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Preachers' words can be provocative, influential or life-changing. But what happens when the words fail to arrive?

American academic the Rev Dr Jana Childers is in the country to address just that failing - writer's block among ministers.

Dr Childers, from the San Francisco Theological Seminary, will speak to an audience at the University of Auckland on Monday on "Reaching the Well", or fuelling the creative processes of sermon writing.

Apparently, last-minute scrambles and all-nighters are not solely the domain of lazy students. Almost all of the ministers and vicars the Herald spoke to struggled at some time to wrap up their sermons by Friday.

Many regularly fretted up to Saturday night, revising or even starting again.

Most preachers were reluctant to name and shame colleagues who had been ill-prepared in their sermons. But a few stories of failed imagination and desperate measures escaped.

Dr Childers said some of her students paid a high price for not having good processes for writing a weekly message. She spoke of ministers or trainees who had re-written their sermon at the 11th hour, only to be let down by technology.

"I know personally of examples where ministers could not print their sermon in time for the service, so they had to walk up to the pulpit with their laptop."

Canon Jim White, from St Andrew's Anglican Church in Epsom, mentioned colleagues, who after a fruitless week of sermon writing, simply walked up to the pulpit and said: "The well is dry."

However, he said most Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic churches followed a lectionary, which meant scripture readings were pre-determined and sermons could be prepared weeks ahead.

Ponsonby Baptist minister Jody Kilpatrick, three years out of theological college, said she never went to bed on a Saturday before her sermon was finished. But the pressure of providing a weekly lesson could intrude on her sleep. "Sometimes I dream that the sermon isn't written, or that I have forgotten my notes."

Problems can arise not only in the preparation, but in the middle of delivering a sermon. Peter Lineham, associate professor of history at Massey University and a lay preacher, said he sometimes lost confidence in his argument halfway through a sermon. "I sometimes like to revise on the spot. But because I preach with PowerPoint, I cannot."

Archdeacon Glynn Cardy of St Matthew-in-the-City in Auckland is not fazed by writer's block. "All writers and preachers have moments where they don't feel inspired. They try in various ways to find the creativity. Sometimes it is plain hard work, and other times it flows like a river."

Archdeacon Cardy has found newspapers, parables, and conversations on the street during the week are good inspiration.

He said he owed his fluid creative process to his challenging training: "For mid-week services sometimes we would flip a coin among the preachers right before we started. I would sometimes walk into the chapel thinking, `I've got to preach for five minutes on something I have not read, in 15 minutes' time'. It was pretty scary."

Paul Windsor, principal of Carey Baptist College in Penrose, stressed that writing a sermon is not simply an academic exercise, and that some preachers rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to flesh out their sermons.

"When put on the spot, with every reason to have a blank, the spirit can lubricate a flow of words."