Getting Things Done – Sermon Preparation
by Wesley Allen, Jr. on Friday, August 31, 2018
As much as I deeply love to preach, my sermon preparation takes so long that I am fearful of the day when I have to start preaching consistently every week. How does one write consistently good sermons without devoting so much time to research and writing that nothing else gets done?
– Introduction to Preaching Student
How long preachers should dedicate to sermon preparation is an issue with which many pastors struggle. Frankly, we homileticians wish pastors would spend their entire work week on the sermon, but we recognize that there are pastoral care situations, administrative responsibilities, outreach ministries, Bible studies, and meeting after meeting that also demand your professional time — not to mention time needed to devote to family, friends, and life away from the job in general.
Traditional advice that came from Harry Emerson Fosdick is that preachers should spend an hour in the study for every minute they spend in the pulpit. Maybe that’s possible if your job is mainly preaching and other staff handle all remaining responsibilities, but this is an unrealistic expectation for most pastors… especially if their sermons are more than ten minutes long.
On the other hand, letting all the other responsibilities of the pastoral vocation crowd out sermon preparation time does a disservice to the congregation, the preacher, and, dare I say, God. Websites dedicated to providing sermon helps have their heaviest traffic on Fridays and Saturdays. No one offers their best in preaching when preparation is put off until the last minute. The sermon is the activity when ministers offer pastoral care, cast a vision for the church, teach scripture and theology, and extend the gospel to the most people at one time. Other pastoral responsibilities should flow out of the sermon and the liturgy, not be in competition with them.
So in thinking about devoting time to sermon preparation, preachers must deal with both the question of how much and when.
We’ll start with when. Preachers should start sermon preparation early in the week and spread it across the work week. Set dedicated times each day to work on the sermon (avoiding the day off!) and make sure there are breaks in-between different parts of the preparation process. In those in-between times, our brains keep working on the sermon. A spread-out process allows time for some of the most creative ideas to “pop in,” seemingly, out of nowhere while we are driving down the road, taking a shower, or sleeping. John Jasper, a former slave and well-known preacher in the African American church of the late 19th century said of his preparation, “First, I read my Bible until a text gets hold of me. Then I go down to the James River and walk it in. Then I get into my pulpit and preach it out.”
What a sermon preparation schedule looks like will vary from preacher to preacher. Some will do best dedicating time at the beginning of each work day; some will do better in the afternoon. Newer preachers may need longer for each session than experienced ones. Also different biblical texts, theological topics, and pastoral situations may call for more or less time in any given week. And, finally, in some weeks sermons seem to bloom with ease, while at other times sermon preparation feels like plowing through asphalt. What is offered below, then, is sort of a sermon preparation template that preachers need to adapt to their own style, schedule, and skills. But it is intended to hold in tension the need to give enough time to sermon preparation without letting it take over the whole week, as well as giving time for the sermon to develop across the week without it being forced to come together in one intense preparation session. Because of the importance of the sermon, I suggest spending about 8 hours a week on preparation, with those hours spread out into four two-hour sessions:
Monday Exegetical study and determining the central message of the text
Tuesday Drawing an analogy between the situation of the text and the contemporary world in order to reshape the message for a specific congregation. Determining the basic rhetorical structure to carry this message.
Wednesday Filling out the structure with imagery, stories, and such. Writing the first sermon manuscript draft.
Thursday Revising the sermon. Rehearsing the sermon out loud.
Friday-Saturday Days off.
Sunday Review the sermon. Preach the sermon.
Monday Start all over again.
Wesley Allen, Jr.
Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Preaching
Photo by Nat Arnett retrieved from https://www.freeimages.com/photo/bible-study-1312533