Prayerfully planning, researching, writing and rehearsing a substantive, relevant, Truth-filled sermon requires a significant amount of time – MUCH more time than the average person-in-the-pew assumes. Somewhere along the way, I learned a good sermon requires one hour of preparation for each minute of preaching. In other words, a twenty-minute sermon should require twenty hours of prayer, study, reflection, writing, and rehearsal. Though I’ve never actually timed my weekly preparation time, I suspect that’s about right.
This makes sense to me. The sermon is the one time, each week, the pastor can have the most impactful contact with the most people. That twenty minutes (or twenty-five, or thirty…) is an opportunity to teach, speak Truth, cast vision, offer hope, and draw a large number of people closer to God – all at the same time. Though a pastor may be in contact with large numbers of people throughout the week – via meetings and visitation – nothing can compare to the potential impact of the sermon.
And, my personal conviction is, I owe my very best to my congregation. If anyone – much less hundreds of “anyones” – is willing to sit quietly for twenty minutes, or so, listening to me preach, they deserve the best sermon I can give them. My congregation deserves that respect.
The Word deserves that respect! God deserves that respect! My sermon, every week, ought to be the very best I can possibly offer!
The problem is, most pastors don’t have twenty hours, every week, to devote to a sermon. A pastor’s week is filled with myriad other responsibilities: supervising staff, hospital visitation, denominational responsibilities, committee meetings, reports, leading classes and Bible studies, responding to crises, pastoral care and counseling, funerals, weddings, Baptism meetings, letter writing, event planning, follow-up with visitors, etc., etc. And, in any given week, unexpected needs, opportunities, and tragedies pop up, consuming time that might have otherwise been used for sermon preparation. And, don’t forget, pastors need Sabbath and family time, too.
Often, the result is ill-prepared, shallow, half-baked sermons. Some gifted preachers have sufficient oratory and/or storytelling skills to pull off a sermon, high on emotional impact and entertainment value, yet fairly low on substance. I hope we all agree that’s less than ideal.
It’s not the preacher’s fault. It’s just reality. Ministry is hard. Adequate sermon prep is often more time consuming than the preacher has to commit.
I’m not ok with that reality. Like every preacher, I’ve preached my share of half-baked sermons. I strive for that to be the rare exception, and certainly not the norm. But, it happens.
A number of years ago, I discovered the value of long-range sermon planning. When I say “long-range,” I mean, more or less, a year of sermons in advance. For those preachers, tired of struggling week-to-week, I offer you my method…
Every year, I take a full week to do nothing but sermon planning and research. Taking a full week away from the church isn’t easy – but it’s important! And, this isn’t vacation! In fact, I’d argue it’s the most important work week you will have all year long!
I usually do this sometime between Easter and Labor Day. Before that week, I prayerfully develop a list of topics and themes that could possibly become series and sermons. Before my week arrives, I gather a stack of books relative to the ideas I am considering. This process alone takes several months.
When my planning week arrives, I go to some isolated place, away from distractions. More often than not, I’ve spent those weeks in monasteries, in silence. But, cabins, condos, and beach houses work just as well. Last week, I was blessed to use a beautiful house in Eleuthera, Bahamas! There have also been times I’ve locked myself away in my own house – but, that’s less than ideal.
Then I read, and read, and read – Scripture, books, blogs, articles, commentaries. Over a week, I can read five or six books. And, as I read, I take notes, writing down ideas for specific sermons. As I read, I highlight passages that speak to me, so they will be easy to find later. At some point, the list I previously prepared, my scribbled notes, and all of those highlights begin to form actual ideas for future series and sermons.
I’ve developed this chart, for each Sunday of the coming year…
|Sermon Purpose Statement:|
Once I have a basic idea for every Sunday of the coming year, I create a Word Document, and start filling in a chart for each and every Sunday. I don’t always fill in every box during my planning week. But, I fill in as much as I can. I do write a purpose statement for every sermon, even if I’m not sure about the title. I choose a primary Scripture text, and several supporting texts. Then, as I finish each book I read, I fill in the “resource” block with page numbers of every underline or highlighted sentence that might be relevant to that particular message. By the end of the week, most of the charts have far more info than I can possibly use in a given sermon, which means I get to pick and choose the material that seems most relevant and insightful.
By the end of my planning week, I have a solid plan for the coming year, and pages and pages of materials. Of course, when the week of a particular sermon arrives, the sermon manuscript still has to be written, and practiced. But, I find that task is, though still time consuming, SO much easier, since I already have abundant materials gathered.
The two greatest benefits to me, as the preacher, are…
- Planning allows me to relax. If my schedule in a particular week becomes overly squeezed, I don’t have to panic about what I will preach, or when I I’ll pull a sermon together. It might still be a challenge to get it finished. But, that’s WAY better than starting from scratch!
- Because I read five or six books during my planning week, I generally have a sufficient “chunk” of materials to work with for the entire year. Then, as I read more throughout the year, I can just read for my own personal enjoyment and fulfillment. When I, inevitably, find something in my ongoing reading related to an upcoming sermon or series, I just open my Word Doc and make a reference. I do the same when I get a new idea, or see something in Social Media, etc. Throughout the year, my Word Doc gets fuller and fuller, richer and richer, both with info I’ve gathered from research AND materials that have spoken to me personally.
PLEASE HEAR THIS: reading for pleasure and personal edification is MUCH richer sermon fodder than scrambling week by week to find another sermon topic, idea or illustration!
When I tell people about my process, many find it hard to believe a sermon planned a year in advance could still be relevant, pertinent, or Spirit-filled, a year later.
First of all, let’s never forget that God is omniscient. If I approach this process prayerfully, and I do, then the Holy Spirit is fully capable of helping plan a year in advance.
Second, since I’m not actually writing the sermon until the week of, there’s still opportunity to make tweaks and adjustments to make certain the sermon is relevant to the moment.
Thirdly, just because I have a plan doesn’t mean I can’t toss it in the garbage if the Spirit leads me to preach something else. This happens. It happened on the Sunday following the Parkland shooting, last February. But, thankfully, it doesn’t happen often.
My personal conviction is, planning does NOT inhibit the Spirit. Instead, planning allows more room for the Spirit to lead and guide me to explore, process, and deepen my understanding of a particular topic or text, long before a particular sermon needs to be written.
So, preachers, raise the standard of your preaching! How? My advice is planning and preparation. You may not like MY process. But, you do need a process. Plan as far ahead as you possibly can. Take time – big chunks of time – to study and prepare. Yes, your spiritual life if enormously important as well – there’s no substituting for that! But, while I DON’T believe you can preach effectively, for long, with a shallow soul, I DO believe you can be deeply spiritual and still preach lousy sermons, due to lack of time, attention, and effort. So yes, take care of your soul! AND, take the time you need to prepare your sermons!
If you would like more details about my process, don’t hesitate to ask!