It’s the nightmare that jolts a pastor wide awake at 3 a.m.
You’re sitting on the platform. The final strains of the special music are fading. Anxiety gives way to panic as you step into the pulpit and lay your closed Bible in front of you. You speak the words you’ve always dreaded: “I don’t have a word from God today.”
What makes that dream sequence so frightening is that, for many pastors, it could so easily become a reality.
Far too many preachers suffer from what seminary professor Wayne McDill calls “the Saturday night panics.” A constant stream of emergencies compounds the pressure of too-many ministry demands. A disgruntled church member’s revolt deepens your frustration and discouragement. You’re working an outside job to make ends meet, and your family’s needs always seem to come last.
Finding time to prepare this week’s sermon is hard enough. Who has time to plan sermons for the year ahead?
“The pastor’s No. 1 stress factor is lack of time,” says Mark Tolbert, professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “Some might say I don’t have enough time as it is. How could I possibly take more time to plan my preaching when I’m out of time already? It’s the old illustration that the workman doesn’t waste time when he stops to sharpen his axe. You’re going to be more effective in a lot of ways if you plan your preaching.”
Sermon preparation is like gassing up your car for tomorrow’s cross-country drive. But sermon planning is the road map that shows where you are going and how to get there.
Long-range sermon planning isn’t unrealistic, once a person knows how to plan and understands preaching as “leading your people through discipleship from the pulpit,” says Jim Shaddix, a preaching professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
“The great benefit of planning for the preacher is that it avoids getting to Saturday night or Sunday morning, not knowing what you’re going to preach and therefore dishonoring the weightiness of God speaking to his people—not to mention wasting people’s time,” Shaddix says. “The starting point is knowing what your congregation needs to hear from God in order to be moved along in Christlikeness and spiritual maturity.”
Benefits for both shepherd and flock
“Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds.” (Proverbs 27:23)
Better than any visiting preacher, a pastor knows his congregation and is able to give them the messages they need, Tolbert says. In addition to relieving Saturday night’s panic, he cites two other important benefits of long-term sermon planning:
- “It allows your mind and spirit to marinate on where you are going. If you are planning several weeks ahead, thoughts will come to you as you are driving, talking with your children, or visiting with somebody at work. That will inform a sermon, maybe not next Sunday, but two or three weeks from now.”
- “It helps your congregation by modeling for them how to approach the study of God’s Word. I don’t know of any pastor who would recommend that the best way to study your Bible is to flip it open, put your finger down on the page and start reading random verses. But that’s almost what we’re doing if we just preach isolated Scriptures. A planned series of sermons models how we approach serious Bible study—with a plan and a strategy.”
A congregation’s music leader also benefits greatly from long-range sermon planning, says Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship. A music leader who knows where the preacher is heading can plan for music that resonates much more deeply with the proclaimed word.
“What is happening on Sunday is not two people doing two things; it’s two people doing one thing,” Harland says. “One thing is happening in corporate worship, and it’s a discipling process.”
If two people are going to work together to disciple a congregation, it requires much more than a preacher giving the music leader a heads up about next Sunday’s text and title, Harland adds.
“I’d rather have a pastor’s heart than his text,” Harland says. “It’s about more than getting power words so I can do a concordance search of the hymnal. From a vision standpoint, what is your sense of what God is saying to you? What are the spiritual disciplines you are trying to address? What are the key ideas or theological points you will emphasize?”
That kind of partnership requires more time and a deeper relationship than a weekly staff meeting provides, Harland adds. A constant flow of open communication allows rapport and trust to be built over time. A pastor might give the music leader a copy of a book he is reading, and in return the musician can share copies of the music he is listening to.
“It takes time to get there,” Harland observes. “It requires real maturity and openness between you.”
A strategy for sermon planning
Long-range sermon planning is easier if a pastor doesn’t start with a blank sheet of paper.
Mark Tolbert suggests a pastor sit down at least twice a year to plan specifically where he is going for the next few months and to think more generally about the year ahead. He outlines a four-part strategy:
- Plan a book study. These sermons should be completed in no more than 12 weeks. Plan to preach on one Old Testament book for every two or three New Testament books covered.
- Preach for six weeks on a spiritual discipline, such as prayer, evangelism, Bible study, or Christian growth.
- Schedule a doctrine study on a topic like the role of the Holy Spirit or the person of Christ.
- Be sure to include a four-week evangelistic series.
David Daniels, a Fort Worth pastor and contributor to PreachingToday.com, outlines three levels of planning:
- An annual “look ahead” in September. Identify immovable dates like Mother’s Day and Easter. Look at notes you’ve jotted down about possible series or topics and see whether any of the immovable dates work within a particular series.
- Gather the worship planning team at least once a quarter. Discuss how upcoming series are going to “land” visually. Decide how each one will be presented and publicized.
- Each week, debrief the previous Sunday with the worship team and look intensely at the upcoming Sunday. Depending on available time or season of the year, look several Sundays ahead and begin to nail down particular elements of worship services.
All pastors wrestle with the time crunch, and even some full-time pastors say they don’t have time to plan, Daniels notes. But the consequences of not planning are far worse than the cost of taking regular time to strategize.
“We live in a busy, chaotic world, and it never feels like there’s enough time to get everything done,” Daniels says. “But it’s a little bit like the maintenance on your car. You can take your car in for regular oil changes and have a car that hits 150,000 or 200,000 miles, or you can avoid taking the time out and it will cost you in the long run. You will end up in a bad place.
“Taking a day or two out of my year to plan ahead gives me tremendous freedom the rest of the year because I already know where I’m going.”