Challenges of the Pulpit: Finding the Right Words When You Don’t Know What To Say

photo from


That’s a word, according to Mary Poppins (a trusted authority on a number of important things), which is to be used when you have nothing else relevant to say. Its effect can be likened to a magic word or a prayer which releases all the bottled-up frustrations we experience.

It makes me wonder, therefore, what would happen if, on a Sunday morning, I strolled out after the Gospel, crossed myself, invited people to sit down, and then after a suitable pause, stated very clearly for everyone to hear, “SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS!”

Perhaps people would laugh. Perhaps they would wait expectantly for something to follow which would explain the strange outburst. Perhaps people wouldn’t know what to say (in which case the appropriate word is right there for them to use in reply). I think, by the time the service was over, and I was shaking hands at the door, several people would have very effectively found their voices and have comments ready to throw my way as they depart the church.

It’s probably not something I would actually do.

But it does broach the subject: what do I do if, when the moment comes, I don’t know what to say for my Sunday sermon?

It could happen. It certainly has in my anxious worries as Sunday gets closer and closer. I make it a habit to go over the readings every Monday, and proceed to mull them over during the week, waiting for the Spirit to move me along a certain thought process to find the message which I will deliver. I take time to familiarize myself with the text from several angles and refer to other theological interpretations by other clergy. I almost never write anything down. I don’t do notes or the like. I find a story or metaphor in my heart which speaks to the message I will give, and then I pray fervently that God will be with me, helping me put it all together, as I get up in front of my congregation and begin to speak… and desperately try to remember what I’m saying so that I can do it again at the next service that day.

But what if none of it works? What if I get up, and find that I have nothing to say, no wisdom to share, no interpretations or clarifications to impart upon what I hope to be an intent and riveted church?

So far, I’m happy to say, it has never happened. The words come when needed, and the comments I receive as people head out of the building are normally very positive. But the worries remain, each week, each Sunday morning. I wonder sometimes if this is common among clergy. Do all others who preach find themselves having to untie a knot in their stomach as the Gospel reading draws to a close? Do the congregations we serve know the hard work and immensely faithful trust that is required to meet this challenge time after time?

For myself, I’ve trained myself to let go. I stand up, pace in silence for a moment, and let go of my nerves, my tiredness, my worries… and just open up and see what happens.

For what it’s worth… it is how I managed to write this article. 

Keep on reading

Skip to content