It happens to everybody. You’ve been hacking at the text all week, trying to find the heart of the sermon. You’ve started off in a few different directions, but nothing really gels. The stuff you’ve written is too clever, too contrived, or just too lame—it doesn’t seem really worth it, or another way of saying it is that you just don’t feel confident that what you’ve gotten together is really the word for the day.
Being stuck feels awful. Not only does it make you feel desperate as the week moves on, but everything just begins to feel futile, blah, and …
Okay, enough of that. You know what it feels like—we all do. And you probably don’t need much reinforcement of what it feels like. But you may need a couple of strategies for getting unstuck. Here are a few that have helped me—hope they get your tires moving.
- First, shut down the noise. Close twitter, your browser, put your phone on night mode, throw your phone in a river, whatever it takes. But shut it all down. When I’m stuck, all the noise calls out to me with a crazy sweet siren song. All of a sudden, I just need to “check” something. Somehow I even think I’m still working, but it’s not true. I think the procrastination will help me feel better, but it’s a lie—willingly walking into the procrastination trap of the internet only makes me feel worse about my process, more hopeless about getting done. It really doesn’t help. So, shut it down. Turning down the noise is your first and best strategy for getting unstuck.
- Take a break. Yeah, I know this is terribly inconsistent with that last bit about procrastinating, but stick with me here—taking the right kind of break isn’t procrastinating. Procrastinating is putting off your work by pretending to do it while you’re doing something else. Taking a break is pulling back to reset your brain. It is intentionally saying, “I’m going to take twenty minutes to back off, and then I’m going to come back and dive straight into the heart of this work.” When you take the break, take it with vigor—don’t just sit in the same spot and wander off into your email or facebook land or anything like that. Get up, go sit in a different chair, take a walk, go bounce a ball off a wall, walk your dog, make a snack, something that couldn’t possibly be contrived as working. You’re not working, you’re taking a break. If you take the break 100%, then you can make and keep the promise to go 100% back to work. Breaks are a serious strategy—don’t halfway do them.
- Change your environment. Jostle your brain by working in the floor instead of your desk, or shut the laptop and start working on a legal pad. If you’re already rocking the legal pad, go down to the children’s ministry supply closet and get a big piece of poster board to work on. Stand up and work on a dry-erase board. Sometimes I go to the pulpit and try to work in that space for a little while. Of course, there are ways to can shake up your environment without taking a step. Play a different kind of music, change the lighting, put on a toga, whatever. CAUTION: This business about changing your work environment can become the perfect procrastination strategy, as you spend an hour obsessing over the space. Sorry, but that’s not the strategy, that’s just putting off the pain. If you’re going to change your environment, do it quickly. If you spend more than three minutes doing it, you’re doing it wrong.
- Call a lifeline. It’s gut wrenching to admit to somebody else that you’re stuck (this involves admitting it to yourself), but one of the best things that I ever do is call a friend and ask for help. Tell them you’re stuck, what you’re working with, and see what kinds of things you can come up with together.
- The working walk. This is my all-time favorite. Thankfully our church is close to a city park that has a great little trail on it. I’ll write the text on a small scrap of paper, load it as much as I can into my brain, then go for a walk. I may stop on a bench or two and read it again, but mostly I just walk briskly and try to think about the single place in that text that I can totally imagine standing in front of the church, reading to the church—What is the line in the text that I want to shout, whisper, gasp or beg to the church? Where do I hear it calling to me?
- Write a much shorter sermon. (Sorry, I’m not talking about the final product here, but I suppose that’s a strategy too.) Write something in the neighborhood of 50 words—a brief paragraph. I’m not talking about a summary—summaries are dull and boring, because they try to say everything. I mean, try to come up with a short sermon, a real sermon, something you could get up and preach—in fact, the something that, if you were only given a half a minute or 45 second, you indeed would preach, and with passion. If you can do that, most of the time it’ll lead you to the rest of the sermon, but if you’re fixated on trying to get the whole thing, it can be such a barrier that you never really get anywhere. So, start by ditching the idea that you’re working on “the sermon”, as if it’s even possible to work on the whole thing at once. Instead, try to find one section—the heart of it. Try to focus on that one section that you know you have to say. This is like trying to find a spaceship buried in the sand—if you can just manage to uncover just a tip of the wing, then you know where to start digging to uncover the rest.
- Anti-preach the text. What is the absolute worst way you could preach this text? What would be the most sinister way of twisting it?What kind of sermon about this text would make you furious, or make you want to crawl in a hole and never come out? Write that sermon for a little while. Sometimes that can help you find what you really have to say.