Thursday, November 13, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 1


With all the discussion in recent months about bivocational ministry, it's worth discussion what implications it has for that central role of the minister: the preacher.

My assertion is that Unitarian Universalist preaching for our ministers is a very different thing from preaching in Christian traditions, and from what lay people experience when they preach.  And the reasons that this is different are also some of the reasons why many of our full-time ministers don't preach every Sunday.  Here are some of those reasons:

First, in many Christian traditions, there's an assumption that all your sermons are going to in some way tie back to that specific faith and its religious text, the Bible.  You've spent much of your seminary career studying that particular text and you know it well.  Your members are not surprised to hear the same stories coming up in worship again and again, and the same Biblical images.  You may have a lectionary that you use that tells you which passages to use for each week of the year.  You have online resources of sermon starters, stories, examples, and more, to go with that lectionary.  And you probably have a group of local or online colleagues who are doing that same lectionary that you can discuss the week's choices with.

Our lay people when they preach have something of a similar experience, in that they're often preaching on something that they're an expert on, or at least is their real passion.  And they may have months to prepare that one particular sermon.

Contrast both of these with the UU minister's experience.  While you've had four years of theological school, you're expected to be well-versed in not just our religious tradition of UUism, and not just that tradition plus Christianity, but that tradition, Christianity, and all the world's religions.  But then these world religions and theology while they may inform your preaching, will likely not comprise all of your topics.  It is a common experience for the UU preacher to tackle a number of new sermon topics each year, each of which might require extensive new reading in an area completely new to the preacher, and which may be a topic never used again. 

This is the number one reason I think our preaching takes a larger percentage of our time, and also why we don't preach every Sunday even while full-time. 

The amount of time it takes a minister will vary, but I've often heard colleagues saying it takes them two full days of sermon-writing, although most of our letters of agreement give us one sermon-writing day.  20 hours is a number I've heard multiple times, which would equal about half of a regular worker's full-time week.  That 20 hours may include research, meeting with musicians and worship associates, writing, and more.  It seems like a lot of time, but as central as Sunday morning still is to our tradition, and with our expectation of scholarly and original work, it's not surprising that we put so much emphasis on it.

Coming up next:
-- Other reasons UU ministers get some Sundays off
-- Implications for bivocational ministry
-- The changing church and implications for worship

2 comments:

Adam Gonnerman said...

It had actually cross my mind that UU ministers might have more of a challenge before them when it comes to sermon writing. When I was in Christian ministry it was indeed a fairly simple matter to take a biblical text and parse it for meaning. Having to sweep through the breadth of human literature must constitute quite an effort. Makes me think of how medical doctors have only to focus on the human body, while veterinarians have to think about multiple animal species. Not the best comparison, but it's what comes to mind.

Cynthia Landrum said...

I like that analogy.