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"To Manuscript or Not to Manuscript..." ~ Susan McGurgan

This article was published in "Preach" Magazine, which alas, had a short publication run and no longer exists. Since there is no one to request permission to reprint, as the author, I am sharing it with you, inviting you consider the risks and benefits of of the choices you make: preaching with a manuscript, notes, or no notes.

Wooden. Stilted. Deadly. A desiccated entrée with a sawdust chaser. Like a verbal sleeping pill…but not nearly as entertaining. And these are some of the milder criticisms leveled at manuscript preachers!

Despite the many vital issues that surround the art of preaching, we sometimes reduce the assessment of effective preaching to a single question: “Did the preacher use a manuscript, or not?” Inspired preaching, dynamic preaching, powerful preaching, preaching “from the heart” is often seen as incompatible with preaching from a manuscript.

Many of the students I teach are victims of the popular (and I would argue, erroneous) belief that there is a clear hierarchy of skills, progressing from the novice who must temporarily, and unfortunately, use a manuscript, to the intermediate preacher, bound only by an outline, to the ultimate master: one who preaches without notes, preferably while walking about the sanctuary and down the aisle.

Yet, as a laywoman who listens far more than I preach, I am frequently dismayed at the real-life results of preaching without a manuscript. All too often, it means stepping into the pulpit with little or no preparation and preaching without discernable structure or form. Sunday after Sunday, we listeners enter church, eager for powerful words of hope and possibility; hungry for healing words of peace and reconciliation; in need of challenging words of truth and liberation. But we often leave frustrated and empty, having been offered words more appropriate to an impromptu chat or private musings than a sacred conversation. We struggle to follow homilies that never get off the ground; homilies that cannot seem to land; homilies that wander among disconnected stories and orphaned images; homilies that talk themselves into corners and bump into walls. In reality, many of us simply give up, turning our thoughts to next week’s scout meeting or tomorrow’s business trip, while kicking ourselves for not being more attentive and devout.

Words have power. They can wound or heal, alienate or invite, bind or loose. Words from a creative God can explode galaxies into life. But words are not equal, and when it comes to preaching, just any old word won’t do. In order to mine the right ones, preachers must dig deep. A homily that is vivid, concrete and theologically astute demands words that are chosen with prayer, constructed with skill and seasoned over time. Preachers must play with words, savor them, re-arrange them, abide with them, and ultimately—remember them. This is especially true when the preaching occasion is one in which emotions are heightened, such as funerals, or those times when the Gospel message invites us into a risky dialogue on a sensitive or complex issue. These are moments when a casual or ill-chosen word, uttered in haste, can become a barrier instead of an invitation; a Molotov cocktail instead of a flame.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Using a manuscript allows preachers to remain concise, on-target and focused. It brings the dynamic words that were discovered on Wednesday, right into the pulpit on Sunday. It frees the preacher to concentrate on the content and delivery of the message, knowing that when the right words are needed, they will be there. Moreover, the act of creating a manuscript imposes a discipline of preparation that is sadly lacking in much of today’s preaching.

But what about the criticism that manuscript preaching is inherently dull, “lecture-y” and inhibits the action of the Holy Spirit? What about spontaneity, orality and “oomph”? One wise teacher taught me that manuscripts are neutral--it’s what you do with them that matters. Preaching effectively with a manuscript does require skill. It demands a good “oral ear”; one honed by careful listening, imaginative thinking, eclectic reading and ruthless editing. It requires practice aloud and the preparation of an oral manuscript.

An oral manuscript

looks something like


It uses short lines

and brief phrases

to emphasize natural pauses

and dramatic breaks.

An oral manuscript provides a lot of flexibility.

If I want to SHOUT

I can SHOUT.

If I want to pause...


I can indicate that, too.

You never place more on a line,

than you can see in a glance

or speak in a breath.

This allows you to preach from notes,

while looking like

you are preaching without a net.

An oral manuscript imposes a unique discipline of its own, helping to keep sentences short and homiletic structure tight. It fosters a preaching style that is direct, clear--even poetic. Since entire sections are visible at a glance, it keeps the preacher’s focus on the assembly instead of the manuscript, allowing for last minute changes and on-the-spot edits.

As for the Holy Spirit…well, it’s simply hard to believe that the power of divine inspiration, which is certainly accessible to the preacher in church on Sunday morning, would be completely unavailable in the study on Tuesday afternoon.

In the end, whatever method the preacher chooses, good preaching is a time-consuming, labor-intensive, ego-deflating task. Effective preaching is simply hard work…and it should be. After all, some of us are listening as if our lives depend on it.

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1 Σχόλιο

Thanks for the wisdom. I spent the first 15 years of my diaconate memorizing my written homily. It worked sometimes wonderfully, but other times disappointed not only me but my listeners. I recall when I left an important detail out of my homily one Sunday, our sacristan mentioned it to me and how the point I was trying to make was lost. She was right, of course. My spontaneous reply to her was that I wasn't a machine. Nonetheless, I knew that I had failed her and others at that Mass. I finally gave up the self-imposed pressure of memorization and returned to preaching from a manuscript. I still have a lot to learn about delivery, even with it written…

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