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On preaching without a manuscript

HOHactualPg_Equip_EmpowerI posted on this topic last year. I was more reticent then, and have made the leap. There is some great advice there. Here’s where I am a year later. 

With the strong encouragement of some parishioners, I have started to preach without a manuscript. It’s scary, and weird, very freeing and, dare I say, fun? I still spend the same time preparing, but it is a different kind of preparation (a lot more preaching to myself in the car!). I am learning, and I learned a good lesson this past Sunday.

I overreact to the reactions of my listeners. As I preached about Peter walking on water and that, maybe, the more faithful action would have been to stay in the boat, I looked out and saw one man staring very intently at me, like he was trying to communicate telepathically and I just wasn’t picking up the signal. Another woman who pays very close attention to our sermons every week was giving me a look I just couldn’t read. Was I going to finally be called a heretic? I got nervous. I started to stumble.

If I had preached from a manuscript, I would have just looked down and plowed on. But without a manuscript, I caught myself preaching on the fly–which is not the same as preaching without a manuscript. I left a good chunk of my sermon behind in my panic. And it was really good, too.

Turns out, the woman loved my sermon and the man was trying to get me to look down to see that my tab was popping out of my collar!

Lesson: Preaching without a manuscript takes focus, focus, focus!

Other noteless preachers, what are some lessons you can share with this newbie?

Dawn Leger

About Dawn Leger

I am a priest in the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, having served in Stouffville, Ontario. I think preaching is a profound and great privilege granted to us by God and our Church. I love the reading, the writing, the proclaiming, the dissecting and the dialogue. I also love to cook, sing, read and laugh, in no particular order.

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13 Responses to On preaching without a manuscript

  1. I’m reminded, Dawn, of a conversation you led last year about scriptless preaching. (And I’m glad that I went back and read my comment in that discussion: it reminded me to be intentional about it.)

    If I could add anything now, it would be this: learn to operate within a framework. As a musician, I have studied and practiced improvisation in detail: a discipline that is often interpreted as the ability to pull melodies and chord progressions out of the air. Rather, jazz musicians (or as well as baroque improvisors, etc.) study and memorize scales, harmonic progressions, etc., so that creating music on-the-fly is as simple as plugging known riffs and harmonies into a known framework. It’s an exercise in both spontaneous creativity, and memory recall.

    I think of preaching without notes in much the same manner. Just as essay form was developed to make writing and reading easier and more understandable, and just as some preachers use The Four Pages of the Sermon to structure their messages, I find it helps to improvise within boundaries. For example, I might go into a sermon with something like this in mind:

    – Intro (personal story about x)
    – Scripture (how does scripture speak to x)

    – point one
    – point two
    – point three

    – Full circle conclusion (come back to intro story in light of scripture, mentioning points 1, 2, 3.)

    When it’s on paper, it looks very rigid. But when such a framework is used in a conversational/improvisatory manner, it can be delivered seamlessly, and quite naturally.

    *oh – unless it’s a topic I’m particularly passionate about, or have preached on in another congregation, I usually jot down points 1, 2, 3 (or whatever), as well as any direct quotes I want to cite on a half sheet of paper. Because memory can be unreliable. 😉

    • Dawn Leger

      Thanks for finding last year’s post, Jesse. I’ve added it as an introduction to this article.

      I’ve been experimenting with thought maps. I love the visual, and I usually have at least two maps before I am done, one for brainstorming and one for the sermon with structure.

    • Rev. Jesse Dymond’s suggested framework is good advice. It reminds the speaker of the key points he/she wants to convey to the audience while simultaneously allowing for the listener to hear the message. The orator then becomes proficient in not interpreting the listener’s reaction as it relates to what is being said, but rather to the message being delivered. This semi-free form manner of communicating with any audience does take practice, no different than an actor who is given a script and then improvising from it in parts of it. However, once it is mastered over time and practice, one will develop more of a comfort level in the message focus to be delivered and much less on reactions, twitches, coughs, sneezes, and the like that occur frequently in the hallowed echoes of churches everywhere.

  2. Preaching without reading takes more time and discipline than preaching while reading your sermon. You do have to have a solid idea of what you are preaching, and making sure that you don’t get rattled by crying babies, looks of confusion by parishioners, or the hard candy being slowly unwrapped.

    I don’t do the essay style of preaching. Too rigid for this ADD extrovert. I also pace around a lot. Allows me to let it flow better. At the Spanish service, I stay in the pulpit because my Spanish is not good enough to not use notes. My English speaking parishioners tell me that’s it’s not really me. And I agree. I’m not comfortable. It’s not me.

    I love it because it’s me. It looks like me and sounds like me. I love the freedom, the eye contact, and the way I can engage the congregation. I just can’t get that with reading from notes. But it’s not for everyone. Its like having kids. If you aren’t committed or feel called to do it, you shouldn’t.

    • Dawn Leger

      So, Ted, as a self-described ADD extrovert, how do you keep focussed in the midst of the distractions?

      • Practice. I would liken it to golfing. If you are distracted in your backswing, you’ll never be happy. So golf with your friends and tell them to talk when you take a shot and try and distract you. It should force to to block out distractions.

        I started with a manuscript, and that gave me the discipline to actually write it out. And , if you prepare yourself for them, and then just react well to it (I usually say something like “even (insert name of baby) wants to speak out”), then no one else notices either. If you stop, look like you’re rattled, and then leave something out, that will be the focus. Just go with it, and know your stuff.

        And it’s ok to go off script. Then return to your script.

  3. Some very good comments thus far. I haven’t “written” a sermon for 15 years and those I trust have told me I am a better preacher for it. I would very much agree with those who talk about noteless preaching as bringing a sense of freedom, a sense of being oneself rather than trying to be the preacher from a text book or a website, which always crept in when I wrote sermons. I find that I prepare in a very different way than when I started preaching and even in a different way from when I started preaching with out notes. It takes discipline to ensure you still do the work and trust that what you know, you know well enough to be able to call it up comfortably. For me, the far and away biggest benefit of preaching without a manuscript is the ability to use last minute happenings and examples in a sermon. When reading a written work, it is tough to jump away from the text, add a last minute inspiration and then get back into the flow. I can say with certainty that many of the best sermon illustrations I have used are those that have happened in the hours and minutes leading up to the sermon. They are current and personable and I find they reach people because of the honesty of the moment. It’s not easy making the switch to preaching without notes and for some people it is impossible (and if you are one of those go with your strengths and continue to preaching from a text) It took me a couple of years to go from full text to point form notes, to a few notes, to speaking from the heart. While interaction with those who are listening can sometimes make you feel uncomfortable (especially at first) I find that being able to look up and out and feel the reaction is a strength in preaching.

  4. I should have said that I don’t do do an essay type sermon. I do it as a conversation with the congregation. I almost always (98%) preach primarily on the Gospel, and include parts of the other readings when I feel like they inspire me.

  5. Kyle Norman

    Not to stir the pot – but I think it is a fallacy that noteless preaching has more ‘freedom’ then script preaching. I find that this brings with it an assumption that script preaching is ‘rigid’ ‘confining’ or ‘dull’. Worse I have heard people suggest that script preaching is ‘less inspired’ than noteless preaching. Frankly this is wrong. Just as I have heard atrocious sermons that were read from a script, I have heard atrocious sermons ‘off the cuff’.

    I write a whole script for the sermon and whenever I enter the pulpit, my intention is to preach the message that I have written, that I believe God has inspired me to write for the congregation gathered. Personally, I find this freeing and comforting – knowing that the message is before me – that the work has been done and all that is left for me is to faithfully and boldly proclaim the Gospel message. Now the caveat is that preaching is dynamic – the sermon I say is never 100% the sermon I have written. But the dynamics of relying on the Spirit to move – and the freedom therein – is the dynamic of all preaching, not just noteless preaching.

    Here endeth the rant.

  6. In response to Kyle in particular and all in the discussion in general, I think it is crucial that a preacher knows themselves, their strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, personality type etc. What I might describe as freedom another might find uncomfortable, what I find inspiring another might find disorganized. If there is anything I have learned in 20 years of preaching sermons, it’s that there is NO right way to do it. I get frustrated when I hear a new preacher say “this is the way I was taught.” Perhaps it is a good way, but it is not the only way and may well not be the best way for you. I might go so far as to suggest that you need to adjust your preaching style when you move to a new church and in fact when I was in a four point parish I adjusted the sermon based on which congregation I was addressing. I would never tell someone this is the way you should preach. I am happy to discuss, evaluate, critique in the hopes of helping the preacher and myself grow in our ability as communicators and preachers. So Kyle, I hear your objections and understand them. My response to you, as it is to most around the art of preaching – do what works for you, but always be willing to be challenged to try new things, new ways, new understandings

    • Dawn Leger

      @Kyle_Norman, you aren’t stirring the pot because I don’t think there is a debate. Each preacher has their own style and styles are not limited to script or no script. When I write a manuscript I write exactly as I speak, grammatical errors, contractions, exclamations and all. Others use a more “essay style” and I have favourite preachers of various types and voices.

      I am trying something new and I appreciate all this advice. This isn’t really a conversation about the merits of one style over another so much as how to be good in one particular style which may not be for everyone.

  7. Well said Dawn. And Kyle also. It’s just being comfortable with who and what you are. 20 years or 20 minutes, it doesn’t matter. You are who you are, in or out of the pulpit. If you do one, try the other. Or not.

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