Rethinking Preaching: Seminary Killed my Style – Now What?


I thought I’d spend a few posts here on Pomomusings reflecting on preaching, something that I don’t get to do every week as an Associate Pastor, but something I do enough that the topic is on my mind often.

Many of you may recognize the photo above: it’s Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary. I preached there once (watch the video here).

But before I went to seminary, I had done some “preaching” and some preaching. Let me explain. I spent my first two summers during college working at Camp Sawtooth, a Presbyterian Church (USA) church camp just north of Ketchum, Idaho. After serving on staff for a couple years, I got invited back to be the Camp Dean for certain camps. The Camp Dean had to give morning chapel and evening campfire “talks.” I made intricate outlines, listing every one of my 20 points per 45-minute talk…yah, I still pray for the kids who sat through those “talks” of mine.

I remember one week of camp…it was the FIRST NIGHT of camp, and I was supposed to do the “Hey everyone – welcome to camp, this is going to be a great week” talk. It turned into a 45 minute….well, I don’t know what it was. But I do remember that it was close to 45 minutes long.

After college, I also got to preach at the church I served as Director of Youth Ministries. I still have the outlines I made for those sermons…and they’re long. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed sitting through those early sermons of mine.

I was long-winded. I rambled. I got off on tangents.

But…what I could do…was preach from a rough outline, and I felt comfortable with that. Folks encouraged me and said they appreciated my style (sure, maybe they were just being kind, but still…).

And then I went to seminary. Now, I say that seminary killed my preaching style. And if that means that I’m not preaching long-winded tangent-laden sermons that don’t necessarily have a point…then I guess that’s a good thing.

Princeton taught me to preach from a manuscript. Before going to seminary, I had always felt like that was cheating. Who uses a manuscript?! Well, I would begin to use one at Princeton Theological Seminary, that’s for certain.

And after graduating, and now having served two churches after seminary, I can assure you that I have always preached with a manuscript since then. And, it’s not all bad. It helps me keep the length to a fairly predictable length, which I enjoy. It helps me craft the sermon the way I want folks to hear it (of course, there is always the Holy Spirit who likes to mess things up sometimes), and it probably does make me a better preacher.

And at least in my experience, while I preach from a manuscript, I still have a more casual, conversational tone in my delivery, and that feels better to me.

But, I really do want to move away from preaching via a manuscript. I want to be able to think about, craft and be really comfortable with a sermon, so that I can preach it from just a few notes for an outline. I think it will give me more freedom, and I think that it will help give me even more of a “conversational tone” for my delivery.

Seminary taught me a lot about preaching that was helpful, but I think it also took away some of the freedom & “casualness” of my preferred sermon delivery method.

Anyone else stuck in this type of a conundrum? Have you found helpful ways to move away from manuscript preaching?


  1. says

    Preliminary qualification – I am not regularly preaching right now. I did for seven years, however, and the last 3-4 of those I preached out of the pulpit, usually with notes tucked in a Bible (not hidden, just there for ease of reference), sometimes with no notes. I would write my sermon out in full and then not exactly memorize it, but go over it enough times that I learned the flow of it, and could “rethink my way through it” on Sunday morning. I found I had more energy to preach by being able to look more at the congregation’s faces. I also found that sometimes new and better ways of saying things emerged in the moment, so it brought back some of that extemporaneous quality you describe. But definitely do write down some kind of sketchy outline, in case (as also happened sometimes) you get completely lost.

    Anyway, my basic point is, writing the manuscript doesn’t mean you have to read it aloud. It’s still the most helpful discipline I know, of though, for thinking a sermon through in advance.

    Were I still in the pulpit on a regular basis now, instead of just doing the occasional guest preaching, I might write out maybe 2/3 of what my sermon used to be, and then structure in a time for people to give reactions, questions, etc.

  2. says

    I’ve moved to manuscript preaching after being an outliner when I was a beginner. Manuscripts force you to actually do the work of sermon-writing. I found when outlining I could glance over something in preparation, and when it can time to deliver the sermon I didn’t say things as clearly as I had wanted to.

    After I read through the final manuscript twice, I pretty much have it memorized. I bold or underline really tricky points where I need to make sure I say something in a particular way, and read verbatim from the manuscript at that point, but otherwise, I am pretty much preaching from memory. If I somehow made it to the pulpit without my manuscript, I would be comfortable preaching without it.

    I think it is Andy Stanley who writes out a full manuscript, but then converts it to an outline and preaches from the outline.

    That’s my take. Rob bell has his take, too:

  3. says

    I’ve addressed this by listening to other fine preachers via iTunes: Dave Davis, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, and Joe Clifford, to name a few. Plus, I get to listen to Karen Sapio most weeks. Those folks preach like they’re not using a manuscript, with a conversational and inviting tone, though I’m sure they use them. I think the challenge is to use the manuscript in service of informal delivery.

  4. says

    I remember learning to preach from Peter Gomes at Harvard Divinity School. He forbid us from preaching from a manuscript, telling us that we should know what we needed to say and how to say it without having it written down. Then again, he preached with one, and rarely looked at it, and when this was brought up, he replied that he had preached long enough that he had the right to do whatever he wanted, but that it was his job to train us correctly.
    He was a character, but I have come to believe that, at least in my case, he was right. For me, manuscript preaching can become lazy preaching, and I have noticed that when I write a manuscript, it tends to follow a form more conducive to being read than being heard. Sure, it is fun to craft turns of phrase, but there is a major difference between how we read and how we hear. After years of manuscripts, I have found myself returning to a very basic outline, because I recognize that this requires me to spend more time on the craft, more time with the text, and ultimately produces a better experience from the pulpit and the pew.
    But it is also more work, which can be a source of stress, if ever there was one.
    I would recommend a book, “Preaching without Notes” to you, by the way, on the subject of preaching.

  5. says

    Hi Adam,
    As a former member of Toastmaster’s, i must say that in that club it was definitely frowned upon to read anything once you were past your first few speeches. I imagine that would be hard to do if you needed to quote scripture, but what they were trying to do was make the “speech” more compelling to the audience. And I made it through about 30 speeches or so before I stopped going (not because I didn’t like the club but because of other issues).
    I think the idea is that you have your basic points to make (and maybe you keep them hidden on a card in case you forget them you can refer to them) but for the major part of your talk you are able to speak without a manuscript. I don’t think that reading your sermon evokes the same connection with the audience as sharing it with them. In Toastmaster’s we were told that no one out in the audience knew what our speech was about… so we could mess up a little and no one would know! That was freeing to most of us!

  6. says

    I think it takes a lot of prep time, which I typically don’t have, and a lot of practice doing it, which I haven’t really invested in.

    My first preaching experiences sound very similar to yours. I’ve tried preaching from notes within the last few years, and it wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great.

    I usually don’t write my sermons until right before I preach them, so at least the manuscript is pretty fresh on my mind.

    I think one of the best non-manuscript preachers I’ve seen in our tradition is Ted Smith. I think he writes his out and then memorizes it.

  7. Joel Alvis says

    The thing that transformed my preaching was joining a local Toastmaster’s Club. Learning to talk to a group of folks about non-church topics extemporaneously, have people count your “ums” and getting (and giving) useful feedback is a great model. I know that preaching classes provide some or all of this – but 1 or 2 semesters can only begin to scratch the surface. .

  8. says

    I am a fellow Princeton grad. I preach every Sunday. I write a manuscript but try to become so familiar with it I don’t need to be tied to it. I have also taken the manuscript and made an outline. Complete with quotes reminders to work fro. May a page worth. After I have dne the work of preparation. Which I find valuable. I am in NW Oregon. Know Satooth well

  9. says

    Sorry for the typing errors, was on my phone. I guess I haven’t mastered Qwerty. So as I noted, I do a manuscript, and then often just a highlight page, with quotes if necessary. This after I have done the manuscript, made sure I have a quality product, and gotten very familiar with it.

    I often still use a manuscript, and if I have read through it a few times ahead of time, can preaching without people sensing I am preaching from a script. There are days I feel very manuscript tied.

    Blessings, Stephen
    Lostine Presbyterian Church,
    Wallowa County, Oregon

  10. says

    I don’t think manuscript/not matters a whit. What matters is content and communicating that. Whatever helps YOU communicate what you mean to in relationship with the community you’re addressing is the proper way to prep.

    Being a writer who preaches, my training in speechwriting and my own heavy interest in exegesis down to word study and crystalline communication drives me to write, not just a manuscript, but a script. It’s in big enough type that I don’t need reading glasses. Timing is indicated by line breaks, spaces between lines, and page breaks. I don’t try to memorize it (other than one “as Sarah tells it” story), but yes, I’ve read it enough times, out loud to my cats, that I’ve rehearsed looking up to meet eyes, pauses, gestures, even know where I’m going to want to take a sip to let a point settle over the room or set up an even bigger point. Even when I’ve never been in that room before or know anyone in it, I’ve never heard a complaint that I just read to them.

    Communicate. Relate (as in relationship). And use whatever preparation best gives you the confidence to do that.

  11. James G Goble says

    In 40+ years of preaching, I have not yet “gotten away from” the manuscript, nor do I intend to. I may not read it verbatim, but I have it, so I know what I intend to say.

  12. kcfield2 says

    The first time I attended the Festival of Homiletics, I sat off to the side, and noticed that every preacher in this “who’s who” of preaching preached from a manuscript. So clearly the notion that manuscript preaching is for beginners, and preaching from notes or extemporaneously is for advance preachers is not true. I would ask yourself, “Is God truly leading me to move away from manuscript preaching, and if so, what would He have me accomplish that I am not accomplishing now?”

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