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preaching with or without notes – andrew picard

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“You can break the rules when the rules have broken you.” This was Paul Windsor’s sage advice when he taught me how to preach. One of the rules was that you need to write full notes for your sermon. It was very good advice when I was learning to preach and it no doubt saved many people from my mindless meanderings of meaninglessness. So, as a pastor, I committed myself to writing sermons as a discipline. However, I soon found that writing sermons out became a dread for me. As Sunday loomed, the black cloud of finishing “the manuscript” would rob the weekend of all its fun and the blank screen mocked my incompetence. I loved exegeting scripture, developing ripe observations, structuring sermons for momentum and flow, and finding illustrations to extend the ripe observations. But, when it came to sitting down and writing out the full sermon my dancing turned into mourning. Whether it’s the perfectionist in me or whether it’s a lack of confidence that hears the tisk-tisking of school teachers, I don’t like writing very much – a slight problem for a PhD student!

For me, relief came only when I gave up on writing full notes. I figured that after 6 years of preaching, the rules had broken me and it was time to break them. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was reading a commentator on preaching who said, “If preaching is anything it is personal.” You need to be able to see the whites of people’s eyes as the gospel makes demands upon them, and they need to see the whites of your eyes as you place yourself under the gospel’s demands. Another big part for me was realising that my first response to new information is to want to talk about it rather than write about it. I realised that I process my thoughts more through talking than writing. The other realisation was that for whatever reason, God has given me a strong memory for ideas. I love ideas (ideation is number one for me on Strengths Finder) and I don’t have too many problems remembering them or articulating them. I’m not an amazing wordsmith, and whilst I try, I will not likely ever be a great wordsmith. I’m now ok with that. I can forgo getting every word right for the sake of greater presence and conveying the big ideas. I’m enjoying the sense of presence and partnership with the people in the room that comes with no notes, and the way that sermons often take unanticipated directions because of the partnership.

However, I’m now involved in a church that has a Deaf community, and having a full manuscript is very helpful for sign language interpreter’s to read before you preach. It’s always interesting to return to somewhere you intentionally left. What do I notice when I return to full notes? Words matter. I always use full notes for important occasions like weddings and funerals. I think one of the goals at an important occasion is to be forgettable. I don’t want to be remembered in 10 years for getting the names wrong or saying something stupid. Also, these big occasions do not give themselves to a chatty “no-notes” approach. I can’t imagine Rowan Williams wandering the stage when he gave his Royal Wedding sermon! I think full notes engage you much more deeply with the sermon and all its content. I am growing my skills as a wordsmith and a communicator. The hard toil of making words matter, economising language and making sermons memorable pays off. Nonetheless, I’m most comfortable without notes and I prefer the immediacy of the relationship with an audience. What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on using notes and what you’ve tried.

10 Comments

  1. Jody says:

    Great collection of thoughts, thanks Andrew. Interesting you are in place of being able to work in both realms. I find talking my ideas out loud (to my phone, recording) helps me in the process, but I still feel best noting it all down from there.

    1. Andrew Picard says:

      Thanks, Jody. I was actually thinking of you when I wrote the post. I originally had a paragraph on friends who’re wordsmiths and who completely intimidate me. You were one of those friends! I actually wish I did enjoy writing, and could write out a script and tweak it over the week. But even when I’ve got the entire content of the sermon figured in my head, writing it out is torturous. No doubt it is a character flaw…

  2. Dale says:

    Great stuff Andrew! I hope there was no ‘thick black cloud’ or a mocking ‘blank screen’ while you wrote the manuscript for this post! ;D

    1. Andrew Picard says:

      🙂 There’s always a dark cloud when it comes to writing for me, bit this one wasn’t too bad.

  3. Dale says:

    p.s. my go-to delivery approach now-a-days is to use ‘heavy’ notes that are ‘almost’ full manuscript. I use a black A5 folder, set my word processor to landscape, narrow margins and two columns and use an ‘outline-ish’ style where I limit myself to one thought per line, and order the thoughts into staggered/indented paragraphs (this is mainly to make it easy to look up for extended periods and quickly find my place again).

    For me full manuscript has the strength of being contained but limits eye contact… And note free is more personal, but someone like me is prone to the rants/tangents… So ‘heavy’ outline-ish notes are a nice middle for me 🙂

    Quick thought re rants/tangents:
    I reckon healthy/humbling doses of self awareness have been the best thing for me avoiding (most of the time!) these more recently. An undisciplined Dale can whack a tangent in there no matter what he is holding or not holding! I try to keep the “only go there if you really really must!” guide rail close at hand! 🙂

    1. Roger Driver-Burgess says:

      Cheers, Dale – I completely agree with those guide-lines for tangents. I try to ration myself to one tangent a month.
      Eye contact is essential, I think, but it can be attained pretty well with a full manuscript by going over the script at least twice before-hand, so all I need is a quick glance at the start of each line to know where I’m going, and then my eyes are back on the bride. I check occasionally with people, and very few realise that I’m using a full manuscript, or even any notes at all.

      1. Andrew Picard says:

        Thanks to you both, I think that’s a good point about tangents. My constant problem is too much content (it’s the same with my lectures), and then rushing the final stages. I think, for me, loading up on content can be a reaction to the fear of being exposed as a fraud.

  4. Roger Driver-Burgess says:

    Gudday Andrew and company
    Thanks for writing, Andrew – I think you’re absolutely right that preaching is personal. And I like your comments about being forgettable on formal occasions (good illustration, there, too!)
    I organise my script like Dale (as a result of Brian Smith’s teaching) and I usually use a full manuscript. This gives me the chance to make sure there really is a logical flow and to discover a sweeter expression than I get when I wing-it. But there are definitely weeks when narrative flow eludes me, and I end up using two A5 pages of outline with perhaps a few sentences of intro and conclusion. Those days are always rewarding and I love the chance to extemporise and allow the excitement of the message to drive the interaction.
    Scripted conversations (scripted on my side, at least) break it up, too. And the key to using a full manuscript, for me, is to write it like speech, not prose, and then speak it, and then re-write it when I discover the phrases that are too prosy. Beware latinate language and go for the Anglo-saxon, says Murray Robertson’s voice in my head.

    1. Andrew Picard says:

      Thanks Roger. Yep, I think Murray is a master at conversational Kiwi preaching.

  5. Robert Mcgowan says:

    Great contributions everybody. I have 2 contributions to make:- 1. Just passing on a comment from a really experienced preacher:- As U write your sermon try & make it a prayer from U 2 God! 2. This comment is actually some what of a digression from the core topic:- When praying public prayers, on behalf of my church group, as an organised part of the meeting, I write out beforehand exactly what I will pray, as there is no need for eye contact when all eyes are shut. However in the 2nd half of this process as I read out the prayers written by others I do sometimes add to what is written, not anything which could breach confidentiality, but more in the line of an extra nuance or even a change in the timing of the expectation of the answer, especially if it is an urgent healing need. On 1 memorable occasion, whilst praying for a pre-christian’s friend’s wife (while he was physically present at her bedside) She ‘awoke’ from a 3 week long Coma (Dr’s prognosis was pretty poor!) & although she relapsed back into unconsciousness, she subsequently made a full recovery! And this occurred not long after He made a pretty cynical observation about Religion in general (“Invented to keep the masses in line!”) So isn’t it good when God does even more than what we expect of even quicker than what we expect!
    Hopefully you will forgive my digression, in the light of the encouraging outcome.

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