I was recently with about 100 full time preaching pastors for a one week seminar designed to strengthen their preaching. My usual mode of operation is to gather the struggles, questions, and concerns of the group before I throw content at them. I was glad I did. In our brief brainstorming and problem defining session it became clear a minimal amount of exegetical resources were being used, the preaching process started very late, and sermons were thrown together with almost last minute urgency.
Does this sound familiar?
The denominational leaders who asked me to come in affirmed the direction for our time during a brief break. So I pushed for these pastors to start their sermonic interpretation processes earlier, to use more substantive resources, and to resist the cheap content fillers too readily available for pastors. At first the teaching was met with fear. Anxiety. Discouragement. Polite smiles and responses of course, but private questions and easily read body language.
The challenge to start sermons earlier seemed impossible. Most preachers feel as though they start as early as they can.
The challenge to use more substantive resources for preaching felt burdensome. Most preachers already feel the dogs of burnout nipping at their heels.
The challenge to avoid cheap content fillers seemed like an unfair restriction. Most preachers thirst for any help, from any direction, for the demands of the content machine.
This is not the first time I have seen this reaction. I remember feeling it in my own preaching when I was writing two sermons a week for full time pastoral work. It took me quite some time to realize the truth that starting earlier, using better resources, and resisting the urge to grab cheap content actually made preaching easier not harder.
For the rest of this brief article I want to share a few adjustments of preaching rhythm with you that will seem impossible at first, burdensome after some consideration, and may even feel restricting if you think about it for a short time. But if you apply it, discipline yourself to it, I promise it will not only improve your preaching. It will also make your preaching easier, more fulfilling, and bring better feedback from the seekers and believers in your churches.
- The day after preaching
Many full time preachers take a day off on Monday. I have been convinced Friday is better both for myself and by preachers who continually confirm it as a better pastoral day of sabbath rest. Delaying your sermon process by taking Monday off undoes the momentum from the previous day, and reduces the time between discovery and delivery. If the day off is Friday, and Sunday’s sermon is ninety-five percent finished the mind can rest as well as the body. On Monday, if the sermon is unfinished a nagging anxiety about the coming week is hard to shake. Consider scheduling a couple hours at least to read and study on Monday.
First, read the text for nearly three weeks from now. Read it in a relaxed way simply soaking in what comes to mind. The goal is to be a little more familiar with the passage and does not take more than ten minutes. This one single step on Monday (just reading) does more to jump start preachers’ preaching processes than anything else I suggest. This is why it is not burdensome or unrealistic. Anyone can accomplish ten minutes of discipline.
Second, open the passage for two weeks out, 13 days away. For this passage take the time to mark notes, underline, and ask questions to guide your interpretive work. This does not need to take more than thirty minutes. Once this becomes a rhythm in your life it will mean you encounter the text a second time and in a contemplative way two weeks before you have to preach it. After questioning and observing the passage, your subconscious begins to write the sermon for you.
Third, the rest of the time you have allotted for sermon work can be spent on this week’s sermon. Open the passage for this coming Sunday you studied last week (see below). Review your exegetical notes, spend time in contemplative prayer, and seek to move the sermon forward. For external processors this usually means improvisational preaching then outlining and writing. For internal processors, this often means reflection, outlining, then improvisational preaching (out loud) or free writing. The aim is to craft the sermon in a way that flows for the ear not the eye. The sooner the sermon becomes “heard” the sooner it will flow and relieve the preacher’s anxiety. For many preachers a car, an empty house, or a lonely place in nature provides space to test the sermon out loud. External processers will often start in these spaces, and then later outline and write.
Most pastors experience significant reduction of preaching anxiety, increase in scriptural insights, and more time for creative additions to their sermons simply by 1) making preaching preparation on Mondays non-negotiable and 2) adjusting the rhythm to include more than one week’s text.
- Two days after preaching
Focus on two elements of your preaching preparation for this day. One is for this week, the other is for the following week.
First, outline this week’s sermon in a detailed way. If you follow this pattern you will have studied the passage exegetically he week prior. It settled into your mind and consciousness and you have ideas coming to the fore. Try to discipline yourself to get at least a detailed outline done on this day (Tuesday for Sunday preachers). You can adjust it later. Having the outline done gives a sense of “I am okay, this will come together” and it also highlights the week areas of the sermon in your mind. That way your subconscious can work on them while you move on to other things. It also gives time for the Spirit to highlight things to add to your sermon you might not have noticed otherwise.
Second, set this week’s sermon outline or beginning manuscript aside. This is difficult to get preachers to do. Sometimes in creative processes however, walking away from the task gets you “unstuck.” Pick up next week’s biblical passage and do your exegetical work on it. Use multiple versions, word studies, and if you have the language capacity work with the Greek or Hebrew. Work directly with the passage. Many preachers find a three column interpretation model helpful at this stage (questions, observations, interpretative hunches). As one senior pastor in North Carolina recently told me, “The sermon after I have a week off is always better than the rest.” The reason may simply be, that sermon had more time to marinate.
- Three days after preaching
For this week’s sermon, finalize any materials you have to submit to a worship team or other supporting volunteers. This sort of deadline helps the rest of the ministry team work along with you and create all the environmental support for the service and discipleship venues. It also helps the preacher push past insecurities about whether or not it is “good enough” and commit to a direction.
For next week’s sermon, first write a few sentences describing what you think this text is trying to say and do. It wants to communicate some sort of content. The passage also wants to effect some kind of change. If you can name those two things (Tom Long’s focus and function) then you have made it to a huge milestone. Now you are free to read commentaries and other resources to see if your meaning is confirmed, complicated, or disconfirmed.
- Four days after preaching
For Sunday preachers this is Thursday. If you follow the advice I was given by my mentoring pastor, and the advice I give to pastors still, you will take Friday off. This means loose ends need tied up and the sermon needs to be close to ready. The only task for today in preaching is to find 30 minutes here or there between hospital calls, administrative work, and discipleship efforts to preach through this coming Sunday’s sermon from beginning to end. If you are an internal processor you may have to write it out first, but do not skip the preaching out loud step. The sermon can happen to you this way, not just be spoken by you. It helps you hear where the gaps are, recognize where the awkward moments are, and feel where the sermon drags or lulls. If you can preach through it beginning to end on Thursday one time, Friday will be a much more peaceful day.
- Six days after preaching
Saturday may hold prayer breakfasts, fund-raisers, special events, weddings, or other culturally determined ministry activities. These are hard to predict and the preaching requirements for the day must flex to the unpredictability. Some days, Saturdays can be mostly time for family and friendship connections. Other Saturdays require more. For multiple service congregations, Saturday may not be very free.
At some point in the day, find space to preach the coming sermon’s major movements aloud until they flow smoothly. Since three to five minutes at a time is all that is needed, treasure any moments to drive, take a walk in the woods, or be in your home or office alone and undisturbed. The only goal is to make sure each movement is internalized as its own unit. Personally I find this takes me two or three attempts to get it to where I am satisfied. That means I need three separate half hour times to practice-preach the day before. That may sound like a lot. But I have learned there are quite a few “dead” moments in any day. An early rise before the family gives me one gap. An errand across town gives me another gap. Then all I need is to slip away for thirty minutes (during halftime of my favorite game for example) to finalize the sermon in my mind.
If you follow this structure you will never be “behind” on your sermon writing even if unexpected funerals and conflicts emerge. The reason is you are always working two weeks ahead on interpreting a passage. So you have flexibility and room to catch up on the process at some other time. If you have to cut something it will not mean you have not even started the sermon by the Thursday night before Sunday. Some of the preachers in seminars I have led admit to repeatedly pulling a sermon together Saturday night using cobbled together resources from others’ work. This would never happen if three weeks out they read the passage. Two weeks out they began taking interpretive notes and engaging interpretive resources. If something came up the week-of, the only thing that would be delayed would be outlining and preaching it through.
If it seems too complicated to start doing this all at once simple change your preaching rhythm one day per week for the next few weeks. Start by adding two other passages of scripture reading to your Monday. This is not God’s way of sermon writing. It is not the 11th commandment. Every preacher needs to find their own way. I simply suggest to preachers to give it a try for a few months and see if it doesn’t improve their preaching. So far, I have not heard a pastor say it doesn’t. Instead I get emails from the pastors above saying “I wrote the best sermon of my ministry this week.” Or, “I have never felt so little stress about preaching. It is hard work, but it is way less stress. I’ll take the trade.”
Give it a try. If you have questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I always love hearing from preachers who are working on their craft, and crafting their work.
© David B Ward, 2018 Some material excerpted from Practicing the Preaching Life, Abingdon Press forthcoming 2019