Over the last two weeks, I have offered up my thoughts about serving bivocationally in ministry through my Reflections and Navigating posts. After both posts, I have had friends ask specifically about how I prepare for sermons with a full-time job. Most of the time, I want to say: poorly, by the skin of my teeth, barely in the nick of time.
Recently, Thom Rainer released some research he did on the amount of time that pastors spend studying for one sermon. He stated that it was unscientific in the classic sense as it was a survey done through Twitter. Nevertheless, I think that it represents the reality I experienced when serving as a full-time pastor and church planter.
The key points that I take from Rainer’s post are:
- 70% of pastors’ sermon preparation time is the narrow range of 10 to 18 hours per sermon.
- The median time for sermon preparation in this study is 13 hours. That means that half of the respondents gave a number under 13 hours; the other half gave a number greater than 13 hours.
- Most of the respondents who gave a response under 12 hours indicated they were bivocational pastors.
I did not participate in the survey and I’m not sure how I would have answered. I prepare for one sermon that I preach twice each Sunday (in two locations). In thinking about my amount of preparation, it is difficult to land on how many hours it takes. The main reason is that it feels as if every spare moment often leads to thinking about the next sermon.
Please know that I’m going to state all of the following about how I prepare for sermons with two assumptions in mind. First, your personal spiritual formation is foundational for all of the rest. No amount of sermon prep can make up for neglecting your personal time with Christ. Secondly, sermon prep must be done with an ever-deepening prayer life. Martin Luther reportedly first said the axiom, “He that has prayed well has studied well.”
So with the hope of bringing some sense to it all, I’ll give to you some of the method to my particular madness. First, my schedule and then a few final thoughts after the photograph.
Start with planning months in advance. Currently, I have my series planned for the next six months including passages, themes, main points that need wordsmithing, and tentative titles. I have met with our elders, ministerial staff, and worship leader to test out the ideas and ask for their input. It is critical for me to know where I am going for an extended period of time. And, it helps me to spiritually prepare for more than one message at a time.
Weekly planning begins at the end of the sermon. Believe it or not, I begin my sermon preparation on the front row during our response time. As soon as one message is done, I’m praying about how the next message intersects with what God is doing in that moment. My drive home from church each week also gives me a chance to meditate on how one sermon follows another; how the next sermon can dovetail on what I just witnessed the Spirit do in our lives together.
Sunday night, read. I read the passage for next week and just sit with it for a bit.
Monday night is normally my heavy preparation time. It is when I outline the passage, extract the key points again, review academic resources, and begin thinking about illustrations.
Tuesday morning is meditation time. Before I leave for work, I go over the passage and ask for God’s guidance on whether or not I’ve hit on the right theme and principles to teach.
Tuesday evening is just more study. How much study is determined on family time, work needed to be done from home, and other responsibilities. When able, I will further shape the outline and begin looking for a key illustration.
Wednesday evening, it is time to finalize the major points. Before I go to bed, I finalize the theme and main points of the outline. When it goes fast, any sub-points that will show up on the video screen also come together by this time. I email all of this information to our church office by noon on Thursday. However, I shoot for doing so on Wednesday night before I go to bed. My friend Tammi in our church office will tell you that I probably hit it early only 50% of the time.
Thursday and Friday, it is with me all of the time. I awake with the sermon in my head, go to bed thinking about it, and catch moments to reflect on it throughout the day. Somewhere in these two days, I usually finish the sermon notes.
Saturday, normally in the evening, I edit. It is when tweak my sermon notes a bit and print them out. I print out an outline to preach from and keep in my Bible with a rubber band when preaching.
Sunday morning, I scribble. Any last minute edits or thoughts are written in the margins. Stuff gets circled or underlined. It is not a perfect system but it is the one that works for me. Here are my preaching notes for a message on Nehemiah 8.
Now, here are three other ideas that I want to encourage my bivocational tribe about:
Don’t steal time away from your full-time employer. If you have an office, don’t close the door and do sermon preparation unless your employer has given you permission to do so. Many of us take lunch hours at our desk to study, read, and work on the outline; even if it is just in our heads. Don’t give in to the temptation that preparing for a sermon is a worthy excuse to be an unproductive employee.
Preach a trial run. Make a time to actually say your sermon out loud before the worship service. When you are full-time, it is a bit easier (only a bit) to make this part of your preparation time. When you are bivocational, it is a bit harder to find time to do this. But, we are better off if we do.
Have trusted advisors. Ask for help from friends who can give suggestions during the preparation phase and feedback after Sundays.
The process described will likely change in the months ahead. I know this because it has been changing over the last few months. And that is fine. We have to prepare for the future and be dependent during the present 24 hours. Find a process that works now but do not become a slave to it. Just stay in love with the Lord and the work He has assigned to you. Then, it will more likely be a joy than a duty.