What does it take to write the perfect sermon?
Weddings. Funerals. Tips. The annual budget.
Religious leaders have many responsibilities, but nothing compares to writing and delivering a sermon. It is a task that requires more than the ability to interpret scripture and deliver a compelling message.
The ultimate goal is to interpret the word of God in a way that changes lives.
The effort involves hours of contemplation, writing and editing. And the number of words should translate into a time frame that matches the length of the church service.
Father Cávana Wallace is a Catholic priest who currently serves St. Therese Parish in San Diego, but on July 1 he will begin pastoring St. Timothy’s Church in Escondido.
Born in Ireland and ordained a priest in the Diocese of San Diego in 1992, he said writing a sermon is “prayer work” that tries to “capture infinity”.
“I ask for the help of the Holy Spirit first,” Wallace said.
“I reflect on my ministry during the week and the ongoing events around us. Then I read, reread and reflect on the Gospel passage chosen for the coming Sunday. I start writing without knowing how it will turn out. I guess it’s a bit like a great chef, paying attention to the ingredients, which enhance the flavors, and the overall presentation. But the overall goal is to point to an encounter and union with Christ.
Terry Wayne Brooks, the senior pastor who serves one of the largest black congregations in town at Bayview Church in San Diego, will sometimes write a series of sermons based on a theme, such as mental health awareness or fearlessness in faith.
He uses Bible software to help him find references that match his ideas.
“I will read and take notes on every passage and story,” said Brooks, who earned a master’s degree from Faith International University & Seminary in Tacoma, Washington.
“I have to go word by word with the language, whether it’s Hebrew or Greek, to understand what the passage means. Then I will begin to cross-reference the scriptures with the theme of my series.
Brooks said he is challenged by the fact that everything he studies has interest and value.
“But I don’t need to say everything I learned,” he explained.
“One of my preaching teachers told me, ‘Give people a slice of cake, don’t give them the recipe.’ So I have to keep that in mind. Every week there is an editing process and when I study it, the easier it becomes to articulate with fewer words.
Chief Rabbi Jason Nevarez serves Congregation Beth Israel, the oldest and largest synagogue in the county. When he writes a sermon, he says he sometimes reaches out to his colleagues for feedback and his best editor is his wife, “a wonderful writer.”
Nevarez, who was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and earned a master’s degree in Hebrew literature and religious education, also factors in the time of year.
A weekly sermon can take hours to write, but important religious events, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, require more time.
“If we are in the holy days, I would speak to a large majority of the congregation and they are anticipating a message that they can hang on to for the year ahead,” Nevarez said.
“I’ll probably start thinking about it for two months before I start writing. I’m going to research, sketch, and back and forth multiple times to make sure it makes an impact. »
Although post-pandemic worshipers have returned to live services, maintaining an online presence has become an integral way for religious leaders to communicate.
Father Wallace posts sermons at printedaspreached.blogspot.com and Brooks has both an Instagram account (@twaynebrooks) and he is on Facebook (@Terry Wayne Brooks).
Rabbi Nevarez shares “A 21st Thoughts from the Rabbi of the Century” at rabbijnev.wordpress.com
Sermons have entered the realm of social media and these carefully crafted words can be copied and pasted elsewhere. Sometimes there are returns.
When congregants compliment Wallace, he considers it “a moment of grace” and believes “the Holy Spirit is at work”.
Pastor Brooks welcomes responses from Bayview Church’s online Christian audience, which helps him shape future sermons.
“I get to see people’s takeouts,” Brooks said.
“Someone will say, ‘This is powerful.’ I will underline this statement and reflect on it the next time I want to make a point.
In a divided world, posting comments on the Internet requires a keen sense of discernment.
“Thousands of people can see (what I write),” Nevarez pointed out.
“I want to make sure it’s worth distributing. We have freedom from the pulpit and that means we can say whatever we want to say. But I’m not talking about politics. It’s saturated in every day, so there’s no reason to bring it into the sacred time.
Holy days to come
Passover and Easter will take place in the coming days, events that inspire faith leaders to speak about the relevance of ancient scripture in a way that resonates in modern times.
Pastor Brooks is a former athlete who “loves a challenge” and is looking forward to writing the annual Easter sermon.
“I want to make sure that a story that’s over 2,000 years old, and that everyone knows the end of, relates to people’s lives,” Brooks said.
“The Bible is the living word, so it should speak to us as we live.”
During a Catholic Easter Mass, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated with more emphasis on ritual and scriptural readings.
“I am very aware that Christ’s own death was his greatest sermon of love for his own people and for all of humanity,” Wallace said.
“Perhaps that is why during Holy Week, the Catholic tradition does not lend itself too much to preaching. Instead, through an ancient ritual, we step into the history of the Chosen People and journey with Christ to Jerusalem and beyond.
The Passover story commemorates when God used Moses to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim, derived from m’tzarim, which means “narrow places”.
“It’s a metaphor for the tightness we create in our own minds, like how we respond to restrictions around COVID, or how our thinking about restrictions can limit our potential,” Nevarez explained.
“The Israelites were heading for the promised land, but they did not know that there would be 40 years of wandering in the desert. There was a lot to remember at that time, and it speaks to the restriction or narrowness we encounter in life and our potential for freedom. The time of Passover, with the synergy of Maundy Thursday, Friday and Easter Sunday, reminds me of the promise of our faith and our potential. What can we nurture in our faith that will help us through difficult times? »
Luttrell is a freelance writer.