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.