Earlier this week I had the opportunity to guest teach the Discipleship Ministries class at Southeastern Free Will Baptist College via FaceTime. While the slight delay in connection made it difficult in the moment to determine how jokes—not to mention my main points—were landing, the feedback I received afterwards was encouraging. Here are some of the highlights from my lesson.
I recently posted the following quote on Facebook:
“If a preacher begins to prepare a sermon the same week it is to be delivered, that is crisis management… Crisis management is the pathway to mediocrity.” — Ken Davis
It comes from the book Secrets of Dynamic Communication, and though I haven’t read it, this particular line resonated with me. The response from others was diverse with some taking it as a personal attack on pastors who don’t work ahead in their sermon preparation, some making thoughtful remarks or asking earnest questions about practicality, and others expressing concern about its broad stroke nature.
I think a couple components of this quote were overlooked. The first is the phrase “begins to prepare”. This isn’t a mandate about finalizing manuscripts for messages you’ll preach in six months, but a suggestion to start some of the legwork today for a message you’ll share in the next week or two. The second is the statement, “Crisis management is the pathway to mediocrity.” That’s not an insult, implying that if you write the entirety of your message the week it’s to be presented that you personally are mediocre. Instead, it’s a pointed observation about the danger of ministering in a constant state of needless urgency. I think the heart of that statement can be summed up by a simple question: When do you feel most comfortable and effective—when preaching a message you wrote the night before or when preaching one you’ve had a couple of weeks to study, pray over, and revise? I’ve preached both and from experience can say the latter.
I was introduced to the idea of getting a month ahead in sermon preparation by another pastor and have since become acquainted with those that are more than a full month ahead in this area. So it can, and is, being done and I truly believe that anyone who wants to get ahead even a little bit can do so. To that end, I want to share with you the steps I took to make this happen. (Note: I’m writing under the presupposition that prayer is a fundamentally necessary component of sermon preparation and thus pervades the entire process).
1. Make some time.
It is easy, in every area of life, to allow tasks and responsibilities to accumulate to the point that you are no longer working efficiently or effectively. Honestly answering the following questions will help you create margin in your schedule.
What should I be doing? On a sheet of paper write down everything that only you as a pastor can do. “[P]rayer, and…the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4) should be high on the list as well as serving and evangelism. The more specific you are here the better.
What am I doing? On another sheet of paper write down everything you currently do. Depending on your situation, you may need to include vocational and social responsibilities as well. Again, be specific. When I did this I had a lengthy list that included items such as check the post office box twice a week, deposit offerings, write sermons, update website, send cards to first time guests, go door knocking, and find events to participate in. If you feel you’re forgetting something, consider coupling this exercise with a time log whereby you can keep an hourly account of what you actually do over the next week or so.
What doesn’t need done? Having a clear picture of what you should be doing and holding a list of all that you are doing allows you to see any misalignments of your time and energy. As I compared these two lists, I came across several activities that weren’t vital to my role or the ministry as a whole. They were things I got in the habit of doing at one point, but didn’t necessarily need to do now. I made the decision to either eliminate them immediately or over time.
What can someone else do? No doubt there are several items on your list because they are important and need to be done. However, that does not mean that you have to be the person to do them. I realized I didn’t have to be the one checking the post office box or writing all of the cards. It’s not that I can’t or that I’m above it, but there is other work that only I can do that these tasks pull me away from. So I delegated them to those equipped to handle them or who could be trained to do so.
2. Make some plans.
It is impossible to get ahead if you don’t know what it is you should be working on. Considering these questions will give you a map.
How often will I preach? Consider all of the services your church will have during a three-month period. If your church has three services, that’s thirty-nine messages. If you teach Sunday school also, that’s fifty-two. Chances are you will lend some of those opportunities to guest speakers (evangelists, missionaries, etc.), staff or lay preachers, or those who feel that God may be calling them to preach. Put those dates on the calendar. There will probably be at least a couple of weeks where someone else will be speaking, allowing you to begin work on a message that won’t to be preached that same week.
What holidays/special events are coming up? Sometimes the calendar directs your preaching. Sanctity of Life Sunday, Easter, your church’s anniversary, Christmas, and other such days come around every year. Go ahead and mark them on your calendar as well and begin thinking about what you will preach.
What have I preached recently? Look back over your records and see exactly what parts of the Bible you’ve preached from recently and what subjects you have addressed. If you’re not keeping records of what you preach and when, let me encourage you to start. I spent a lot of time in the New Testament last year as I am preaching verse by verse through Hebrews. When I finish Hebrews in the Spring, I’ll begin preaching through the minor prophets.
What do I need to preach in the coming weeks? In addition to your calendar and your records, look out at your people and your city. Think about the problems that they are currently facing, fears they may be wrestling with, spiritual disciplines that may have become lax, or sin that may be prevalent.
3. Make some headway.
Once you have a plan in place, it’s time to dig in and get your hands dirty. These last couple of questions will be helpful in approaching the actual labor involved in getting ahead.
What is your sermon writing process? You have a process, however formal or informal it may be, for writing a sermon. Somehow you go from nothing to forty or so minutes of material. Write that down. Personally, my process is an adaptation of that laid out in Wayne McDill’s book 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. This step may reveal that you have a weak process, in which case I recommend the book I just mentioned.
What are the natural segments of that process? By definition a process is made up of various steps. In sermon preparation that may include outlining, word studies, writing, and so on. No doubt your process has five or six such steps. Break it into four parts. When I prepare a message, I diagram the passage, make observations and ask questions, find answers to those questions, determine the main theme and how the biblical author handles it, outline my message, draft my message, and rehearse and revise as needed. Broken into four parts, it becomes:
- Diagram (diagram the passage)
- Research (make observations and ask questions, find answers to those questions)
- Design (determine the main theme and how the biblical author handles it, outline my message)
- Draft (draft my message, and rehearse and revise as needed)
Once you have done this, you sit down during some of your freed up time, look to your calendar for what you’ll be preaching in the coming month, and start to work your process. This is the most difficult part because you are working on a month’s worth of messages at the same time. Don’t panic. Eventually you will be doing the work you typically put into one sermon, just broken up over four. For example, in preaching through Hebrews, my text divisions over four weeks were 8:1-5; 8:6-13; 9:1-10; 9:11-15.
If I wanted to get a month ahead, my workload for one week (where I would be preaching 8:1-5 this week, week 1, and 9:11-15 a month later, week 4) would look like this:
- Week 4 → Diagram → 8:1-5; 8:6-13; 9:1-10; 9:11-15
- Week 3 → Research → 8:1-5; 8:6-13; 9:1-10
- Week 2 → Design → 8:1-5; 8:6-13
- Week 1 → Draft → 8:1-5
If I were already working a month ahead, the workload for one week (where again I would be preaching 8:1-5 this week, week 1, and 9:11-15 a month later, week 4) would look like this:
- Week 4 → Diagram → 9:11-15
- Week 3 → Research → 9:1-10
- Week 2 → Design → 8:6-13
- Week 1 → Draft → 8:1-5
Granted, this isn’t the only process that works—but it does work, and I hope you find it helpful, or at least a starting point, for those that want to give this a shot. It takes time and effort, and you have to be intentional about it, but getting ahead in your sermon preparation is possible.
I’m going offline for a couple of weeks and so I won’t be posting to the blog. That gives you time to check out some of the material you may have missed. Here are the top seven posts of 2013:
Sunday I talked about our Christmas offering. This special offering will be collected during our Christmas service on December 22 by way of the designated Christmas offering envelopes that were distributed last week. (Did you lose yours already? No worries. They’ll be available each Sunday leading up to Christmas.) This offering will be invested in two ways. Half of it will be given to The Gideons International to help with the printing and distributing of Bibles around the world—a cause that fits nicely with our 2013 theme, “Experience the Bible.” The other half will be divided between the various ministries and organizations we’ve been introduced to throughout the year: Key Radio, Holding Out Help, the Mann family (church planters in Chicago), the Moore family (missionaries to Brazil), and Samaritan’s Purse.
You may be wondering, though, how you’re actually going to participate. Between your regular giving, bills and other personal financial commitments, as well as the expenses of a Thanksgiving meal and Christmas shopping, you may be spread pretty thin already! This offering isn’t meant to be a burden or cause of argument between spouses, but an opportunity to worship God and be apart of what He is doing in our own state, across our country, and around the world. So below I’ve included seven suggestions to help you begin setting aside money now.
Adjust your budget. If you’re one who likes numbers and seeing it all worked out on paper, or a spreadsheet, go ahead and add a line for “Christmas Offering.” If you already have a target amount in mind, you can simply divide it by the remaining number of weeks for an idea of what to save on a weekly basis.
Automate an amount. This goes hand in hand with the above suggestion. Do you bank online? You can easily set aside that weekly number you calculated by scheduling regular transfers into a savings account.
Sell some stuff. Chances are you don’t NEED everything in your closet, drawers, garage, attic, basement, shed—you get the picture. Give your house a once over. Not only will you eliminate some clutter before the relatives arrive for the holidays, but your stuff (unused books, clothes, video games, etc.) may generate a surprising amount of money.
Save your change. Deciding that you’ll give every dime or penny you find between now and Christmas is a great start. But don’t stop there! What if you paid for everything in cash and put that change in a jar as well?
Predesignate extra income. Refunds, gifts, rebates, and bonuses—it’s nice when a little extra money comes in. Since you probably weren’t counting on it to meet your own needs, it makes sense to set it aside.
Impose a tax. Don’t do something tyrannical here that will cause your family to attempt a coup d’état. However, you can quickly set aside money by requiring a quarter from everyone for each half hour of television watched, or gallon of gas bought, or mile driven, or minute in the shower.
Do without something. Whether it’s a meal out at a restaurant, movie tickets, or a side dish at Thanksgiving, you could most likely do without it. Take that money and use it for the Christmas offering instead.
What other ideas do you have for setting aside money for the Christmas offering?
Our first winter in Utah a couple from Pleasant Acres Church came out to help Grayson and me with outreach. Brian and I were knocking doors, and talking about what I’d learned so far, when he asked if I set weekly goals for meeting people and getting them to come to church. I didn’t—I just worked hard and hoped for a big crowd. Drawing from his experience as a recruiter, Brian pointed out the importance of realistic numerical goals and how to go about setting them. With a little adaptation, I implemented this process immediately and have been using it for nearly a year. It’s simple and if your church (or Sunday schools class, youth group, etc.) doesn’t already have a process for setting numerical goals, I recommend you try it.
If you don’t keep attendance records, the first step is to start. You’ll need at least four previous weeks’ numbers to begin. Once you have them, average those four numbers together and add one. That’s your goal for this week. For example, if your numbers were 5, 4, 5, and 2, the average is 4. Adding 1, this Sunday you would pray to have 5. (I’m using single digits both for simplicity and accurate portrayal of the situation here.) Of course there will be times you’ll have to do some rounding. If the average is 4.25, the goal would still be 5; if it was 4.75, the goal would be 6.
On special days such as Christmas or Easter you will doubtlessly have a higher than average attendance. I don’t use that number in setting my goal. For example, at our first baby dedication service—a very special service—and we had 34 people in attendance. That’s high for us at this point. So in setting the next week’s goal, instead of averaging 34 (attendance at the baby dedication), 8, 6, and 8 (the other three previous weeks), I averaged 8, 6, 8, and 7 (the fourth previous week).
Lord willing, your average will grow over time. The plus 1 will become plus 2, plus 5, and so on. When our average here is regularly in the teens, I think I’ll begin to add 2.
Now one of the first things I do after church on Sunday is set next week’s attendance goal. I’m not one to set such goals for the sake of it. There are a number of benefits to entering a new week with a concrete number in mind. My goal this Sunday is 11. That number keeps my outreach a bit more individual-oriented. Yes, we do mass mailings and knock hundreds of doors, reaching out to thousands of people we don’t know. But I do know 11 people and I can find time this week to spend with at least of few of them personally. Along that same line, it allows me to pray more specifically. I continue to pray for the city as a whole, but I want to make sure I call out those individuals’ names that I’ve had recent contact with, who could make up 11. It also saves money. Early on I kept buying refreshments for two dozen people when our average was less than seven. Having that goal helps me not only anticipate the amount of food to buy but also the amount of non-reusable print materials to make up. Finally, it minimizes discouragement. I always try to go into church expectantly. God may one day pack the place out and save every one there! But if I know we’ve only averaged enough lately to set our goal at 11, I won’t be overly disappointed if that doesn’t happen this Sunday. (But it could.)
Do you have a process for setting attendance goals? Have you tried this method before? How has it worked for you?
When I was a youth pastor, the majority of my teaching was verse by verse. Each week I would deal with anywhere from two to eight verses as I systematically worked through whole books of the Bible. During that almost two year stint I covered 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude, and about half of James. Over the past year, I’ve done the same thing through Hebrews here at New Morning Church.
There are numerous benefits to preaching verse by verse, but three have been particularly helpful to me:
- It removes the stress of not knowing what to preach. There have been been weeks that Saturday has come and found me clueless about my text for Sunday. On such occasions I not only had to deal with the pressure of the work before me, but also with anxiety, guilt, and self-loathing. I hate those feelings, and preaching verse by verse removes them. After I preached the first three verses of Hebrews, I knew that next week my text would start at verse four. That may sound mechanical, but if the Holy Spirit led me to that particular book in the first place, then I know I’m right where I need to be.
- It allows deeper immersion in the text and subject matter. Since I know that over the next several months I will be dealing with every verse in that book, I’m able to begin preparation a couple of weeks in advance. I’m not at the point where my messages are completed that far out—I’m still writing this Sunday’s message this week—but I have had more time to read and meditate on the text, conduct word studies, consult commentaries and atlases, and look for meaningful illustrations and cross-references.
- It requires attention to be given to passages considered too difficult or too dull. If you work verse by verse you have to take each passage as it comes. This has helped me to both think through some of the more challenging verses that I might have shied away from and to see the significance of some of the seemingly mundane ones. Each verse has a purpose and is necessary in understanding the natural progression of a single book as well as the entirety of the biblical narrative. I can now not only see exactly how each verse fits, but can communicate that to my audience.
Which books of the Bible have you preached through, or heard preached through? What benefits did you see?