Rabbi-Hacking Part I: Hacking the Sermon

Nov 7, 2013 by

Rabbi-Hacking Part I: Hacking the Sermon

“The day is short and the task is great.” Rabbi Tarfon’s observation applies to us as much as it did to our predecessors. Our work is endless and our time is limited. How do we make the most of that time? How do we ensure we have enough for our families, our communities, and ourselves?

The next four blog posts will feature unique resources that can help in doing so. The title—“Rabbi-Hacker”—is derived from the popular website “Lifehacker.” While often used incorrectly as a term of derision, the word “hacking” comes from the software industry and early days of personal computing, where hackers found shortcuts and creative “workarounds” to solve problems.

The website Lifehacker is devoted to the idea that we can use technologies and the experiences of others to meet our personal and professional goals more efficiently. These technologies are not just electronic. They include systems and thought processes developed and tested over time. I am confident we can learn from them, even as our goals and responsibilities as rabbis are unique and multi-faceted. They include speaking, teaching, writing, and leading an organization. Drawing from my own experience and research, the next four blog posts will look at ways we can “hack” each of them.

WHAT IS SCORRE

Many of us use the Alban Institute as a resource for pastoral and leadership resources. We may not know, however, about some of the other extraordinary resource centers in the Christian world that can teach and benefit us as rabbis. One of them that I experienced for four days this year is known as the SCORRE Conference. SCORRE stands for “Subject, Central Theme, Objective, Rationale, Resources, Evaluation.” Developed by writer, minister and comedian Ken Davis, it consists of a comprehensive system for preparing, developing and delivering speeches and sermons.

I spent four of the most meaningful and productive days of my life at the SCORRE conference in Orlando this past May, where we learned the system and then spent several hours in sessions where we used it to prepare and deliver speeches, and were then critiqued by instructors and other participants. It was like two years of homiletics packed into three days. The system is deceptively simple, and enormously effective. I cannot do it justice in one blog posts, but I will try to distill its essence.

HOW TO USE IT

The essence of the SCORRE method is two-fold. First, it relies on the idea that every speech or sermon demands the listener take some of action. That action can be changing our perspective, learning a new technique for doing something, or taking an action like voting or petitioning. A speech or sermon written with the SCORRE method does not teach simply to impart information. It teaches in order to persuade or cause an action.

Second, and most importantly, every speech or sermon must be summarized in one sentence. The sentence can be one of two kinds: an enabling proposition, or a persuasive proposition. A persuasive proposition always has the words “should” and “because” in it. An enabling proposition always has the words “can” and “by” in it. This central sentence does not have to appear verbatim in the speech, but we always need to write it down. The SCORRE process gives us a blueprint for writing it.

First, we pick a subject. It could be “Abraham” or “generation to generation” or “memory.” Then we pick a central theme within that subject. What about “Abraham” or “memory” do we want to discuss? Perhaps we want to focus on Abraham’s hospitality when he welcomes the three strangers. Perhaps we want to zero in on the way memory is incorporated and relived in a Passover seder. After we pick the central theme, we decide on our objective. This is where we decide our “thesis” or takeaway message. If our subject was “memory” and our central theme “memory and ritual,” our objective could be “We can honor the memory of our ancestors by practicing these three rituals.”

The rationale is another name for the points of a speech. It hangs on a key word, which is always a plural noun. In the case above, the word “rituals” is the keyword. The precise rituals we highlight would be our rationale. The rationale always matches the key word in grammatical form, so they would always be nouns.

Resources are the illustrations. They are the examples or midrashim or personal stories. They reinforce the rationale.

Evaluation is a reminder to constantly improve. It is the discipline to ask questions after we have finished and to seek constructive input from others.

EXAMPLES

This year I used the SCORRE methodology for each of my High Holy Day sermons. My preparation time was significantly less than in years past, and the messages were both more focused, clearly delivered and (if I may be so bold) effective. I also felt more confident in tackling a difficult subject, as the methodology gave me a way in to focusing a message around it. For example, I decided to talk on Kol Nidre on the “Giving God a Chance.” My enabling proposition was “We can challenge ourselves to think more deeply about God by confronting three key obstacles.” Notice the proposition has the “can” and “by” in it. The key word is “obstacles.” They were 1) theodicy, 2) prayer and 3) fundamentalism.” The illustrations fit each point. Under theodicy I talked about the Newtown shootings. Under prayer I talked about Unetanah Tokef. Under fundamentalism I talked about religious orthodoxy.

The exact proposition did not appear in the sermon, and the three-fold structure was not terribly obvious. Simply the disciplining of outlining and writing it helped keep my writing on target.

I know this brief overview may make SCORRE seem overly simplistic. But the opposite is true. A clear framework gives us room for intellectual exploration. The SCORRE method works in more than sermons and speeches. I use it in my bulletin articles, blogs and even books. If you would like to talk about further, do not hesitate to email or call me. It will save you time and help make our sacred message more clear and meaningful. If you are really interested, I would highly recommend the SCORRE conference, which is this May in Orlando. I’ll be returning, as its organizers have become friends and mentors, and we can always use Unknownmore practice and growth.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.

1 Comment

  1. Great post my friend! I look forward to reading more of your posts. Thank you for your encouraging words about our conference.

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