Good notes building the foundation for great sermons
By Ronnie Crocker
Like the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the 15 to 20 minutes a preacher spends in the pulpit represents only a fraction of the time she has put into her sermon.
The Rev. Tabitha Mock-Rankin and the Rev. Ginny Griggs, share several insights into how they craft their messages, the extent to which they depend on written notes during delivery, and how they balance reading from a script while addressing their audiences directly.
The women, both of whom have spent the better part of a decade in ministry, each said preparation begins several days in advance and can continue until shortly before the “preaching moment” arrives. Both said they start with a close reading of the Methodist lectionary, a weekly guide that provides a rotating selection of scripture and biblical lessons and is used often throughout the church.
“There will be some stories and scriptures that really grab your heart,” Mock-Rankin said. “That’s where I start.” “From there,” added Griggs, “I compile a list of my initial questions, things that caught my attention, my observations.” As that marinates, they each consult outside books and articles to see what others have had to say in similar topic areas.
Mock-Rankin discusses her message with a trusted mentor. Griggs seeks diverse sources in terms of gender, theological tradition, and ethnic or racial background. “I end up reading a lot, I usually end up with a lot more notes than I need and as I go through them, a thread begins to emerge.” she said.
Mock-Rankin starts on the Tuesday before a Sunday sermon because it wouldn’t be “feasible” to complete the required research in one sitting and give it the thought it deserves. “I do a little every day,” she said.
Both women estimate they spend at least six or seven hours total in preparation. Both strive to keep their messages focused on a key point and whittled down to 15 to 20 minutes, so they don’t tax the congregation’s attention span.
Mock-Rankin is pastor of two churches in Huntsville, and she preaches at both each Sunday. 9 a.m. at Pleasant Grove UMC, Huntsville then 11 a.m. at St. Paul’s UMC, Huntsville. She has been in ministry since 2013, after graduating from Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
Griggs has been in ministry for seven years, after completing her studies at Candler School of Theology, also in Atlanta. She is currently community pastor at St. Mark’s UMC, Houston and she is also, Director of Congregational Partnerships and Epworth League with FAM Houston. She typically preaches to young adults from the Epworth League on Tuesday nights and occasionally delivers a sermon at St. Mark’s.
Both credit their seminary instructors with teaching them about style and substance, as well as, drilling into them the importance of staying on point, in order to present a powerful message.
Griggs said one of her preaching professors summed up the latter point this way: “Say one thing. Say one true thing. Say one true thing about God and then sit down.” They both also said, their teachers understood that it is up to the individual to find his or her own pacing for preparation and delivery of their sermons. “We have to find out what works for us and be true to that,” Mock-Rankin said.
These days, Mock-Rankin types out a full manuscript of the sermon she plans to deliver, including notes on where to insert a personal story. This allows her to step away from the prepared remarks and speak, from memory, directly to the congregation. Then there are the “sticky notes” she affixes to her script and to the pages of her Bible.
As the day of worship nears, she will practice her message. She wants to be intimately familiar, even though she primarily will be reading from a script. “I’ll walk around the office and talk it through,” Mock-Rankin said. “But no matter how many times I’ve previewed it, I always have those notes nearby. My manuscript or my sermon notes are always at the lectern with me.”
Griggs may be even more attached to her script, which she types up and prints out, then amends with handwritten notes as she goes over it. “I’m a writer by nature and always have been,” she said. “So, word choice is very important to me.” Having that paper not only helps Griggs maintain her focus, but it also reduces the stress of remembering the points she wants to make and the best transitions from one to another. She even spaces out the words of her manuscript more like a poem than a paragraph-by-paragraph account. That gives the reading a rhythm and reminds her, for example, where to pause for effect. “I can see how it’s laid out,” Griggs said.
Anyone who thinks that “manuscript preachers” are lazily “reading from a text” does not realize how the process works, she added. “It takes a lot of practice to find your rhythm,” Griggs said.
Their sermons, like so much in life, reflect the amount of effort that went into preparing them. As Mock-Rankin put it, “It’s so important that we give it the time that it needs.”