Preparing Talks and Sermons: Rory Shiner

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Rory Shiner kicks off a new series, sharing the nitty-gritty of his sermon preparation process

The way preachers go about preparing their sermons is, for whatever reason, something we don’t talk much about. I don’t know why. Perhaps we preachers are coy about sharing our process, worried that others get theirs written more quickly, more efficiently, or with more attention to the original languages. Perhaps it’s intuitive, and we are not entirely conscious of our process. Or, perhaps it’s simply a topic too boring to warrant a discussion?

Anyway, for what’s it’s worth, I’m very interested in how others prepare their sermons. I’ll go first and tell you how I do mine, in the hope that you might return the favour.

First, some context. At our church, we ask preachers to have their talk written eleven days ahead of the Sunday on which it will be preached. This means submitting your draft talk notes by 5pm on the Thursday before the following Sunday. This is so others can write Bible study and devotional material, and service leaders can engage with the content as they prepare the service. It doesn’t have to be one hundred percent ready. But it does need to be more or less the shape of what will be said. This means I’ll be juggling two sermons at any one time in my process. To avoid confusion below, let’s imagine I’m writing a talk on Colossians 2 for the following Sunday, but about to preach on Colossians 1 this coming Sunday.

On Monday at our staff meeting, we do something we call Tackling the Text: a one-hour, no-holds-barred grappling with the text that will be preached on the following Sunday. I love this! It means the whole staff team are engaged and we are all learning from each other’s insights. I normally come to this raw rather than prepared. I like us all starting from scratch together.

At our staff meeting, we do something we call Tackling the Text: a one-hour, no-holds-barred grappling with the text that will be preached on the following Sunday. I love this! It means the whole staff team are engaged and we are all learning from each other’s insights.

Talk preparation begins Tuesday morning, 6­–7:30am. Here I’ll go over the passage and do my exegesis. This week is Colossians 2, so I will read it in Greek and produce a rough translation (If it’s an Old Testament passage I’ll open a Hebrew Bible, stare blankly at the page for a while, and wish I was smarter, or Presbyterian). I’ll mark up the text, underline key words, bombard the passage with questions, and try and jam its content in my head as much as possible.

Then, after breakfast and domestic duties, from 9am until it’s done I’ll bash out a full, 3,000 word draft of the sermon. Rough as guts, full of typos, with regular notes to myself such as “check this in a commentary” or “insert hilarious story about Nana here”. It’s your classic Crappy First Draft. Sometimes I map out a little structure, but as often as not I just go for it and write with no structure. I get it done. Then I put it aside and get on with other things.

The key thing here for me is that it now exists. I have something to work with, refine, correct and change. It buys me my sanity—I don’t spend the rest of the week with a scary deadline hanging over my head. And it gives me something to work with, both in the dedicated preparation time, and in the incidental times of washing the dishes, exercise, and running errands. I now have creative space to work on the talk rather than work up a talk.

On Wednesday I’ll normally find an hour to read a commentary or follow up a linguistic issue. At this point, I’ll often also download a couple of sermons or lectures from others on the same passage. I find that if I listen before I have my 3,000 words, I’m overly influenced by others. But once I have my first draft, I become a less submissive and more engaged interlocutor with other preachers. Sometimes I’ll listen to a very gifted preacher, but just as often, I’ll download a sermon from a church I trust by a preacher I don’t know.

On Thursday I’ll get up again and, between 6-7:30am, make some changes in the light of reading, listening to others, and thoughts I’ve had in the margins of life. Then I put it to one side. There is now a 2,500-3,000 word talk on Colossians 2 in the file, more or less ready for the following Sunday.

Then, on Thursday after breakfast I pick up my talk from the previous week, in this case on Colossians 1. I will say it out-loud. This has two effects. First, it will refresh my memory of what I wrote last week. And, secondly, I hear what it sounds like as spoken communication. It’s often at this point that I cut between 250 and 500 words, as I hear that various chunks I was wedded to last week now look superfluous, clunky, pretentious, or incoherent. Ideally, I’d like to get my talk down to 2,500 words. This process takes maybe two hours. It means that the talk I am giving four days from now is now the one in my heart and my head. It sits there in the background over the weekend, percolating away during weekend sport, social time, family movie night, and Saturday tasks.

Sunday morning, 6-8:00am I will pray, make some changes that have occurred to me over the weekend, say it out-loud, and then head off to preach at 10am, 4pm and 6pm. I have a full script of about 2,500 words (size 16 font, a new line for each sentence, Baskerville font) that I take with me into the pulpit. I rarely refer to the script when preaching, will often say things not written down, and will adapt various parts across the day. I have it there as a safety net more than a speaking script.

That, for better or worse, is how this preacher does it.

Final thoughts

They say your system is perfectly designed to produce what it is producing. I think that’s true in the preparation of sermons.

In the early years, my sermons would often be getting finished late on Saturday night. One of the many costs of this approach was that these sermons inevitably played to my strengths and compounded my weaknesses. A last-minute process almost always does that. If we are by nature bookish and intellectual, a Saturday night sermon will never quite get to application. If we are by nature extroverted and people-oriented, a last-minute sermon will probably reflect the fact that we didn’t really come to terms with the text in any rich way. We will do what we can do under time pressure.

Which is to say, if we are aware of various weaknesses in our sermons, the problem is almost certainly up-stream of Sunday. Rather than simply focussing on our sermon and its weaknesses, perhaps we could help each other by focussing on the process that produced that sermon? If systems are perfectly designed to produce what they produce, we need to change the system if we want to change what’s produced.