Preaching may be more than art, but it is certainly not less. It is a craft and a skill. An individual may have certain gifts given by God, but those gifts are diminished if not stewarded by effort and practice.
Excellence deceives us. When we see a baseball player effortlessly turn a double-play, we are tricked into thinking it came easily to him. He’s a natural. When we see a ballerina float weightlessly across the stage, leaping and turning in perfect time with the music, we are prone to imagine that she was just born to dance. The characters in the novel are so real and interesting, we picture the author’s fingers flying over the keys of her keyboard, trying to keep up with the story that overflows in her mind.
Excellence lies to us, because we only witness the performance. We didn’t see the practice. We didn’t watch the shortstop field ground balls an extra hour every day on the back fields of the Spring Training complex. We didn’t see the ballerina soak her bloody, blistered feet after another grueling rehearsal. We didn’t see the mountain of revisions that led to that flawless dialogue in the novel.
As I mentioned in my own self-reflection on my preaching life, faithful preaching is about process. To hone a craft or develop a skill, we need an environment that will allow our creativity to flourish, that encourages growth and challenges us to improve. In my experience, most preachers don’t have these conditions. In fact, I would argue that the conditions that most preachers work in actually work against or constrain them from growing in their craft.
I want to be clear here: I don’t think preachers are being unfaithful to their calling. Merely that the ministerial life creates an unprecedented challenge to creative productivity and—if we are to change these conditions—it will take unique intentionality and self-awareness.
To begin this conversation, I’ve outlined below the four creative constraints preachers face and why they are so detrimental to our work.
The preaching life is remarkably isolated. Of course there is necessary solitude in plenty of creative endeavors. Writers, musicians, and visual artists would all say that it’s necessary to be alone and undistracted in order to be productive. However, all of those same artists would say that when you don’t have access to a creative community and you don’t receive authentic, meaningful feedback, that creative work stagnates.
Some preachers may be fortunate enough to be able to share their work with others, and even invite others to give input on their ‘work in progress.’ Some may have someone they trust to give them honest feedback about their preaching. But for most of us, our ‘creative community’ consists of other pastors who are trying to prepare their own sermons. It creates a bunker mentality—we need too much help to be able to ask for help.
And, sadly, I’ve witnessed pastors who become possessive or defensive over their work, who make excuses for not allowing any transparency or vulnerability in the preaching process. Usually, it’s insecurity that leads to a closed-handedness.
We need thoughtful critics, who understand our context and our identity, who can detect habits and tendencies in our preaching—both beneficial and destructive. We are not good critics of our own work. Left to our own devices, we will be left with blind spots and a warped view. Worse yet: we may look to those in the pews for feedback, chasing their praise and being pushed and pulled away from gospel proclamation by every whim of the congregation.
I hope there are pastors who feel they have more than enough time to write their sermons. I just haven’t met any of them. In my context, most pastors wear a lot of hats—many of them are the only full-time staff person at the church. Between the concrete demands of keeping the lights on and the needs of individuals for pastoral care, spending hours and hours on a sermon feels like a luxury preachers can’t afford.
Now, there’s a longer conversation to be had about faithful preparation—the prayer and study necessary to attend to the text. But the practical constraint of the ‘urgency of Sunday’ is that it cuts us off from engaging in revision.
As a writing teacher, I always shared this passage from Bird by Bird by Anne Lammot (an excellent book on writing):
I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
Good writing only happens through revision. I preached that for ten years as a high school teacher and I’ve never met a student who didn’t doubt it or a paper that didn’t prove it. I’m not talking about proofreading here. I’m talking about seeing gaps in the logic of an argument. Noticing that an introduction swallows the content of the sermon. Editing the digression that distracts from the message. Discovering the insight or connection that’s one step beyond what you originally wrote.
The danger of the urgency of Sunday isn’t just that we are often forced to preach first drafts; it’s that our instinct to revise and the evidence of its value will atrophy from disuse. We become satisfied that our first thoughts are bound to be our best thoughts. And many of us are so clever and experienced that we can get away with it. Preach a bad sermon instead of a good one and you will likely notice and adjust. But preach a good sermon instead of a great one and it will become your new standard for excellence.
The urgency of this Sunday leaves us preaching first drafts; the urgency of next Sunday leaves us unable to evaluate and reflect. We might be tempted to think of opportunity for reflection as extraneous, but pedagogical research tells us that it is during reflection on an experience, not during an experience, that learning and growth occurs.
We’ve already established that most preachers are so isolated that they do not have sources of meaningful, critical feedback to help them gain perspective or insight. The demands of the next week’s tasks require us to forego even our own limited, biased evaluation of what we preached and where we might improve.
We’ve all heard the maxim that practice makes perfect; many of us have heard its helpful revision: perfect practice makes perfect. We can only perfect our practice if we have the time and space to understand our shortcomings, make adjustments, and try again. The preaching life can feel a little like trying to develop a backhand in tennis using a machine set to 100MPH that shoots a new ball every second and a half. We hardly have time to take a breath, let alone make sense of what just happened.
To extend this metaphor, we become so overwhelmed by the onslaught, that we become reactive. We are no longer practitioners actively engaging with a craft—we are at the mercy of the moment, just trying to keep up.
When that happens, we can’t improve. Our bad habits become our only habits. And in this environment, preachers tend to become fatalistic. They feel that the way they preach is the only way they could ever preach. It is what it is. Preachers stuck in this mentality often resign themselves to a ‘fixed mindset’, a belief that their abilities are static and set in stone. (For more on mindset, read the compelling research of Carol Dweck.)
This is a toxic, destructive vision of the self that stunts the dynamic work God has given us to do.
We don’t have to be melodramatic or egotistical about what we do every Sunday to still claim that the stakes are high. Hopefully, we don’t imagine ourselves holding each and every soul present in our hands for the moments we stand in the pulpit, with eternity hanging on every word.
Still, we are called to faithfulness—to our calling and to those whom we serve. It’s the most public aspect of our ministry; for the ordinary people in the pews, delivering a sermon is the one part of the job they understand. In our preaching, we owe them our ‘Sunday best.’ It’s the big game, and we suit up and do our job.
Here’s the thing, though—the big game is a terrible time to learn and improve.
Growing happens best in a failure-friendly environment, where it’s okay to take risks and fall flat on your face. You can’t afford to do that on Sunday; it would be irresponsible to try.
Hopefully, you do some rehearsal of your sermon, to hear it out loud and get a sense for the timing. These moments afford some leeway for creativity, and it’s often a really fruitful time for me to find the thread that leads to what I actually had to say. But this is a dress rehearsal for the big game. It isn’t the playground, the backyard, the vacant lot where you get to improvise, try something crazy and see how your friends react. If it doesn’t work, Who cares!
Moreover, this experimentation-friendly, failure-friendly environment needs to happen in community. You need loving listeners with the authority of their experience with you to reign in your stranger impulses or to encourage you to follow that risky idea you’ve been toying with.
We need these low stakes moments in our preaching lives, but, from where I’m standing, they don’t exist.
This is the part where I introduce the solution. Here’s the thing: I really don’t have one. I believe too much in the goodness and power of the small, local church to just shrug and hope every church can support a full-time teaching pastor with room to create a suitably conducive creative environment. Nor am I wild about identifying the most talented among us, those who have already developed the skill sets, and just beaming in their broadcasts on Sundays around the city.
The pastor in the pulpit needs to be the pastor who sits in living rooms, who kneels next to hospital beds, who wrangles with Vestry over the budget. And that will mean that life will sometimes be hectic and that sermon preparation will often be hasty.
There is no single remedy for these constraints, because they are—to a certain extent—inherent in the calling to be a pastor. But I would challenge those who preach to consider their context in the light of these four constraints and, for now, to identify just one that could be improved over the course of the next year. Make a tangible goal for improvement, or at least how you could begin the attempt.
And—please—share those ideas with your friends in ministry. Let’s get a conversation going, so we can begin to grow together.