Hitting Your Creative Peak
Hitting Your Creative Peak
Several years ago, I was in the Boston area visiting the seminary from where I graduated. I walked into the office of my former professor of preaching, Dr. Haddon Robinson, and asked, "Have you had any new insights about preaching recently?" He replied, "I've discovered that our brain works on a ten-day creative cycle. So, if a person wants to prepare their best sermons, they need to begin their preparation at least ten days in advance. This will ensure a person will hit their creative peak somewhere in that cycle." That simple, yet powerful idea revolutionized my approach to sermon preparation. Up until that time, I had typically prepared my entire sermon on the Thursday before the Sunday that I was to preach.
On Thursday, I would read the Bible text in the morning, then study some exegetical commentaries, and take notes. I would then read a couple Communicator's Commentaries and perhaps a sermon or two related to the passage, and then formulate an outline. In the afternoon, I would type out the sermon. And in the late afternoon, I would write a study guide for our small groups. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to come up with something creative on Thursdays, and I dreaded that day. Thursdays were the most stressful part of my week. With all of the anxiety, I experienced regular "sermon block."
Ten day cycle
Haddon Robinson's insight changed my approach to sermon preparation. Instead of preparing my Sunday sermon on the Thursday before, I began to prepare the message two Thursdays before, so that I would have a ten-day runway. The ten-day runway meant I didn't need to commit an entire day to message prep. Now, I began working on the sermon every other day, for part of the morning. Spreading out the work significantly reduced the pressure and my anxiety. The longer runway also gave more time for my creative ideas to emerge and I found that —for the first time—I began to enjoy the sermon preparation process, and that it felt more prayerful. People even commented that my sermons had improved.
Work on two messages
These days, I'll typically be working on two messages on any given week, putting 10 to 15 hours a week into a sermon. Yes, working on more than one message at a time sounds complicated. But the longer runway actually gives more time for creative ideas to percolate, and helps me to better see how one sermon will work in relationship to another in the series.
Study at the same time
I also discovered that I was more creative and fruitful in my preparation work if I studied and wrote at approximately the same time. I begin my mornings with a brief time of meditation, and then I go for a swim or a run. After I come back home and have breakfast, I then engage in my creative work (on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings). We tend to assume that artistic types are unstructured and spontaneous, and rely on pure inspiration. But Mason Currey's study of 161 painters, writers, composers, filmmakers, philosophers, and other exceptional thinkers demonstrates that the greatest artists had very precise routines, and engaged in their creative work at the same time every day. Currey's book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, demonstrates how "a solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one's mental energies, and helps stave off the tyranny of moods."
Anne Lamott, one of my favourite writers, says that she writes at the same time every day. At 9:00 A.M. (with the exception of her Sabbath), she sits down in her chair each day, and her spirit seems to be telling her, "Annie, it is now time to be creative." The novelist Tom Wolfe begins to write every night at 12 midnight; his subconscious is saying, "Tom, it's time to be creative now." As preachers, we can foster a rhythm of sermon preparation that enables us to become especially attuned to the creative voice of the Holy Spirit at certain times.
Cultivating the creative process
In my own experience, I have found that walking helps to foster my creative process. I typically read, outline ideas, and write while walking. I hold a sheet of paper in my hand and do my initial outlining and sketching of ideas by hand. I later discovered that handwriting my initial ideas fosters more creativity because you are accessing a different part of your brain as you manipulate your thoughts with a pen and paper, parts that you may not be not tapping into as you type—no pun intended!
As I walk west along False Creek, an inlet fed by the Pacific Ocean, in Vancouver, after about 20 minutes (and always as I am approaching Granville Island), ideas appear almost predictably. Many poets and writers take a daily walk. For example, Charles Dickens took three-hour walks every afternoon. What he observed on these walks fed directly into his writing. Soren Kierkegaard found that his walks inspired so many ideas that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella. Henry David Thoreau said, "Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow." As we walk (or run, or swim), we are using both the left and the right sides of our bodies, and this helps to engage both hemispheres of our brain. Walking helps increase the endorphins that help foster creative ideas.
When I go for a walk, if I feel that the time has been especially fruitful, I will recite the phrase Solvitur ambulando by Augustine, "It is solved by walking."
Years ago, one of my predecessors at my church in Vancouver would have lunch at home with his family after the Sunday service. His children, who were in their teenage and young-adult years at the time, would refer to their time with their father as "having the preacher for lunch." They would point out the flaws, and the shortcomings, of his sermon. When I heard that story, I mused that it would have been so much more helpful if the preacher had heard those comments before he had actually preached his sermon—so he could have made some adjustments. Thus was born "feed-forward." I started vetting my Sunday sermon past a group of colleagues and lay people on the Wednesday afternoon before I was slated to preach.
I always want at least one woman, and one thoughtful lay-person who is a gifted communicator, in my "feed-forward" group. I go over my sermon (and I read the manuscript to ensure that I am getting my content accurately across—though I don't actually use notes during my actual Sunday preaching, apart from the Bible, quotes, or statistics I may be citing). My feed-forward team will then let me know what was helpful about the sermon and more importantly, and constructive for me, what could have been clearer or stronger. They offer suggestions, and what often emerges is a rich dialogue. I sometimes feel my feed-forward discussions have a Socratic-method approach: questions are raised, and conversation ensues. It creates a synergy, where the sum total is far greater than the simple addition of ideas. On a small scale, this feels like the Body of Christ in action.
A preparation runway
Of course, having a runway to prepare your sermon and incorporating practices, like walking and feed-forward, to cultivate creativity are no substitutes for the Holy Spirit. However, like spiritual disciplines at their best, these practices can become portals for us to experience more of Christ's grace in the creative process. Contrary to popular myth, being unprepared to preach doesn't necessarily mean a person is more dependent on the Spirit either. If we are woefully underprepared, we tend to experience greater anxiety while speaking and end up using an excessive amount of mental energy simply to construct something meaningful to say in the moment. Conversely, if we are well-prepared for our sermons, we will be more relaxed and attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit in our actual preaching moment and we can omit something we had prepared or say something we hadn't scripted. If we engage in a wise and healthy preparation process, we will find ourselves more centered, creative, and truly open to the guidance of Scripture and the Holy Spirit.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything