Commentary on Sermon Structure

Note:  This article is based on a presentation sponsored by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation given at the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes on February 21, 2019 in Boston.

The Very Rev. Dean Kurt Dunkle – Dean at The General Theological Seminary

Why preach?  Frankly, it’s a fundamental question which must be addressed up front.  While there are scores of learned treatises about the theology of preaching, I have several practical reasons.  First, the BCP requires a sermon at every Eucharist service.  It’s not optional; it’s required.  So with that fact of requirement, the question is much more pointed:  why preach well?

The short answer is that the vast majority of people in all denominations say it’s the most important part of church.  A 2017 Gallup Poll shows that preaching is the most important factor of why one chooses a church.  My non-scientific research within our own Episcopal Church shows likewise.

When I was Canon to the Ordinary in charge of deployment in a large southern diocese, 100% of the CDO profiles I encountered from clergy seeking open positions of all types self-proclaimed “preaching” as one of the cleric’s top three gifts.  Similarly, virtually every congregation in their own self-study listing desires in a future clergy leader rated “preaching” as either top or second in desired attributes.  So, if we are saying truths to one another, our church should be brimming with outstanding preaching!  Or at least that’s what everyone wants and the skill virtually every clergy person says they possess.  However, anecdotal evidence throughout the church shows otherwise. 

Preaching is rarely consistently good and is frequently downright poor.  So how do we correct that?  How can seminaries help?  It begins with a proper foundation and frequent training.  Just like an athlete.  If a seminary is literally a “seed bed,” how do we grow better and more effective preachers from the outset?  I have a two-part hypothesis to offer.

A Hypothesis of How to Train Preachers

In science, a hypothesis becomes a theory only after a well-thought out hunch is refined into a proposal which is subjected to scrutiny and trial.  If it passes, the hypothesis becomes a theory.  With that in mind, I have a two-part hypothesis about preaching:  you must follow the fundamentals and then practice, practice, practice. 

Step One:  Understanding the Fundamentals

  1. Preach about Jesus. The first fundamental is bedrock: Jesus is the only reason to be in church, so preach about him or his works, but make sure to use his name.  Again and again, I see churches which forget this primary purpose and shrink and eventually die.  In the vernacular, Jesus is our only product!  So, when preaching, remember that the sermon is always about Jesus.   The saying attributed to various historic church figures about “preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words” is, quixotically, inapplicable to actual preaching.  Words – and specific ones at that – are essential in a real sermon!  Talk about Jesus.
  2. Use stories. As preachers should preach about Jesus, also preach like Jesus.  In other words, use stories.  For difficult-to-accept principles of being his follower, Jesus most frequently used stories.  Story tellers are master preachers because stories make difficult concepts human.  Preach with stories… just like Jesus. 
  3. Be human. A few years ago, my just graduated college daughter landed a plum job in finance having taken absolutely no finance classes in college.  When she asked her employer why she was given a shot and ultimately the job the employer replied, “because you are recognizably human.”  Humans relate most effectively to those they recognize as fellow humans. 

As a preacher, be human.  Use your real voice and use words which 99% of the world understands.  Avoid inside baseball language like “justification,” “sanctification,” or even describing the three days before Easter as the Triduum.  It’s fun to show off, but not in the pulpit.  The preacher’s job is to connect.  Humans want to connect with other humans. 

  1. Show them you are smart, but only give a peek. Our Presiding Bishop has a sermon style which is remarkably effective.  He talks about Jesus (#1), uses stories (#2), and exhibits admirable and magnetically recognizably human (#3) traits.  I recognize this pattern most of the time he preaches.  But he doesn’t stop there.  After introducing his topic and after the initial rush of energy in talking about Jesus there is a pivot.  Just when it seems that energy may overtake substance, he introduces a extraordinarily well crafted theological tidbit, often citing sources.  Then, the energy kicks back in, but only after the congregation is convinces that, as the Texans would say, “he has hat and cattle.”

Too often we overload our smarts in preaching.  Greek and Hebrew word studies are like underwear; they are important parts of clothing but not ordinarily meant to be worn on the outside.  Chrysostom, Hooker, and Farrar make great ancient and modern sermon frameworks; less frequently do they carry the day as the sermon focus.  Just like structural steel and poured concrete form essential building foundations, they are rarely seen.  Be smart, but only give your listener a peek at how you got there.  The smarts of your sermon is the operating system, whirring along in the background, not the cool app which is supports. 

  1. Be holy. Akin Fundamental #1, remember that preaching is a holy undertaking.  People come to church to experience the holy.  Once, when my wife and I undertook to find a new church home, we had a simple preaching metric:  did the preacher talk about Jesus more than that week’s New York Times?  Remember:  Barth’s famous quote is not to be taken literally!  Simply put, you can get someone’s take on current events anywhere.  But only in church can you hear about the holy.  Congregants want a glimpse of the holy.  The sermon should lean into that simple desire. 
  2. Be brief and make one – yes one – point. I’ve only known one preacher who could effectively preach longer than ten-to-twelve minutes. He has made a lifetime of this art of 21 minute sermons.  He spends almost half his week in study and research and collects stories and inspiration for particular texts years in advance.  In other words, he devotes tremendous resources to crafting an excellent 21 minute sermon week after week, and it shows. 

But, most of us cannot do that.  Keep sermons to ten-to-twelve minutes. 

While only a few preachers can preach effectively and interestingly beyond ten-to-twelve minutes, many more regularly successfully achieve the second part:  stick to one point.  Yet, it is rarely natural for us to self-edit.  It begins in seminary with the “theological dump” sermon where an individual’s entire systematic theology or scriptural understanding is attempted.  Through practice (see below) and discipline – that’s the point of seminary! – one point is achievable. 

  1. Be joyful. I know, I know.  It sounds pollyanna. But there is concrete evidence of the  effectiveness of joy.  In a 2015 Episcopal Church study on characteristics of Episcopal churches which are growing, congregations which self-described as “joyful” were growing.   As preaching is the most important part of worship, the sermon sets the tone.  It is a uniquely human-to-human contact (together with the announcements, another controversial topic for a different article!) in an otherwise proscribed liturgy.  Even on Good Friday preaching can convey the Good News.  Be joyful, however that comes across in your unique personality. 

Step Two:  Practice, Practice, Practice

The best way to illustrate this second part of the hypothesis, practice, is by highlighting a similar educational model:  medical schools.  Both seminaries and medical schools want the same thing.  We want smart, well educationed doctors/clergy who also know how to utilize that learning and intelligence for the benefit of patients/congregations.  Not only is medical school education essential, the formation received by intense and frequent supervised practice creates the proverbial good doctor. 

A single homiletics class from only one professor with a handful of opportunities to preach before being set free on the world of congregations maketh not a qualified preacher.  At General, we strive to have students take a preaching class each of the six semesters from a host of varied professors and instructors, each modeling varied “voices.”  Further, we have a goal of having students preach sermons and homilies 50 documented times during their three year tenure.  In the 1850s, the then-Professor of Pulpit Eloquence (great title, eh?) gave a similar 50-sermon expectation to his students.  This is not new wisdom; just newly re-emphasized.   

Preaching, like the practice of medicine, is a learned skill and as such, requires much practice.  If, for example, you needed your knee replaced, would you rather go to an orthopedic surgeon who has accomplished hundreds of knee replacements or only a few?  Similarly, would you rather hear a preacher who has had many opportunities to preach or only a few?  Seminary is for practice; parish ministry is for proverbial keeps. 

In other words, with a proper foundation, practice, practice, practice…


Congregations say preaching is the most important event of a worship service.  Most preachers say they value preaching as one of their three most important gifts.  As retired Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said on February 12, 2019 at The Paddock Lectures at General Theological Seminary, “Good preaching should make the preacher and the listener more truthful.”  In this context, that great truth requires following the fundamentals and practice.

The Very Rev. Randolph “Randy” Hollerith – Dean of Washington National Cathedral

From my point of view, good preaching is an art. We can learn preaching techniques, styles, do’s and don’ts – but in the end preaching is an art that is best learned through practice, and honest critique. I think every preacher should be committed to creating a mechanism where they can receive honest and open feedback for all of their sermons, feedback that goes beyond the “nice sermon” comments we sometimes receive at the church door following the service. Often the only good feedback we ever receive ends with the one or two homiletics courses we take in seminary. All of us need two or three people we trust who are willing to lovingly and explicitly critique our preaching. Creating this kind of critique mechanism can feel risky, but without it we often hope more than actually know whether or not our sermons are meaningful to the people we are called to serve.

For me, good preaching requires a lot of time and hard work, usually about 10-15 hours of work per sermon. There are no short cuts to good preaching. This means that we have to be constantly learning, reading, studying, and most especially – praying. We should be studying the events of the day, wrestling with the assigned scriptures, and staying faithful in prayer and reflection regarding our lives and our work.  In my experience, whenever my work-life balance is significantly out of equilibrium my preaching always suffers. If we allow our spiritual tanks to run dry, then it can be very hard to have anything of value to offer from the pulpit.

I think good preaching tries to avoid dualistic thinking. We live in a society where the media wants to divide each and every conversation into left or right, progressive or conservative, right or wrong. That is a false dichotomy, and I think the job of a good preacher is to avoid this kind of thinking whenever possible. If we are going to really lift up the inherent worth of every human being, then we have to avoid putting people into simplistic categories or looking for simplistic polarizations. It is unhelpful and sometimes destructive.

Truth be told, most of the time I am only an adequate preacher. On occasion, I am a good preacher. And for me, it has been clear that whenever I am fortunate enough to be a good preacher it is because the Spirit has been playing a serious role in those hours of preparation and in that particular moment of preaching. I am rarely ever a good preacher when I think I have to have all the answers or that it is all up to me. I am a better preacher when I step into the pulpit with fear and trembling. Humility and openness are essential to good preaching.

In a similar way, I think good preaching often requires a willingness on our part to be vulnerable. Let me share two examples of what I mean that I have witnessed since I arrived at the Cathedral. Some time ago, Brene Brown came to preach and people lined up for blocks to see her. More than 3,200 people attended one service to hear her preach because of her authenticity, because of her willingness to be honest and vulnerable about the human experience. She didn’t preach at the congregation, she spoke to them, revealing her own struggles and questions about faith raised in the lessons for that morning. As a result, she made a huge Cathedral feel quite small and intimate. More recently, Michael Gerson, the well-known Washington Post columnist, preached a sermon where you could hear a pin drop. He preached for fifteen minutes and we were all transfixed, not just because of the beauty of his prose but because his sermon was about his struggle and the struggle of so many with clinical depression. His sermon was full of vulnerability, but it was not narcissistic. He spoke about himself, but the sermon was not about him, rather it was about the painful reality of chronic depression and the power of faith and hope to survive such an experience.

I know that in seminary many of us were taught never to bring much of the personal into our preaching. We were taught this for good reason because most clergy have healthy egos and it is easy for a sermon to become too much about us and not enough about the good news. But, at the same time, people crave to connect, to hear their story in our story, to see themselves in the issues we are struggling with on a given Sunday morning. I think people respond much more to what we are trying to say, especially if what we are trying to say is prophetic, if we can risk the kind of vulnerability that says – I don’t have all the answers, I am like you, I too am searching for health and wholeness, meaning and purpose.

For sixteen years I was blessed to serve as rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA. During all those years, my preaching was best when I allowed it to be more than just my thinking about a given set of readings for a particular day. It was at its best when it became an ongoing dialogue of sorts between me and the people of the parish. My best preaching was always part of a larger conversation. I am a pastor at heart, and I found it to be a great honor to know the struggles, the worries, the pain and the sufferings of people in our community because I would hold those up in front of me as I was writing my sermon and wonder what God was saying – not just to me but to us. My best preaching was always when we were struggling with the Gospel together, when we were struggling with grief, sadness, and the unknown together, trying to find truth and meaning and the right way forward, together. This meant they had to trust me, and I had to trust them. When it came to difficult subjects that required more prophetic preaching, they had to know that I cared for them and their lives regardless of whether or not we agreed on a particular subject. I came to understand that they could only hear me if they trusted me – if they knew that we were in this together.

 Dedication to the craft of preaching, hard work, prayer, a willingness to be vulnerable, building trust with your congregation – all of these are essential elements that go into good preaching.

Dr. A. Gary Shilling – Founder and Chairman of EPF

A good sermon should change the congregation’s thoughts and actions in a positive way by improving their understanding of God, the Bible and their appreciation of other people.  It can have many forms; narrative, pastoral, prophetic, etc.

  • Can be from notes or a text, but verbatim reading can be boring

In today’s era of nonstop public entertainment, in and out of Washington, dull recitation does not cut it.

  • No notes or no pulpit are fine IF the sermon has excellent content and reflects careful preparation, probably a full day’s worth

Extemporaneous remarks and wandering around the nave don’t substitute for context.  “On the way to church this morning, I heard on my car radio…”

The congregation recognizes and discounts a lack of preparation.  Excellent preachers often spend a collective day over the previous week preparing, then rehearsing a sermon. Many insist on uninterrupted time to do so.

  • 20 minutes is fine if it’s a great sermon, but a 5 minute homily is too long if it isn’t

I read a number of great American sermons at speaking delivery speed and recorded the time it took to read each page.  Then I multiplied by the number of pages to estimate the minutes it took to deliver each sermon.  In the 17th century, with no place to go except to church on Sunday, the preachers had plenty of time and sermons by John Winthrop, Increase and Cotton Mather lasted 40 to 50 minutes.

In the 18th century, Johnathan Edwards took 38 minutes to place “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in Enfield, CT in 1741.

19th century sermons by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Smith and Henry Ward Beecher were slightly shorter, but our own Phillips Brooks took 40 minutes to preach on “The Seriousness of Life.”

As the 20th century progressed and Sunday morning sports and TV encroached on church and sermon time, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr crowded great sermons into 20 minutes, the same time Martin Luther King, Jr. took to deliver his 1968 sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

  • Concentrates on one point. That’s what the congregation will remember, AT MOST

To drive that point home, an excellent preacher often tells the congregation what he or she is going to tell them, then tells them and follows up by telling what was told to them.

Some years ago, I made an economic and investment forecast to a trade group annual meeting and by sheer luck, almost everything I predicted came true – my forecast for interest rates, the stock market, consumer behavior, and economic growth.  So, I wasn’t surprised when the same trade organization invited me back the following year.

I was dancing on the ceiling as the head of the group walked me to the podium.  “These guys recognize a great forecaster,” I thought.  But then this man said, “Welcome back, Dr. Shilling.  I remember your talk from last year.  I can’t recall what you said, but it was a tremendous speech!”

  • Condenses the initial small talk and probably moves quickly to a strong opening sentence that summarizes the message

In Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar” Brutus becomes convinced that Caesar yearns to be king but he wants to preserve the Roman Republic.  So Brutus opens his soliloquy, “It must be by his death.”  That’s a strong opener!

Well known and great preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor commenced in her “Bread of Angels” sermon with “Whenever I hear about manna, I think about grits.”  That got the congregation’s attention and gave them an idea of what followed.

  • Recognizes today’s short attention spans

A good sermon may influence the mind, body and soul subliminally, but it helps if the congregation can remember by Wednesday what the preacher said on Sunday.  What’s the “Take Home Value”?

  • Aims high to stretch the intellect and spirituality of the congregation. Is much more than a string of sound bites

The media uses short bursts to reach the lowest common denominator, but the church atmosphere invites, even demands, a higher level of communication.

  • Connects with the congregation – “Know your audience”

In preparation for a speech to a new audience, I try to arrive the night before and use the usual reception and dinner to get to know the attendees.  This helps tailor my remarks to their interests.

Dress codes can be signals of where the audience is, and conforming to them helps relate to the listeners.  I once arrived for a speech to a large group dressed in a coat and tie, but saw the attendees in jeans and tee shirts.  I retreated to my hotel room to join the ranks of quick change artists. 

Humor can help the preacher connect with the congregation, but the jokes need to be relevant and funny, but not too funny.  I’ve made speeches after which the audience remembered the jokes, but the humor overwhelmed by my basic message.

  • Conveys enthusiastic zeal to deliver this sermon, even if the preacher is sweating blood. Enthusiasm is contagious and convincing.

Earlier a Curate at our parish, Christ Church, Short Hills, NJ, started sermons by explaining how fearful he was of preaching. I took him aside after several of these and told him in no uncertain terms that he should let the congregation know that he’d been just itching all week to deliver that sermon.

  • Recognizes that good preaching is more than just words

Phillips Brooks said that the twin essentials of preaching are the truth of the message and the personality of the messenger.

Body language and gestures can be even more important than words.  My friend, Giles Constable, on the faculty of Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, wrote a detailed, Scholarly paper on preaching in Europe in the 12th century.  After the fall of Rome, communications in Europe deteriorated to the point that people living 50 miles apart spoke entirely different languages.  Professor Constable cites eyewitness accounts of itinerant preachers who reduced their congregations to tears with their performances, even though the listeners didn’t understand one word they said.

  • Doesn’t plagiarize, but limits quotes from obscure 19th century French or other philosophers

The congregation will take the preacher’s word that they’ve done their exegesis.  This isn’t a Ph.D. oral examination.

  • Doesn’t assume the congregation has much Biblical knowledge, but doesn’t talk down to them

Recently, in some of my speeches to professional investors, I describe well-managed, developing economies, such as South Korea and Taiwan as Sheep, and poorly managed economies like Venezuela and Turkey as Goats.  I thought that everyone, practicing Christian or not, was familiar with the passage in Matthew 25: 31-46 that Jesus “shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.”

I got nothing but puzzled looks every time I used this analogy, so after explaining it numerous times, I simply gave it up.

  • Doesn’t overdo intricate translations of Hebrew and New Testament Greek words

Agape, philia and eros are fine, but the congregation can get stuck on the involved translations and miss the rest of the sermon.

  • Uses modern-day examples to make the text alive, but doesn’t let them overwhelm the message

As a senior in high school in 1955, I was involved with the Westinghouse’s Science Talent Search.

My project was a slow neutron nuclear reactor, which I took to Washington, D.C. to display along with the projects of the other 40 top national winners.

Seventeen, the magazine for teenage girls, asked me to describe my project for an article they were doing to emphasize the growth and importance of modern science.  To show that nuclear physics is no dark mystery, I compared the reader’s lack of familiarity with such terms as “barn”, “electron volt” and “half-life” to my ignorance of fashion terms, which I dug out of past issues of Seventeen with my sister’s help.  The editors printed the fashion terms, but stripped out the scientific analogies.

  • May summarize, but doesn’t repeat the lessons. The congregation just heard them

Your brief sermon time is better spent interpreting, explaining the lessons rather than rehashing them.

  • Concentrates on only one of the lessons. With our three year cycle, the preacher who hits the Gospel this year can emphasize the Epistle three years hence, etc.

Beginning preachers think they must cover all of the readings, but top flight homileticians usually zero in on just one.

  • Can and should address current moral issues, but in a balanced way

An earlier Rector at Christ Church, Short Hills, would use every Christmas and Easter service to deliver his Ban the Bomb sermon with no suggestion that there was another side to the issue.  All he accomplished was to assure that most of the congregation would not be back until the next Christmas and Easter.

  • Invites feedback from the congregation, “What did I say?”

A good preacher who strives for improvement will seek out comments on the sermon at coffee hour after the service.

Several years ago, EPF published “Talk Back to the Preacher” a comprehensive program to gain detailed and useful feedback from a dedicated committee of parishioners that meet with the preacher, right after every service.  It was developed by the late Bill Hethcock, Homiletics Professor at Sewanee and we still have copies available.

I always end my speech on the history of EPF, delivered at our annual PEP Conference for Episcopal seminarians the same way.  After they have gained confidence as preachers, I suggest a response to a congregant who greets them at the door with “Great Sermon, Reverend!”  Now, that sermon was delivered no more than 30 minutes earlier, so I propose, look them straight in the eye and ask, “What did I say?”