying? We should be able to see that in your physical presence and hear it in your vocal inflection! Many a beautifully-crafted sermon has been murdered in the cradle by zombie-like delivery.
TO AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE…
? Sermons are not book reports. You may choose to use a book or play as your main illustration (not as easy as it looks, by the way!), but do not preach a sermon that is a series of highlights of a book you liked.
? Sermons are not free therapy for the preacher, so don’t preach on emotional subjects from which you have no distance and have little or no objectivity. Avoid over-sharing, blaming, or “dumping.”
? Keep your subject broad enough to minister to the gathered community in all its diversity. If your sermon is extremely narrow in focus (“How I Found True Spiritual Peace Through Gardening”), work with your liturgist to make sure there’s a broader spectrum of human emotions addressed in other parts of the service.
? Sermons are not “talks” or lectures. They should minister to people, not merely inform them.
? Rehearse your sermon at home and at church. Deliver it more slowly than you think you need to. And then slow down some more. Breathe. Let people have time to absorb what you are saying.
? Speak up. Even with the microphone, you must project. Do not mumble, do not drop volume at the ends of sentences. Consider recording yourself before you preach; it can be very helpful in identifying vocal tics or deficiencies you’d like to correct before your Sunday in the pulpit.
? Avoid flashy earrings or distracting ties.
? NEVER APOLOGIZE for your sermon. DO NOT begin a sermon by saying how unworthy you are to be there, and (during sabbatical) do not invoke the minister unless it is to quote him/her.
? NEVER begin a sermon by describing how hard it was to write the sermon, how nervous you are, how little sleep you got last night, or talking about “what I was going to preach about before I changed my mind and came up with this.”
? Never use someone else’s life as an illustration even anonymously if they might be recognized by any member of the congregation; always obtain permission from anyone you will be mentioning by name.
Remember that when you stand in the pulpit as a preacher, you stand in an ancient and honored tradition. Enjoy it!
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. — Psalm 19:14