An Open Letter Regarding Preaching Preparation

A lay leader in our church sent me the following note.

Kerry,
Pastor talked about spending 20 hours a week on sermon prep, and it seemed that you and others thought this number to be in line with expectations. If that is the case, when do pastors have time to manage staff, build relationships, attend board meetings, etc.? It seems like we risk burning these guys out if we expect them to manage their time in this manner. Help me understand.
Jim

Dear Jim:
The standard I would hope to see, for excellence in the pulpit, is 15-20 hours. Assuming that a pastor works a 45-60 hour week, that is 1/3 of his time, for the most important single function of the senior pastor, the one which ministers to the whole congregation and potentially provides a cornerstone for the evangelism program of the church, the assimilation program of the church, the discipleship program of the church, casts visions, inspires, convicts, teaches, encourages, and brings unity. It is the one hour each week when God speaks to the whole congregation through His appointed messenger.

In preaching that comes from the deep places in the pastor’s life and spirit, when he has studied, reflected, prayed, written, said AHA to God a couple of times, sweated, prayed some more, written some more, studied some more, prayed some more, wept with blessing as the Spirit revealed Himself, reflected some more . . . the result of this is a preacher who has become possessed and anointed by God’s Spirit in a special way. To witness this kind of preaching is to realize that it is not just the pastor talking—it is God speaking through him or her.

Many pastors who are capable, confident public speakers can, and too often do, fall into the trap of relying too much upon shortcuts in this process. They get busy with “church administration” and other such demanding, time consuming duties. They spend less time in prayer, less time in the Word, less time studying and writing and reflecting, but they still feel they can do a “pretty good job” because they are well-trained, experienced, and they feel they are gifted and just do not need that much preparation time. I confess I have been guilty of this at times. The result, even if interesting and helpful, ends up being more limited to the human plane—more of man, less of God. In their own spirits, the congregation can discern this difference. Ten minutes into the next sermon, ask yourself: Is this pretty much just the man speaking? Or have I been hearing God speaking through him clearly?

This kind of sermon preparation is like digging for buried treasure. It is hard work in the hot sun or sometimes in the dark. That part is not very enjoyable. But then comes the moment of discovery. Eureka! This brings great joy—to find the BIG IDEA that God wants preached. What joy and fulfillment to step behind the pulpit with great anticipation, realizing that I have been obedient and faithful to seek and find God’s message for the day; to know I will communicate it with clarity and excellence; and to feel His pleasure. This kind of preaching sometimes astounds people, because they think it is just coming from the preacher and they didn’t think he was that good (which he really isn’t.). What really happens is, since it was the message the Holy Spirit wanted, He comes alongside the message and works in the hearts of the congregation, beforehand, during, and after the actual preaching. The preacher is cooperating with the Spirit.

Some preachers think that just happens automatically in the moment of stepping into the pulpit. They expect the Holy Spirit to cooperate with them and anoint their human message. I believe, and all of our preaching professors teach, that it is presumptuous to expect the Holy Spirit to bail us out every time when we have not spent serious time in prayer, study, and reflection. The congregation can tell when the Lord has met the pastor for long hours in his study as he has wrestled with the written Word. And the congregation can usually tell when the pastor is “winging it.”

Karl Eastlack was the senior pastor at Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in the Buffalo, New York area. Nineteen people were present on his first Sunday at that church in 1987. They grew to over 3000 each Sunday morning. Karl is a very humble guy. He is an effective leader, a lover of people, and a good organizer. He is multi-gifted. Karl shared this testimony with some young preachers once:

We have been in this big capital campaign for the last several years and we have built this fabulous new sanctuary. I felt the demands on my time becoming overwhelming. In a desperate attempt to find more hours in my week, I began to cut back on my sermon preparation time. I cut back from 15 hours per week to 10, then 8, and over the course of time to only 4 hours of specific preparation. I was finding short cuts. I had been at this preaching thing so long that it had become easier and easier for me—I was pretty good at it. And I thought I was pulling it off. People still loved me. They still said thank you for the good message. The church did not seem to be suffering. Then one of my prayer partners in the church was talking to me one morning and shocked me with his question: “Karl, what are you doing differently in your sermon preparation than you were doing a year ago?” Immediately, I felt a stab of conviction in my heart, and poured out everything to my friend. We both knew that I had to get back to the Word and waiting on God for His message, for His power, for His excellence, which can only really be found in the hours of solitude with the Lord, immersed in the text, paying the price. I re-prioritized my schedule immediately and went back to 15 hours a week in study, prayer, and sermon-writing. I began to get messages from people—things like: “You’re back!” “The Holy Spirit is working powerfully again in our church.” And indeed, the Lord and I were back. Biblical preaching is not just a sermon from the Bible. It requires a preacher who is possessed by God’s message from the Word.

Steve DeNeff, at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, IN, brings a carefully modulated and powerful message from God every Sunday, with excellence. Everybody says he is so gifted. In a preaching class he stated:

Too many preachers are mediocre. They depend on education and natural speaking ability and experience, and really don’t put in the hours of sermon preparation each week. Of course they tell us in college and seminary that we are supposed to take twenty hours a week in sermon preparation, but that’s for somebody else. The truth is, almost nobody is smart enough and gifted enough to stand up there for a 30-40 minute monologue, with only a little preparation, and make it true to the Bible, excellent, and deliver an authentic message from God. Long ago, I made the commitment to do the hard twenty hours a week and bring as much excellence as I could every time. Sometimes it comes close to annoying me when people remark how “gifted” I am. “Hey, that’s not a gift! That’s blood, sweat, and tears! That’s a lot of hard work!”

The senior pastor needs to push everything away from himself that someone else can do, especially if others can do it as well or better. Many senior pastors want to keep in touch with everything that’s going on. They feel a need to be in control. Many are good administrators, and they find administration to actually be more fun than the hours of solitude with the Lord and studying and writing and focusing on the Word. Administration, and other pastoral tasks, may have more short-term rewards. You do this, and it’s done—you can cross it off your list. It’s more visible—people can see you are working hard. But much of that can and should be done by lay leaders in the church, or by other staff. The senior pastor should not try to be “omni-competent,” although congregations often seem to expect that of them.

In Acts 6:2-4 we see the apostles give leadership responsibility to the “laymen” so they could focus on the MAIN thing:

So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

I want my pastor to have God’s message for the congregation on Sunday morning. I want him to be fresh, to be prepared, to be possessed by the Spirit, to have meaty truth from the Word, to have God’s BIG IDEA for us. I want him to be excellent, because he will then be a reflection of God’s excellence. Sure, he needs to set the vision for the church and give overall leadership. Yes, he needs to supervise his staff. Yes, he needs to set the example on personal outreach and have loving involvement in peoples’ lives. But most senior pastors do lots of “stuff” that they really don’t have to do and they should have been getting ready for that divine appointment at 11:00am on Sunday. I think this could be one of the differences between an ordinary church and a great church.

Your friend and brother,

Kerry


Kerry Kind is the General Director of Education & the Ministry of The Wesleyan Church.

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11 thoughts on “An Open Letter Regarding Preaching Preparation

  1. Great and challenging words, Rev. Kind. Thank you. I am curious, though, what you tell the pastors of small congregations, where there is no secretary or staff to delegate things to and so the bulk of the normal business of the church must be handled by the pastor. Or the bi-vocational pastor, who is compelled to work a 40- or 50-hour secular job to pay the bills.

    My point is not to criticize. I certainly believe that hours of preparation are necessary to be effective in the pulpit. And I will acknowledge that I have been challenged by your words to redouble my efforts. Rather, I wonder if we are not inadvertently sending the message that these dedicated and godly men and women who are practically unable to commit 15-20 hours per week to dedicated sermon preparation are somehow inadequate, an unfortunate implication considering that the Church today and much of the New Testament exist through the work of a tentmaker who was also a preacher.

    Indeed, the Bible and Christian history are filled with examples of men and women who preached and ministered on the side. And considering that approximately 60% of American churches average less than 100 in worship attendance, with payroll and insurance costs on the rise, I doubt very much that this trend will change.

    Again, my point is not to criticize. Rather, I hope to encourage everyone in denominational leadership to not discount – advertently or inadvertently – the faithful, valiant and effective efforts of the countless tentmaker-ministers and the often-smaller congregations that they lead within our denomination and the Church as a whole.

    Jeremy Geerdes, Pastor
    Debra Heights Wesleyan Church

    • Jeremy,

      Thank you for your insightful comments in response to Dr. Kind’s article. You do raise some important questions about the challenges of those who pastor bi-vocationally or who serve smaller churches. I agree with you that tent-making (bi-vocational), especially as church planting becomes more popular and necessary, will be the waive of the future. As someone who pastored a small church that grew into a mid-sized and then a large church, I would have to push back a bit on your comments about the small church being a more challenging context within which to spend hours on sermon preparation. I guess it all depends on the church, but when I pastored a small church I felt like I had more not less time for sermon preparation. As we grew and added multiple pastors, although they took on some of the ministry tasks I would normally do, I still had to guide and support them which meant I had to lead more meetings and create more administrative structures. Simply put, adding multiple pastors saved me time on some tasks but added an equal amount of time on other tasks.

      So, whether you are pastoring a small church or a large church or something in between, what Dr. Kind is pushing for is the primacy of the preaching task. No matter what type of church context we find ourselves in, we must make choices that will help us prioritze what God has primarily called us to do. If preaching is one of your primary callings from God in a particular context, be sure to guard the time devoted to that work. This often means delegating or saying no (which is hard for most conscientious pastors to do).

      Preaching is not the only important thing that pastors do. However, I can think of few tasks that have the potential to transform a community of faith into a missional movement like preaching does. If you are called to preach, then preach your heart out! In many Christian circles today the viability of preaching is being challenged. Some say that preaching has gone the way of the dinosaur. I think they are reacting, by and large, not to preaching as a whole but bad preaching that is simplistic, shallow, void of God, and lacking insight into the angst and hope of humanity. Simply put, we preachers must give our all to the ministry of preaching for such a time as this.

      I welcome your thoughts, Jeremy and others.

      Lenny Luchetti

      • Lenny,

        Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I very much appreciate the discussion.

        Let me begin by noting that, while I have never ministered in a big-church (or even medium-church) context, I can recognize the additional responsibilities associated with it. Management of staff, additional services, etc., all place additional demands on pastors in such situations. It was certainly not my intent to discount these things in any way, and I apologize if my comments read otherwise.

        Coincidentally (as far as I know), SermonCentral.com this morning pushed an article by Bruce Frank of Biltmore Baptist Church about his sermon preparation process ( http://goo.gl/y08Hh ). He says that a typical week, for him, includes 19 hours of sermon preparation. Already, two pastors have pushed back, asking how such a commitment is possible for people who (a) preach multiple messages per week (e.g., Sunday AM, PM, Wednesday PM), (b) work secular jobs to pay bills, (c) must attend to other church operations/business, etc.

        Frank’s article is an interesting breakdown of how he spends his time preparing for a message. Certainly, it is useful. But I must reiterate my concern. While I understand that big-church pastors have numerous other time obligations, I am not certain that it is fair to say that this is what sermon prep must look like to be effective because the Bible and history are certainly filled with examples of men and women who were anything but full-time vocational pastors.

        To be clear, thorough study is essential, and additional preparation can only help. Indeed, sermon prep must be a priority for anyone called to the pulpit. Preaching must be a primary part of any pastor’s ministry. I will not dispute that in any way. But I really don’t think it fair to say, as Rev. Kind does, that the standard should be 15-20 hours of preparation. This may indeed be ideal, but to establish such an expectation as a standard does a tremendous disservice to the countless men and women for whom there simply are not enough hours in the week to make such a commitment.

        While I trust that this was not at all Rev. Kind’s intention, I fear that, for these ministers, such statements are, at best, discouraging and, at worst, condescending, sending the implicit message that their messages, their ministries, and they themselves are inadequate. This only serves to foster an atmosphere of competition and frustration, neither of which are particularly constructive.

        And in a denomination such as ours where the average Sunday morning worship attendance among our 1700 North American congregations last year was 114 – a number which is pulled up dramatically by the likes of 12Stone, Skyline, Celebration, etc. – that’s not something that we need to do.

        So the question is, what to do? To be honest, I’m not entirely certain. For starters, though, I think it imperative that we consider thoroughly the impact of our words and actions, both individually and collectively. Are we inadvertently condescending ministers in small churches or elevating pastors of large congregations? Or, for that matter, vice versa? I also think it would be really cool to highlight small churches and their pastors. I suspect more than a few of them have valuable things to contribute, but never have an outlet to share because they’re not big. And more than any of this, I think it’s imperative that we make a concerted effort to equip and encourage ministers of all contexts.

        Obviously, not every article can be aimed at small and large churches simultaneously. But we can make sure to post ideas for small churches and ideas for large churches.

        In the particular case of preaching, constructive ideas for pastors of small churches would be the use of Bible software (e.g., Logos, which Frank mentions) to help expedite the preparation process. But since Logos, et al, are rather expensive and many of these pastors also lack financial resources, though, it may be even better to point to free and/or inexpensive online resources such as biblegateway.com, bluefish.tv, ccel.org, or wesleyanfreesource.com. For some, mobile applications such as CadreBible ( http://www.cadrebible.com ), which can put a multitude of Bible versions and study resources (e.g., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Wuest Word Studies in the Greek NT, Josephus, and more) on a mobile phone, may prove useful for sermon prep on the go.

        Another thing that I have been doing is putting all of the notes and resources I collect during sermon prep onto our church website. While I don’t claim to be an outstanding preacher, and I would hope that others would study more than just my notes, outlines, etc., I can at least provide them as a starting point so people don’t have to search through the same sources I did. I would humbly offer this repository, such as it is, for anyone who cares to utilize it: http://goo.gl/VwsF7 And I would challenge other pastors to do something similar. Perhaps those of us who have 15-20 hours per week to commit to sermon preparation can together provide resources and encouragement to help those who don’t.

  2. I greatly appreciate Jeremy’s comment. Several years ago I was a solo pastor at a small church, and I was able to spend 20 hours a week on sermon prep. Too often I took that for granted. I would spend an average of 2 hours a day in Bible study and prayer, sometimes more.

    Now, my situation is vastly different. I work full time, often overtime, as a chemist. I am pastoring a small congregation part time. While doing this, I am also starting a parachute drop church plant. This is where my heart and passion is, but as of right now there is no financial support from this work.

    I spend about an hour a night working on sermons. At least, I do when I don’t have to be in the lab until almost 10 pm. I preach the same sermon at the church plant on Thursdays that I preach on Sunday moorings, so that does help. But most weeks I feel completely inadequate.

    God is gracious. He has helped me to make it through week by week for almost a year now. I comfort myself with the fact that God called me to this, so I can trust Him to help me through. But my goal, my dream is to once again have the ability to work full time in ministry. I suspect most tentmaker pastors feel the same way.

    Sermon prep is vital to our ministry as pastors. If I ever get the opportunity again, I will commit to spending as much time on that task as possible. I too am reminded of the apostles telling the early church that it is not right for them to forsake the preaching of the word to wait on tables. We need to keep first things first. I do so as much as I am able with my free time. I just don’t have enough of that.

  3. Right now I’m in the bi-vocational boat, but one thing that helps, whether in a small church or multiple staff church is sharing the pulpit. In a multiple staff church, if two or three people are splitting the sermons, even if unequally, then everyone has more time for preparation. For a solo pastor, training one person to preach once a quarter, or occasionally bringing in an assistant or youth pastor from another church, will give you a break. Often, assistant pastors are looking for oppertunities to hone or keep their preaching skills fresh, especially if they are not in a church that does team preaching.

  4. I appreciate the overall sense of the conversation here, and may be coming to it late. I hear the real concern in the words and heart of Jeremy and the other posters questioning the legitimacy (and the possibility) of expecting a certain amount of time to be given to sermon prep. Perhaps it might be better to look at it as a percentage. Dr. Kind suggested 15-20 hours, but stated that assumes a 45-60 hour workweek. Built in to his expectation is a formula that assumes sermon prep should get the lion’s share of the pastor’s time. So, if you’re forced to do bi-vocational ministry, how many hours are you investing in pastoral ministry? 30? 20? If so, adjust the numbers accordingly- but still you’re looking at 7-10 hours a week devoted to the preaching task.

    I feel blessed to be able to be “full-time” but I feel many of the same time crunches that I felt when I was “part-time” (really? part-time ministry? come on, we all know that term’s a bit of a joke! :)

    What I think the heart of Dr. Kind’s article is getting at is putting first things first. The question is originally voiced to him from a lay leader and I think that indicates what we often forget but should assume: a lot of the people we serve in ministry don’t have a clear picture of what ministry entails. They wonder, “what does the pastor DO all day?” So, things like visiting and administration, events, etc. take precedent in their expectations because they’re visible. Everyone knows the pastor has to study and prepare for Sunday, but few probably have a clear picture of what that means. Who will tell them? Perhaps that is on us as pastors to help clarify our priorities with our Boards and lay leaders, and work with them to redefine what matters and what “counts.”

    Above all, it is the priority and the primacy of the preaching task that Dr. Kind’s article is after. Too many times as pastors we blame our poor preparation habits on busy-ness or this or that (and no, I don’t think that is what the posters in this thread are necessarily doing, so please don’t take that as a criticism personally). We come to Saturday with half an outline and general idea that maybe we’re going to speak about Moses or David or the Sermon on the Mount. In my experience, the key to devoting the necessary time to sermon work is as much in working ahead as it is in working this week. Let’s face it, we all know Sunday is coming- every 7 days like clockwork. Spend an afternoon with a calendar and plan a month or two of sermon ideas. You don’t have to write them in that afternoon, just have a plan by prayerfully seeking where God wants you to go in the pulpit over the next several weeks. Then, as you are leading up to those weeks, the ideas and thoughts are ‘marinating’ in your heart and mind, giving the Holy Spirit plenty of time to crystallize the message. Once you’re ahead a week or two, the pressure to “get the sermon done ’cause Sunday’s almost here” begins to lessen and you’re freed up to focus more on both your preparation and the other tasks of ministry.

  5. Going through my files I came upon a clipping from a book, I wish I could give credit where credit is due but there was no author’s name on the piece I had, maybe you’ll recognize it.

    “I often think of the story about the farmer who got up one morning to feed the sheep. he started to get the feed when he saw the tractor need to be fixed. He started for the barn to get the tools when he saw that the wood needed to be chopped. He started to the wood pile to get the axe when he noticed the horses were out of the corral. He ran to catch the horses and then noticed that the barn had caught on fire, so he forgot the horses and ran to put out the fire. While putting out the fire, he heard his wife yelling to him that the gas stove was not working and he needed to fix it.

    I feel that way sometimes in the church. I am so busy fixing up everything that I don’t have time to feed the sheep, which is what I started out to do in the first place. I see broken programs and broken lives; I run from crisis to crisis and at the end of the day wonder what I have done. Then someone comes up to me with a new vision – which is usually a new broken person or group of people who need fixing. The next thing I know, our church is directionless as I chase from one fix-it project to the next.

    I need guardrails to keep me from straying too far off course.”

    • Thanks Denn. This illustration reminds us that the issue is not so much about the time available to eahc of us, whether full-time, part-time, or bi-vocational, but how we use the time we have. The question we pastors must always wrestle with is, am I doing what God has called me to this context to do with the time I have?
      Peace,
      Lenny

  6. Denn, the version of the quote you used may be from “Thomas W. McKee.” It appears in his blog.

    Jeremiah Clements was right when he noted that I was talking about a full-time work week. However, if someone is a part-time pastor, and the job description includes preaching, it would seem that preaching preparation would be less, but could justifiably consume more than the 1/3 portion that I referenced. Please, let’s don’t get fixed on numbers. I am concerned about good speakers who could be GREAT preachers, but trust in their ability more than their preparation and prayer time.

    Here is a free tip on my favorite little book on preaching: “The Mystery of God’s Word” written by one of the greatest preachers in the world: Raniero Cantalamessa (http://www.cantalamessa.org/). You will forgive me for recommending a book from a Catholic, a chaplain to the Pope, no less.

  7. As a student ministries pastor I would encourage staff pastors who lead youth groups and other venues to have the same diligence in the preparation of messages. The letter constantly referred to senior pastors but I believe staff pastors should have the same deep respect for the preaching of the Word. To feel that this level of preparation is not necessary just because you work with “kids” really diminishes the level of importance and value that is a part of our responsibility. So youth pastors take this wonderful advice, step up to the plate and get to work doing the hard work of sermon preparation

  8. Most of us seem to be time challenged in sermon preparation. My question is, ‘Is sermon preparation always behind a desk?’
    If the text is prayerfully selected sufficiently in advance, we gain some interesting hours in sermon preparation. First, we gain multiple readings of the context, possibly from several versions. We wear that text for at least a few days, perhaps weeks.
    I carry sermon materials everywhere I go. Any break in the planned schedule is review time. I study before and after meeting with people. Fifteen minutes of downtime can be really productive for a pastor. If someone is late, amen!
    Early exposure allows me to carry the text wherever the day demands. My mind is alert for illustrations and clarifying phrases that seem to pop up from typical events. Jesus used illustrations and framed the big ideas from the ordinary stuff of life.
    Reflection is also a powerful way of increasing the output of our desk time. Instead of seeking deadline inspiration, my mind is more focused to answer specific questions of the text. I have a better instinct for which resources are needed and have everything available when needed.
    Bottom line, we need to be true to both our text and to our people. If a hundred people are listening, we could at worst waste one hundred hours of congregational time. At best, we are equipping one hundred people to turn their world upside down.