There is an old saying that if you aren't growing you are dying. I've been an Episcopal priest for almost 12 years now, and I have been actively preaching even longer. I felt in the last few years that I was getting into a bit of a rut--using the same catch phrases, mining the same themes, and, most egregiously, ending almost every sermon the exact same way. I wasn't growing as a preacher anymore, and my preaching was, therefore, in danger of dying on the vine.
I have recently taken a new call as the Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Fort Oglethorpe, GA. So, I decided to seize the new context as a chance to overhaul my preaching. It's equivalent to a long time golfer going through a swing change. While this is an ongoing process, like a golf swing I am starting to find a new tempo and trajectory.
Two new things in my preparation are sermon writing playlists and mind maps. On the delivery side, I am making a commitment to preaching without a manuscript or notes.
I actually started playing with this idea before I moved, but it's becoming more of a pattern and is beginning to bear fruit. During the week, as I am meditating on the scriptures--wrestling with them until they yield a blessing, to paraphrase Phylis Tickle--I keep in mind what music comes to mind. Then, on Thursdays, my sermon writing day, I compile those into a playlist that I play as I write. If very few tunes came to mind, I'll go searching for tunes related to the themes of the potential sermon.
I was a musician before I was a priest, and I'm still a Christmas and Easter trumpet player, so music stimulates my brain. This is probably true for everyone biologically, but for me, it is a developed phenomenon because of the decades of playing, listening, practicing, and performing music. I am finding that both building the playlists and listening while I write helps me form connections between the sections of my sermons. Thus improving my ability to preach from memory sans manuscript (more on manuscript preaching versus not below).
Mind Mapping was invented by Tony Buzan as a way of taking notes. It has a lot of other uses which you can read about on his site. Simply put, it is a way to draw an outline that is more organic than the traditional-linear-vertical outline. You start with a central idea like "Sunday Sermon" in the middle of the page and then draw branches for major themes out from the central idea. Then your draw branches off the branches for related ideas and continue to iterate as needed. You can also add images. My mind map for this coming Sunday, November 19, 2017, is at the top of this post.
I am finding that the more organic layout of Mind Maps, especially when using different colors and images, enables me to preach without a manuscript or notes. Now, there is an ongoing debate as to whether preaching from a manuscript is better than preaching without one. While listeners, of course, have their preferences, the fact is that you will find fantastic preachers who use a manuscript, such as Babara Brown Taylor, and those that do not. It's more a matter of context and which skills the preacher possesses. Nativity is a relatively small room and the pulpit is nondescript. Also, in the interview process, the search committee emphasized that they wanted a rector to "lead from the middle". Taking these things into account, I decided to preach exclusively from the floor instead of the pulpit while I'm here. I had been using manuscripts on a music stand but it felt stifling and constricting. Coupling that dynamic with my desire for a swing change I have begun searching for ways I can prepare to preach sans notes. The Mind Map helps me memorize the sermon because it is more visual/spatial. Consequently, by preaching without the manuscript, I am free to be more expressive and engaging. Babara Brown Taylor is successful as a pure manuscript preacher because her writing is so strong. But let's face it, very few people write on her level, and certainly not me.
Now, I in no way want to suggest that my methods are how others should do things. My hope is that folks are encouraged, if/when they find themselves in a preaching rut, to change their methods of prep and delivery to breath new life into their preaching. I strongly encourage preachers to try new things. Go and find the methods that spark your creativity, the ways you can self-trigger your gifts and creativity to better prepare and preach the gospel.
Lastly, here's this week's sermon writing playlist: