Rewriting Sermons

A while ago, I was having trouble with a sermon that I was working on. I had read the scripture carefully and I had a message that I wanted to deliver, but the words just weren’t coming. Every story I tried to tell felt wrong. Every sentence’s feel was just a little off. And, weirdly, it all seemed very familiar. I kept feeling like I had delivered this sermon before… so why wasn’t it working now?

So I went back and checked the sermons I had given in the past. And it turned out that I had given this sermon before. Or, at least, I had given a sermon that used the same scriptures and had the same basic theme that I was trying for in the one that I was working on. And I was faced with an unpleasant choice: should I scrap the one I was struggling with and look for a different angle on these scriptures… or should I scrap the one I was struggling with and just use the old one?


A little background might be useful here. Before I was a pastor, there were usually two reasons I would preach. One was plain old pulpit supply. When a local pastor had an emergency or was just on vacation, they would call me in to lead worship. The other was for my job with Back Bay Mission. I would book preaching gigs where I could use the sermon to preach the gospel and tell people about the Mission’s work. Either way, I almost always used the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for whatever Sunday I was preaching.

The RCL provides several texts for every Sunday and rotates through a three-year cycle. So the RCL readings in 2015 and the RCL readings in 2018 are identical. But I don’t always use all of the readings for any given Sunday. In fact, I almost never use all of the readings; I use one or two for the sermon, and maybe base the call to worship off of the psalm of the day. So there’s a bit of a coincidence here: not only did I happen to preach on the same Sunday in 2015, but I choose the same scriptures from the RCL suggested readings!

Now, I pride myself in never delivering the same sermon twice. That’s part of why I use the RCL. It would have been easy enough to have one or two Back Bay Mission sermons and one or two other sermons and just recycled them again and again. But I wasn’t preaching that often (eight sermons in 2015), and writing a sermon usually isn’t a big challenge for me. Moreover, the sermon that I gave in 2015 was a Mission sermon. And while I sometimes mention the Mission in a sermon in my current position, a lot of it wouldn’t have made sense if I just grabbed this sermon and delivered it again. Giving the same sermon wasn’t an option.

But then I thought a little bit about how music works.

I’m not a professional musician, but I do play the saxophone. And I practice several times a week (and even every day when that works for my schedule). And the fact is that it would never occur to me to play a tune once—either in the practice room or for a performance—and then put it away and never play it again. Instead, I work on a single tune for ages. I learn the melody, I learn to hear the chord changes so that I can solo over them, I listen to recordings of other people playing the same tune, I analyze the harmonies. My goal isn’t to get through the tune, it’s to really learn it, deep down.

I play the same tune over and over again. I never play it the same way twice, but I keep what works and get rid of what doesn’t. A certain phrase might show up in many solos, while another phrase only shows up once. I revise and refresh. Constantly. Every time I play the tune.


And realizing that made me wonder: why don’t I do that with sermons? In fact, why am I so resistant to the idea of taking an old sermon that’s been lying around—maybe even for three years or so—and reworking it, keeping what works and getting rid of what doesn’t, revising and refreshing? Note that I am not suggesting simply reusing the same sermon. But why not take something that worked once and see if I can make it work better?

Of course, there are challenges to doing that. As I wrote above, I’ve been using the Revised Common Lectionary, which means that I only get the same texts once every three years. And this spring, I’m planning on switching to the Narrative Lectionary, which runs on a four year cycle! But… the Narrative Cycle doesn’t have any prescribed readings during the summer, which opens up some options. Maybe I could take a Sunday or two during the summer to rework an old sermon.

Or maybe not. Preaching isn’t the practice room or a gig. But surely we shouldn’t just let old sermons lie around collecting dust. There must be some way to reconsider, rework, and revive the work we’ve put into them.

Preaching and Listening

For my birthday this year, my wife generously bought be a new tenor saxophone. I started on clarinet in sixth grade. In college, I switched to tenor saxophone (and still doubled on clarinet), and played on school horns. A few months after college, I bought a late-60s King Cleveland off eBay. Despite hundreds of dollars of repairs and adjustments, it’s never been a high quality instrument. The octave mechanism stick, there is always at least one leaky pad, the action is slow, it feels like it’s made out of tin, and it’s always a little stuffy. Now I have a P. Mauriat Le Bravo 200 that feels and plays much better. So… a huge thank you to my wife!

And that means that I’m practicing again. It’s something that I have to make time for, but I can usually get an hour or two in every day: practicing the blues in different keys, running scales and arpeggios, striving to get my tempos up, going through different tunes, and… transcribing.

Transcribing is the practice of listening to another musician’s solo and trying to replicate it. So, right now, I’m working on Miles Davis’s famous solo from Kind of Blue. I’m not writing it down — so, I suppose, I’m not technically transcribing — but I listen to a few notes or a few bars and try to play them back. And, as I get more of it under my fingers, I can play more of the solo right along with Miles. The point of this exercise is to train my ear; to get to a place where I can hear a phrase — in principle, any phrase — and repeat it.

And I do this because of something that I heard saxophonist Bob Reynolds say. To paraphrase: improvisation is the art of transcribing ourselves in real time. I want to be able to play what I’m hearing in my head at the same time that I’m hearing it.

And I started thinking about this in the context of preaching.

Specifically, I started thinking about why I don’t listen to — and imitate — other preachers? We have a handful of rockstar preachers in the United Church of Christ; and even outside of those rockstars, I know many pastors whose preaching I admire. Technology has made it easy to record and share sermons, and many churches publish recordings of sermons, so they’re easily available. And I know that listening to other preachers deliver good sermons well invigorates and inspires me when I hear them at denominational gatherings; so surely listening to them on a regular basis, for the purpose of learning from them, would make be a better preacher.

So why don’t I do it?

I think there are a few reasons.

First, I don’t think we usually think about preaching as performance or about sermons as a form of music. But it is a performance and public speaking has a lot in common with music. As preachers, we each have our signature patterns and phrases. Volume, rhythm, and phrasing all matter. Even where we look, how we gesture, and what facial expressions we wear make a difference. And while it is a lot of work to compose a new sermon every week, part of that composition should include thoughts on how I will deliver it.

Second, we tend to think that ‘borrowing’ from another preacher is bad form. The reason that I transcribe on the saxophone is to train my ear; and part of what I am training my ear to do is learn the language of jazz. I am learning new phrases that I can add to my repertoire… and that I can deploy elsewhere. I will never play Miles’s solo during a performance, but a measure that sounds like it might possibly be based on something from that solo might sneak into a solo on another piece where there’s an Em7 chord. The same principle should apply to preaching. I will never deliver the same line that some other preacher delivers, but a rhythm or inflection might slip in during a sermon on a different scripture. Of course, it will only do that if I add it to my own ‘language’. Not necessarily the words I say, but how I say them.

Third, I think many of us are scared to experiment. On Sunday morning, I have to use the time I have during the sermon to do a lot of work. Not only do I have to deliver an inspiring message; I often have to provide a basic education on the Bible, comment on current events, and do a dozen other things. Experimenting with a new style of preaching means taking a risk that my congregation might not be open to. The last think I want people remember is an awkward moment in the sermon; especially if that means they aren’t remembering something else. But that should be easy to manage: only use new things in practice until you’re comfortable with them.

So, I’m going to try an experiment. Along with practicing my saxophone and working on that Miles David solo, I’m going to take the time to listen to other preachers and — as it were — work on their solos. Hopefully, that will add some licks to my preaching vocabulary and make me a better, more interesting, and more diverse preacher.

The Relationship between Hours Worked and Energy Spent (And How There Isn’t One)

As a pastor, my schedule is pretty fluid. There are some fixed points: worship is at 9:30am on Sundays, confirmation is at 6pm on Wednesdays, office hours are from 9am to 1pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and so on. And there are things that need to be done, but can fit in wherever there is space. For example, I write sermons on Mondays; but if they spill over into sometime on Wednesday, that’s okay.

That leaves a lot of time that is open and unpredictable. Hospital visits happen. Funerals — though I haven’t had one yet — happen on relatively short notice. And, of course, there are endless administrative tasks that need to be dealt with and plans that need to be made. This is not a job with nice, clean, stable hours.

And one of the things that I’ve notices is that there’s no relationship between the quantity of hours I work and how much energy I use. What might look like a short day can leave be exhausted. What might look like a long day can feel like nothing at all.

Some of that is driven by my personality. On the one hand, I’m a personal introvert. I replenish my energy by being alone or hanging out with a few close personal friends. On the other hand, I’m a professional extrovert. I can go to events and work a room and hit meeting after meeting. But that comes at a cost: at a reasonably slow pace, I use up that energy that I got from my introverted activities.

But some of it is also driven by the nature of the work. It’s easy to not realize that leading worship is, in many respects, a performance… and performances are work, even if the performer loves doing it. Similarly, moving from group to group during coffee hour is work. And talking through a deep-seated personal problem with a parishioner is work. And committee meetings are work. And that’s true no matter how much I enjoy all of those things and how much I am called to all of this work.

And that leads me to two thoughts.

First, for pastors. Pastors have a habit of humble-bragging about the quantity of hours we work. And I know too many pastors who work — including their time in the wider church and wider community — every day of the week. And even those who work six days a week are often trying to cram an entire personal life into a single day. I know that there is a lot to do, but we need to give ourselves permission to rest and recharge so that we can be effective at doing all those things.

Second, for parishioners. I know that a lot of what your pastor does is invisible. And every pastor I know is working furiously for their congregation. It is important for you to remember that a few hours on Sunday morning can wipe someone out, that there was probably at least an hour of research and writing for every minute of the sermon you hear, and that your pastor is facing the same struggles that you are outside of work. So I invite you to get to know your pastor, how they replenish their energy, and what wears them out… and then make room for them.

And if we all do our part, we can have stronger and healthier pastors… and stronger and healthier congregations.

Prophetic Prayer

After seemingly every tragedy that gets national attention, one colleague or another shows up in my social media feeds to remind us all that if we aren’t preaching about it that Sunday, we’re doing something wrong: “Preach with your Bible in one hand,” as Karl Barth didn’t quite say, “and your newspaper in the other.”

That’s always bothered me. It creates the temptation to respond to every current event before we’ve had time to reflect on it, or to twist scripture to suit our response to the news, or to preach on some narrow set of issues that we care about. And, of course, not every important event makes it to the news, and, especially these days, there can be too many things in a single week to fit into a single sermon.

As a preacher, I have a responsibility to preach the gospel to my congregation in love. Sometimes, that means preaching with my Bible in one hand and today’s news feed — who gets a newspaper anymore? — in the other. Other times, that means preaching on an event that happened weeks or months or years ago. Every Sunday is an opportunity to preach about being the church, protecting the environment, caring for the poor, forgiving often, rejecting racism, fighting for the powerless, sharing resources, embracing diversity, and loving God and our neighbors. And while that can include current events, it shouldn’t be dictated by them.

But I started thinking… what about prayers?

Prayers are well-suited to address current events responsibly, even before we’ve had the time to reflect on them and craft sermons around them. Prayers of invocation, prayers of the people, offertory prayers, and prayers of thanksgiving, give us the opportunity to bring tragedies (or blessings) to the attention of our congregations and ask our members to sit with them. We can — and should — take time each week to pray for those affected by the latest police shooting, school shooting, ICE raid, or other national atrocity. And we can — and should — take the time each week to pray for the people who cannot name, but who face similar situations every day.

Prayers are well-suited to address current events responsibly, even before we've had the time to reflect on them. We can — and should — take time each week to pray for those affected by the latest national atrocity. Click To Tweet

And then, when the time is right, we can bring what we’ve prayed about into the sermon.

I hope that my sermons are always prophetic, even if they don’t always address current events or the tragedy of the week. And I will have colleagues who will say that I’m doing it wrong and who will tell my congregation that they need to look for a church that takes these things more seriously. But I will also work to make my prayers more prophetic, and to help my congregation learn that prayers can be prophetic. And maybe that will even allow me to bring more of the world into the sanctuary and help the members of my congregation think more about how they respond to the joys and sorrows that surround us.

The Invisible Work of Being a Pastor

It was going to happen eventually… and it did. A member of my congregation made a small complaint, in passing, to my moderator, who passed it on to the pastoral relations committee, who passed it on to me. It wasn’t a harsh complaint. In fact, I’m not even sure I should call it a complaint. It was a question: What does he do? He’s only here a couple of half days a week.

Now, I think part of that question was a misunderstanding. It’s true that my official office hours are Tuesday and Thursday from around 9am to around 1pm. It’s also true that I am at the church on Sunday mornings (worship) and Monday evenings (meetings). And as programming picks up, I expect that I’ll add Wednesday evenings to that schedule. I also have not-exactly-office hours at a coffee shop or elsewhere on Wednesday afternoons and sometimes have random other events in the community. ‘Official office hours when I’m available for anyone to just drop in’ and ‘times I am at the church’ are not the same thing.

But I also think there’s a deeper disconnect here. The question that this parishioner asked is a common one. Every pastor has heard some variation of it. Sometimes, they’ve heard it as a genuine question. Sometimes, they’ve heard it as a complaint. But every pastor has heard it.

And the root of that question is in the fact that a lot of what pastors do is invisible to the people we serve. That’s nobody’s fault. It’s also common in a lot of professions (no one sees everything that their a lawyer, realtor, or financial advisor does). But, like other professions that have a public side and where a segment of the public has some authority over the people in it — professions like teachers, police officers, city construction workers, and others — people keep an eye on pastors. And it makes sense that they would be curious about what we (or, at least, I) do when they can’t see us.

So, what do I do? A lot.

I prepare worship services for every Sunday. That includes basic things like writing unison prayers, choosing hymns, and getting announcements together. It also includes the sermon. I estimate that between reading, researching, and writing, it takes me about one hour to write one minute of each sermon.

I attend meetings. I’m still pretty new, so right now I attend almost every committee meeting. I’m really hoping to get to a place where I have just a handful of committees that I have to meet with every month and where I can just check in on other committees from time to time. In addition to church meetings, I have various things in the community, especially meetings with organizations that would like to see my church get involved.

I visit people. Sometimes it’s in person, sometimes it’s over the phone. Sometimes it’s long conversations, sometimes it’s a quick check-in. Sometimes it’s at someone’s house, sometimes it’s at a hospital. This is one of the least predictable parts of my job, and it’s one of the most important. I am available to people.

I develop media. In my first couple of months, I’ve reclaimed the church’s social media channels, created a brand new website, and revamped our weekly e-newsletter. In addition to that, I create content. The most important pieces are writing newsletter articles and making sure that sermons get put on the website. But there are plenty of other little content projects that need attention.

I plan. Right now, I’m putting together a confirmation curriculum for our next program year. Soon, I’ll start planning a Wednesday night Advent program, followed by a Wednesday night Lenten program. I’m also planning a multi-stage visioning process (which I’ll be writing many newsletter articles and email updates about). And, of course, once things are planned, I’ll need to execute those plans. It’s a constant cycle of discover, dream, design, and deploy.

And I probably do a bunch of other things that I’m can’t even think of. And I spend time with my family, and maintain this blog, and do other non-work and work-adjacent stuff.

And the fact is that most of that is invisible. And I know it. No one is watching me write a sermon or choose hymns or create social posts or write a newsletter article or plan a curriculum or visit someone in the hospital or any of those other things. And that’s the way it has to be.

But it’s also an important reminder. Everyone is doing things that I don’t know about. Everyone has a life that is hidden from me. And some parts of that hidden life are wonderful. And some parts are miserable. And some parts are ordinary. But recognizing that other people have hidden lives and making room for them might just be the beginning of grace.

Everyone is doing things that I don't know about. Everyone has a life that is hidden from me. And recognizing that other people have hidden lives and making room for them might just be the beginning of grace. Click To Tweet

Sermons Are Not Systematic

The United Church of Christ is a non-creedal tradition. That means that we don’t have a list of Things People Have to Believe. There is no central authority that tells our congregations or our members what they have to believe or how they have to worship. Instead, as the United Church of Christ website puts it,

We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith. The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.

And that creates a neat little challenge for preachers.

When I start preparing a sermon. I’m not bound by a list of Things People Have to Believe. I don’t have to bring everything around to a predetermined theological point. Instead, I’m bound by the scripture passages for that week (and their historical and literary context), the needs of my congregation, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

And that means that the people of the congregation aren’t getting a single message or a systematic theology.

The Bible is a diverse collection of texts. While the biblical authors may have been inspired by God, they are not delivering a single unified message. They disagree. They emphasize different points. They argue from different perspectives and in different contexts. Working with one or two passages at a time tends to show different sides of the Bible in different weeks.

The needs of the congregation change over time. During different weeks, the world is a different place and the people are dealing with different things. That means using the Bible to do different things, offer different challenges, and bring different comforts.

The Holy Spirit moves in different ways. On some days, she is convicting me of my sin. On others, she is offering comfort for my sorrows. On still others, she is calling me in a new direction. And, of course, a million other things. The Holy Spirit does not seem intent on having me deliver the same message every time I speak.

All of this is really to say two important things. First, I am called to preach the gospel and I believe that I am faithful to that call. I believe that my sermons are well-supported by scripture, the traditions of the church, and the testimony of the Spirit. Second, my sermons are rarely (if ever) showing the members of my congregation the fullness of the gospel. Instead, they are offering snapshots of something much bigger than anything I can deliver in that time.

The fullness of the gospel is seen and experienced in the fullness of Christian life. In prayer and in communion. In scripture and in tradition. In potluck dinners and hospital visits. In hymns and, yes, in sermons. But the sermon is just a part of that.

We experience the gospel in the fullness of Christian life. In prayer and in communion. In scripture and in tradition. In potluck dinners and hospital visits. In hymns and, yes, in sermons. But the sermon is just a part of that. Click To Tweet

A First Attempt at a Schedule

One of the first questions I had when I was called as a local church pastor was how to schedule my time. There are a lot of competing demands on a pastor’s time, from congregants demanding a pastor who is available and working 24-7, to other pastors telling you that good self-care requires two days off a week. How is a first time pastor supposed to do everything that needs to be done without burning out?

This is my first attempt at drafting a schedule that will work for me and for the congregation. There are just a few design considerations:

I wanted one reserved day off and the possibility of another one.

I wanted flex time that could absorb additions to the schedule, wither by being the space for those or by making a space for things that had to be moved.

I wanted a day to get worship in order at the beginning of the week. No Saturday night sermon panic for me!

So, without further ado, here it is:

Monday is mostly for worship preparation and sermon writing. The mornings are at home and the afternoons are in the office. Right now, evenings sometimes have committee meetings, but I’d like to move those so that Monday nights are free time.

Tuesdays are divided. Mornings are general work in the office. Afternoons are ‘variable’, so they can be used for visits, community office hours, or whatever else needs to happen. Right now, evenings sometimes have meetings on them. I’d like to move as many meetings to Tuesday evenings as I can.

Wednesdays are full days. Morning are reserved for flex time, so there’s a spot to take care of anything that had to get pushed off the beginning of the week. Afternoons are variable again. Evenings often have church activities.

Thursdays look a lot like Tuesdays. I’m in the office in the morning, and I hope to use that time to finish up worship prep. Afternoons are variable again. Evenings are for general work, but at home.

Fridays are my day off.

Saturdays are flex days. They can be used for events or for anything that had to be pushed off another part of the week. Saturday can also be used for a day off if there’s nothing pressing. Evenings are reserved, as much as possible, for rest and family.

Sundays start with worship at 9:30am sharp (though I’m in before that). Sometimes there are meetings after worship, and I can also use the time for visits and calls. Hopefully, I can finish up the day before it gets to late and have the evening for family time.

About This Blog: Being a Pastor

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: being a pastor.

As I wrote earlier, I’m taking on a new adventure as the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa. I’ve been part of the United Church of Christ my whole life. I graduated from seminary more than a decade ago. I’ve worked and volunteered in the church — and in church-related organizations — for years. But this is my first time being the pastor for a congregation.

That means that I’m figuring some things out. What kinds of schedules work? How should I manage writing a sermon every week (and more during holiday weeks)? How can and should administration work in a congregationalist setting? And so on.

Part of what this blog is about is sharing my experiences being and becoming a pastor. I hope that this will give some insight into the life of your pastor, and I hope it will give some other pastors some ideas about what might work for them. I’m not going to pretend that I know everything — I’m barely going to pretend that I know anything — but I hope I can share what I’m learning and that my experience can be fruitful for others.

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