Sermon Preparation Tips for Busy Pastors
Though I have never pastored a large church, I sometimes feel that planting a church or pastoring a small to medium-size church can be one of the more challenging occupations.
On one hand, you want to preach several life-changing messages each week. On the other hand, you are expected to oversee building and maintenance, youth and children’s work, volunteer training and recruitment, church finance and accounting, outreach and discipleship, media and design, as well as counsel the hurting, visit the sick, officiate weddings/funerals and mentor others for leadership and ministry. On top of all this you might occasionally want to have coffee with a fellow pastor, read a book for personal growth, take the odd holiday, and not lose your family in the process! Easy, right?
Well, of course, even though the pastor oversees the church, he is to train and equip the saints so that they do the work of the ministry and so that the body of Christ is built up (see Ephesians 4:11-12). All the ministry that needs done is a great opportunity for everyone in the church to be involved in some way.
But the practical challenges of trying to balance all these ministry responsibilities as well as prepare and preach several sound, Biblical messages each week can be daunting. I have found that these pressures are handled in several different ways:
Quitting because the pressure is too great
Settling for poor sermons
Preaching good sermons but neglecting other areas such as outreach, discipleship, or training
Cancelling services or substitute preaching time with other things to “fill the hour”
Trying to do everything well while doing damage to health, family, personal growth or other private areas
So, what advice can be given to help those preachers who find themselves struggling with the stresses of ministry as well as the pressure to preach several Bible messages each week? Here are a few thoughts:
Plan your week and time properly. This might seem like a given, but I know that I often get distracted with less important tasks and neglect the important. There are many things that you might need to say “no” to so that you can say “yes” to the important ones. Be sure to schedule ample time for things like sermon preparation, planning, administration and let your “yeses” help you with your “nos”.
Get adequate rest and time off. Though not a Biblical requirement now, there is a principle we see in Scripture of a day of rest. Last time I checked none of us are immortal. We all need rest and in particular scheduling a day off or two half-days off per week will help you be able to work more effectively the other days.
Learn your rhythms. Schedule study time when it comes most naturally for you and when you are most alert mentally. Maybe schedule meetings for other times (i.e. afternoons) when you are less able to study. Take a day off when you are the most exhausted in the week and can most likely relax without feeling the need to do things in the church.
Say, “No” or say, “Not right now”. This is a big one. You do not have to do everything exactly when everyone wants you to do it. This is not to say that you do not say “Yes”, or interrupt your schedule, but use care when committing to non-essential, extra things. If you do want to do something extra, then plan it for a time when you will have the time.
See sermon preparation as a series of steps. Sometimes the thought of “getting a sermon” can be overwhelming because of the time and effort that is invariably involved. If you can break down your preparation process into a series of steps it can help you feel you are making progress and allow you to be getting ready even if you have a 30-minute to one-hour time slot.
Read and grow. Often the first thing to go from a busy person’s schedule is personal growth time. However, the good things you read, listen to, and watch may not directly relate to a passage or topic you are preaching on, but it is interesting how often they will turn into illustrations, depth and supporting material for sermons you prepare later.
Pray. I doubt you will be able to commit hours each day to prayer, but some time in prayer each day can help to get your focus right, clear your heart of worries and give you supernatural strength and insight into the text and the decision you need to make.
Delegate. Look at everyone in your church and try to figure out what their gifts and abilities might be and then delegate what you can to them. Though challenging in the short term, this will free you up in the long run to focus on the primary ministry God has given you.
Use good Bible study tools. I personally prefer Logos Bible study software, which, after entering a Biblical text or topic, quickly finds much helpful material from commentaries, sermons, cross references, exegetical studies, Bible dictionaries, encyclopaedias that save me a lot of time in research.
Preach systematically through books or a series of topics. Sometimes, we can spend as much time trying to figure out what to preach as we do preparing the sermon. If you are going through a series or have planned your topics, you can jump right into the text/topic and begin studying right away.
Collect sermon outlines by others. I find this particularly helpful after I have read and studied the text and am trying to discern how God would have me go about preaching the passage. Comparing your thoughts with the big idea, points, and applications of others can be very helpful.
Use supplementary material for other teaching opportunities like Bible studies, Sunday school classes and other speaking opportunities. Every time you speak, you want to be led and filled with the Spirit, but you don’t have to necessarily reinvent the wheel. This is especially important for those who are just starting out and maybe do not have any previous sermons to fall back on for extra things. When the disciples first went out to preach, Jesus gave them their sermon content (see Matthew 10:7). This is not an excuse to be lazy or to plagiarise (give credit where credit is due), but it would be better to teach doctrinal, sound content that someone else has prepared than weak material that you have just thrown together. Also, I am not saying you should do this for all or any of your normal services, but really more for other additional teaching times that you may not really have time to adequately prepare a new message or lesson from scratch.
Print out the text and make notes as you read other things. I find that printing out a “propositional outline” of the text helps me to visualise the flow of the text and gives me a place to underline, circle, connect and write any observations, cross references and thoughts as I read and study. From that I start writing my sermon. (See what this looks like here).
Preach the same books of the Bible in several different services. In other words, instead of doing one series on Sunday morning, one on Sunday night, and another on Wednesday, why not do the same book in all three services or the same on Sunday night and Wednesday? This allows you to pick up where you left of and you don’t have to reacclimatise yourself to a new book each time you start to prepare. You may have a slightly different crowd in these services, but often there are parts of each book that pertain to unbelievers, to the church or to more advanced study. So you could, for example, preach more evangelistically on Sunday morning, then more to the believer Sunday night, and then delve deeper into an idea that came up in one of the Sunday sermons on Wednesday night.
Stop trying to be amazing. The thing that changes lives is the Word of God and the Spirit of God; not your fancy outline or funny illustration. Sometimes, we spend so much effort on just the right opener or just the right anecdote, when what people really need is the Word of God. Sure, if you have time, it would be nice to have some lovely garnish next to the steak, but if you have to choose between salad and meat (sorry any vegetarians), most would choose meat every time. Sometimes, if I am honest, I take longer on my sermons not because I am praying or studying or meditating, but because I am trying to be too fancy and to impress people too much. Though by far, not an easy task, preaching is reading the Word, giving the sense and causing people to understand (see Nehemiah 8:8, 2 Timothy 4:2).
Let it go undone. Sometimes, we want everything to get done and everything to be just right. We desire to have excellent music, beautiful graphics and Powerpoint, great children’s ministry, and spectacular facilities. All that is great, but it is meaningless if there is no power in the pulpit. People will forgive you for many things but not for being unprepared in your preaching. Preaching is the one thing you cannot delegate to others and still be the pastor and spiritual leader. So if it is a choice between having sermon slides and a sermon, choose the sermon. If it is a choice between a bulletin and the sermon, choose the sermon. If you just let those other things go undone, you may find that eventually someone will want to take that ministry on and will do an even better job than you.
I am sure there is much that could be added and probably several things that could be amended, but these are a few things that might help you as you seek to faithfully preach the Word, while also caring for your family, equipping the saints, training faithful men, and overseeing the flock God has given you. Let me know what you would add.