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Taking the Pressure Out of Sermon Preparation
By Bill O’Connor
Alcoholics Anonymous and other programs that deal with addictions have their 12 steps that lead to recovery. It strikes me that pastors who must preach every week, especially those who preach both Sunday morning and evening and lead a midweek Bible study, need something similar —not 12 steps to recovery but steps to release, something to set them free from the pressure of what seems a weekly grind.
The following steps can do just that — set you free to enjoy the process, ease the pressure of the weekly demand for two or more sermons (each of which should be your very best), and free up the time you need to prepare them adequately (a goal you seldom feel you have reached).
1. Change your schedule.
If you usually take Mondays off, change your schedule so sermon preparation begins the first of the week. It is psychologically helpful to get started on sermons for the following Sunday as soon after a successful preaching event as possible. After a good day on Sunday, you will come into the office with excitement and want to get into the flow of a new message as quickly as possible. If you take Monday off and wait until Tuesday to begin the process, you lose the edge of excitement that follows a successful Sunday.
Making Friday your day off has added advantages. By starting sermon preparation on Monday, you have everything finished by the time your day off arrives. This gives a pressure-free day without unfinished sermons or office work lurking in your mind.
2. Set aside both Monday and Tuesday mornings for sermon study and preparation.
Make sure your secretary, staff, and congregation respect those first 3 or 4 hours you have reserved for prayer, study of the Word, and sermon development. Have your secretary accept calls and hold messages until your study time ends except for genuine emergencies.
Be sure to respect your own preparation time as well. Don’t get caught up greasing squeaky wheels; refuse to allow your focus to be redirected to other concerns. You are, first and foremost, a preacher of God’s Word; therefore, keep to your schedule and take care of first things first. If you can protect yourself from interruption and stay on track, those 6 to 8 hours can be the most productive of your week.
3. Prepare a list of texts and titles in advance.
Never go to the office not knowing where to begin. When the texts and topics have already been chosen, you can enter the office ready to study; otherwise, you may spend 3 or 4 hours the first day getting ready to begin. Nothing is more frustrating. Plan your preaching in advance — a month, a quarter, or even a year. This relieves the weekly search for something to say.
When you come across sermon ideas or preaching passages, jot them down on a full sheet of notebook paper. Make a simple outline of the text at the same time if possible; then file these sermon starters in a notebook or folder. Go through the idea file periodically and select sermon possibilities that most appeal to you. Pray for guidance and trust the Holy Spirit to inspire you to choose sermons for the coming weeks or months. Make a chronological list of the sermons you plan to preach by Sunday dates. When you come into the office on Monday mornings, choose the next sermon on the list and go to work.
4. Bathe the entire process of sermon preparation in prayer.
Just as you asked the Holy Spirit to help you select sermons for your preaching schedule, ask His help as you study and write. Believe that He will give insight and wisdom in selecting the thoughts and ideas you will share the following Sunday.
5. Focus on textual and expository preaching.
Begin by making a simple outline of the text itself. As you become adept at choosing preaching passages in which outlines naturally appear, you will ease the load considerably. Your work will be half done when you approach the passage on Monday morning if you outline it when you first put the idea in your notebook or folder. An outline is the skeleton on which the meat of your sermon will hang. Begin with a strong outline and you are well on your way.
6. Study the text intensively.
Record your own insights first: What does the passage say to you? Your most effective communication will come from personal interaction with the Word of God. Ask yourself what the author meant when he penned the words and how those words apply to the people God has given you to lead. Once you have clarified these thoughts seek others’ ideas and expand your outline by recording insights where they will best fit the message that has begun to grow. Be sure to give yourself enough information in these areas to obtain the maximum impact.
7. Search the Scriptures (or computer Bible if you have one) for parallel passages that reinforce and expand the ideas.
Write the Scripture references you wish to use in the appropriate places in the outline. (A computer Bible is a tremendous help in choosing Scripture and adding full passages to your printed outline later on. It can save hours spent in searching and typing out passages.)
8. Choose appropriate illustrations.
Make note of the sources for the final outline — a simple phrase to remind you of the idea or a notation of where to find the idea again when the time comes. Be sure the illustrations advance the direction of your message and add to the point they were chosen to illustrate. A story for a story’s sake is not what preaching is all about.
9. Prepare a final outline.
Use simple words and phrases to remind you of ideas and illustrations; do not try to write everything in full. State the theme, main points, subtopics, and brief reminders to expand when you preach. Include just enough of each illustration to get started. Write out quotations in full. Write out Scripture passages or indicate the references in your outline and mark each passage in your Bible with a paper clip so you can turn to them quickly.
The only place to be more detailed in your outline is in the introduction and conclusion. Be sure to give yourself enough information in these areas to obtain the maximum impact.
10. Aim at having your Sunday morning sermon outlined on Monday and fully typed or printed out by Wednesday afternoon.
Once this responsibility is complete you will feel greater freedom in performing the other responsibilities of ministry.
11. Aim at having your Sunday evening sermon outlined on Tuesday and fully typed or printed out before you leave the office on Thursday.
The freedom of approaching your day off (Friday) with both sermons complete is one of the greatest emotional and physical releases you will ever know. Everything else seems easier, and your times of relaxation can be just that.
12. Never wait until Saturday to finish a sermon.
If there have been interruptions during the week and one of your sermons is not finished, take Friday morning to finish your work. Then take the rest of the day off. Relax, you have earned it.
Following these 12 steps will make sermon preparation a joy and less burdensome. You will approach Sunday rested, relaxed, and ready for the best preaching experience of your life.
Now, a final step: When you leave the office on Thursday afternoon, know that you have given your best to the Lord. Believe that on Sunday He will give you His best in return. I guarantee that is the way it will be.
Bill O’Connor is senior pastor, Marsing Church of the Nazarene, Marsing, Idaho.