There are two secrets I need to share with you if this blog post is going to make any sense. Here is the first: I write most of my sermons at the last minute. Even worse, most of the sermons that you hear from me are first drafts. Meaning, I'm hearing them being preached out loud for the first time at the same time you are. About a year ago, I started working with a preaching coach. Professional tennis players, golfers, and violinists have coaches, so why shouldn't professional preachers? If you are skeptical about the efficacy of coaching for trained professionals, read Dr. Atul Gawande's passionate promotion of coaching in The New Yorker.
Well, the first thing my coach, who has a Ph.D. in preaching from Vanderbilt, said to me after reading one of my manuscripts was,
"Amos, you can't keep preaching first drafts and expect to preach decent sermons. Eventually, it's going to catch up with you."
Of course, I knew this already, and was a little annoyed, but more ashamed, that my game was exposed. But why? Why would someone that's naturally inclined to complete a difficult task, considers that task his profession, and loves the challenge when he finally begins writing, procrastinate? I know I'm not the only preacher that has trouble starting. Some of my colleagues complain of not having enough time due to other pastoral expectations. I don't believe them. Pastors have more latitude in what they choose to work on and when they choose to do it, then most other professionals. Other colleagues assert that they can't start until the Holy Spirit speaks to them. My experience differs, as my best work is done when I leave enough time to test the voice of the Spirit by actually writing it down and then deleting the residual crap that has little to do with the text. My best sermons actually get shorter after each draft, as the passing of time exposes the (usually one) essential truth waiting to be preached.
The answer to my question may be in a recent essay by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic titled Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators. She wisely observes that, "If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good."
The possibility of failure is the antagonist of good writing. As long as we don't start, we've yet to fail. And even preachers, whose audience frequently lies to them out of sympathy or obligation ("I liked your sermon" or silence are apparently the only two options for feedback), and whose primary motivation is supposed to come from somewhere other than their ego, are afraid of failure. That's the other secret I meant to share.