If you’re going to lead your church through the next growth barrier, you can’t squander the most precious personal resource you have: time.
This includes wasting time on unfocused sermon preparation.
I’ve always been a bit suspicious of how long Senior Pastors spend in sermon preparation anyway. The leaders I run in circles with throw around numbers like 15 to 20 hours a week. Knowing how my week usually flows, I’m quite skeptical.
If I had to guess, I think the average Senior Pastor spends no more than two mornings a week on their sermons. That’s usually 4 hours on a Wednesday, and another 4 hours on a Thursday.
I actually think that’s plenty of time to write a good message.
The problem I have isn’t the amount of time spent, it’s that I believe most Senior Pastors could be much more effective in how those 8 hours are spent.
If you follow the 5 steps I outline in this article I believe you will consistently preach better sermons with 8 hours or less of preparation than some Senior Pastors will having only spent 15 or 20.
1. Adopt The Concept Of “Minimum Effective Dose” With Your Preaching.
The idea of “Minimum Effective Dose” comes from the world of medicine.
A Minimum Effective Dose is the principle that the smallest dose needed will produce the desired outcome, and that anything over that exact dosage is wasted.
For example, if your daughter has an earache and is prescribed a 400mg dose of Amoxicillin, 2 times a day for 5 days, that’s because clinical trials have proven that she only needs 400mg, 2 times a day, for her symptoms to go away in 5 days or less. Nothing more, nothing less.
Would doubling the amount of Amoxicillin make her get better, faster? Of course not. In fact, it might do her more harm than good.
This principle applies to everything from weight training, to learning a language, and, of course, to preaching.
You shouldn’t feel guilty about not spending 20 hours a week in sermon preparation if it only takes 8 hours to get the job done.
Spending more time than the Minimum Effective Dose needed to produce excellent sermons wastes precious time that could be spent on other vital ministry tasks.
2. Target 2,500 Words, 28 Minutes Max.
What is the Minimum Effective Dose with regards to the length of an effective sermon?
In other words, how long does it take, on average, to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish?
It’s so easy for Senior Pastors to forget that the reason we prepare sermons is not to prepare sermons. We prepare sermons to help people obey Jesus (Matthew 28:20). Learning, equipping, rebuking, encouraging, comforting, etc. – all come along for the ride.
How long does that take?
In almost all cases I’d say 30 minutes max, and probably closer to 25. This is why I try to preach between 25-28 minutes every single time. To help me do this consistently I had a large screen installed in the back of our auditorium which projects, among other things in the service, a clock counting down from 28 to 0 to keep me on track. The clock starts counting down the moment I open my mouth. The times that I haven’t used that clock I’ve gone over by at least 10 minutes, thinking I’m actually right on time.
Think of the time needed to teach any new skill.
How long does it take to teach someone how to use a new app, appliance, or remote control for the TV? All things being equal, it takes no more than 15-25 minutes to learn the who, what, when, where, and why of doing something new. Anything beyond that is repetitive. Why would a sermon be much different on most occasions? There’s no theological justification for sermon length.
This is important because finding our Minimum Effective Dose in terms of sermon length immediately clarifies two other things we should track: word count and page count.
I know that a 28-minute sermon of mine is roughly 2,500 words, which, when condensed, is 5 single-space pages, or an extended outline 9 pages long. That means I never go over 9 pages. Ever. I may preach longer than 28 minutes at times, but I never walk into the service with more than 9 pages in my hand.
Will preaching 45 minutes instead of 25 really help our listeners more fully obey the teaching of Jesus we’re covering? In most cases I doubt it.
That extra 20 minutes is wasted time in your service spent at the expense of your listener’s attention span, excluding other creative elements that could drive your message home.
As Howard Hendricks was so fond of saying, “Leave them longing, not loathing.”
3. Narrow Down Your Preaching Subjects To No More Than 20 Subjects.
Senior Pastors know that one of our biggest time wasters is waiting for lighting to strike from above and magically infuse us with Andy Stanley’s certainty regarding what we should preach on next.
We wait, and wait, and wait, and in doing so waste precious time we could utilize elsewhere.
Here’s a better alternative:
Identify your most important 16-20 annual sermon series’ topics.
In other words, what’s the Minimum Effective Dose regarding preaching topics and sermon series’? Go through your past 5 year’s sermons, the Bible, and the needs of your people. Pick out the top 20 sermon series subjects you’ve preached on (or should have preached on) every single year. Since we don’t do sermon series’ that are longer than 3-4 weeks, we narrowed ours to 18.
Here, in no certain order, are the 18 sermon series topics we use at CCV:
2. Bible Book
3. Bible Character
4. Biblical Issue
6. Cultural hot topics
10. Spiritual Disciplines
12. Felt Needs (Stress, Purpose, Work)
That’s it. We don’t preach on anything else. Narrowing down the topics for sermon series’ has decreased our anxiety, saved time, and produced clarity.
Arrange each series in the calendar for maximum impact
Place each series on your annual sermon calendar in the months that best fit the life of your church. For instance, we start the Fall with a serving series. November is money. April or May is usually cultural hot topics, depending on where Easter falls in the calendar. Forget planning each actual series. Just put “Parenting” on your calendar where it fits best, etc. Do this for your entire upcoming year.
Research 3 great options for each sermon series
Read, study, pray, brainstorm with your team of volunteers or staff, and steal sermon series ideas from other Senior Pastors (see the right sidebar for the list I routinely scan), in order to come up with three good options for each series. Put those series ideas into your annual calendar, and as you move closer, narrow each series down to one and plan it out.
Stay one series ahead
Commit to stay one series ahead in terms of having the next series completely fleshed out (series title, sermon titles, series image, sermon scripture, and big ideas) before your current series ends.
4. Set Up An Evernote Account To Store Sermon Illustrations For Your 20 Sermon Series Subjects.
If you follow through on this one piece of advice you will thank 6 lb. 8 oz. baby Jesus for the day I was born. Trust me.
One thing that wastes a lot of time when writing messages is searching for good sermon illustrations. I recommend Preaching Today for solid illustrations in a pinch, but I tell the Senior Pastors I coach that they should find and store their own sermon illustrations so they’ll be ready when you need them. Evernote to the rescue.
Evernote is an online aggregation software designed to help you easily add and then quickly retrieve pieces of information. It’s hands down the single best way to store and recall sermon illustrations. It’s the 21st-century version of great preachers did in the past with filing cabinets.
I don’t have enough time to do an overview of Evernote here, but here are two good resources: Ron Edmondson’s ebook A Guide To Evernote For Pastors is really helpful.
Here’s how I use it:
- Whenever I read a book in my Kindle, I transfer my highlighted notes to a Microsoft Word document and email it to Evernote.
- Whenever I read a newspaper or magazine article, I snap a picture and send it to Evernote.
- Whenever I read a great email newsletter, I forward it to Evernote.
- Whenever I’m on a great website, you guessed it, I copy it into Evernote.
- When I come to a series on, say, marriage, and you need 2-3 good illustrations, all I have to do is go to Evernote and type in the searchbox “marriage” and it will bring up every single piece of information I’ve saved on the subject. It even searches text in PDFs and images. It’s really cool.
The point is that any time you read something that could be used in ONE OF YOUR 20 SERMON SERIES’, send it to Evernote. Don’t save random things that won’t be used. Focus on accumulating sermon pulp for your 20 sermon series’.
Evernote also has tagging features that are extremely helpful. The app on my iPhone and iPad link directly to my account too. Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing I can quickly snap, click, or send something to my Evernote account.
The key is focusing on finding rich material for your 20 sermon series’ months and years in advance. That way when it comes to sermon preparation time you have quality material at your fingertips.
5. Prepare Sermons The Same Way Each Week.
Over the years I’ve wasted so much time simply because I’ve prepared my sermons differently from week to week. One week I’d just start writing. Other times I’d read a commentary first. Still other times I’d go to the Greek, or start with an illustration.
When it comes to sermon preparation, our greatest enemy is randomness masked as creativity. Routine is our greatest ally.
My encouragement is to identify the exact step-by-step way you go about writing your messages, document it, and then repeat that each and every time, refining the process as you go:
Here’s the process I use:
MONDAY: Organizational Jumpstart Meeting (1 hour)
Since I benefit from a more extroverted idea generation process at the beginning of sermon creation, I’ve asked my Associate Pastor, Dan Reischel, to join me for a standing appointment in my office every Monday at 1pm, to help me kick-off my sermon preparation. You could do this with a volunteer.
The value of this exercise is that I have a standing appointment every Monday that forces me to get started on my message early, whether I feel like it or not. The other value is Dan is a great collaborator and preacher himself. Two heads working on a message are always better than one.
Here’s the exact order of what we do in our Monday meetings:
Pull Up Our Upcoming Series’ Overview
We pull up on our laptops the sermon series overview for the upcoming series. This is a document that was produced in a prior meeting, and that has the series name, sermon titles, and tentative scriptures and big ideas for each message. This series overview is completed usually 2 weeks before our current series is about to end.
Create A Sermon File in Microsoft Word
Since I like to keep my hands free, Dan will create a Microsoft Word file for the sermon. He’ll sync his laptop with Apple TV and project what he’s working on onto a flatscreen TV so I can view it. This is the actual file I will use for my sermon. He’ll email it to me once we’re done. It will be done in Arial font, 12 pt, with page numbers in the top right corner.
In the top left corner Dan will put the following for each message:
Name of series
Name of message
For example, here’s what was written down for my most recent message:
The Upside Down Way of Jesus
Message #3 Serving
1 John 4:10
When we decide on the type of series months in advance, I may think a potential scripture is a good idea at the time, but question it once I’m staring down the barrel of Sunday morning. Oftentimes we’ll scrap what we have written down and spend 30 minutes trying to find the right passage. This is obviously not needed when we’re preaching through a Bible chapter or book. We make sure not to delete any scriptures that didn’t make the cut, since they may be worth quoting at some point in my message.
Get English and Greek Text
Study Greek Text
I’ll spend a few minutes looking at the Greek text and looking for any big ideas that may jump out. Usually there will be a word or unique phrase whose nuance was missed in the English translation, and that will take me off in a certain direction. For those a little rusty in Greek you can hover your cursor over a Greek word at GreekBible.com and it will give you it’s complete background and use in the sentence.
Brainstorm All Ideas
At this point I’ll begin randomly throwing out ideas, thoughts, passages in books I’ve read – anything that could become pulp for the message. This is why I have Dan type while I talk. I want to just freeflow with potential ideas, unobstructed by the keyboard. We’ll check our Evernote file as well as Preaching Today for illustrations.
NOTE: we share ONE Evernote file with our entire service design team (two other people besides Dan and I), so everyone can put things they read into the file. You can do this with volunteers, or you could even find 3-4 other Senior Pastors and share the same resources. Some of the best resources to put into Evernote are our past sermons. That way we can search for “marriage” in the search box and scan all our prior messages on the topic in addition to material we’ve added since then.
File Sent To Me
Once we’re done brainstorming he’ll send the file to me and I won’t do anything with it until Wednesday morning. This time away from the message allows me to ruminate on what we just discussed .
WEDNESDAY: Heavy Lifting (3 hours)
This is what I call the “heavy lifting” day because it’s the day when I am simply trying to get everything on paper, and in the order I want to use it.
Whether I feel inspired or not, I will take what I have and start moving it around, fleshing things out, and doing more research. I will also do a random stream of consciousness writing – I’ll just start typing and won’t stop.
Here’s where you will save the most time:
While other Senior Pastors boast about spending an inordinate amount of time in sermon preparation, what I believe many Senior Pastors are actually doing is fidgeting back and forth from commentary to websites, to checking email, etc. Many Senior Pastors are not disciplined writers. You’re going to save time by actually writing. Pen to paper. Words on the screen. As Stephen Pressfeld so eloquently put it in his book, The War of Art, the muse doesn’t show up until our butts are firmly planted in the chair.
An important timesaver here is to never take notes on paper. It always takes time to retype scribbling into a Microsoft Word file.
Without fail, when I have roughly an hour left, I will do what I call my “Two Minute Warning.” This exercise helps me organize all my material into a useable outline.
The end result is that I walk away now having all my material in my sermon file in Microsoft Word, organized, and ready to refine.
THURSDAY: Refinement (3.5 hours)
This is the day I dedicate to fleshing out, refining, cutting, finishing, and preparing my sermon for slides.
I always end up with an extended manuscript outline that is no more than 9 pages.
I’ll highlight, in yellow block, different phrases and scriptures that I want turned into slides. I used to do slides myself. Now others help me.
SUNDAY: Preparation And Delivery (30 minutes)
The next time I touch the sermon is 30 minutes before I preach.
That’s it. No rehearsal and endless editing. I’ve written down what I feel God has given me, and I’m ready to go.
Altogether the time spent on an average message of mine is:
1 hour Monday
3 hours Wednesday
3.5 hours Thursday
30 minutes Sunday
8 hours Total
What isn’t reflected in this count, obviously, is the countless hours spent reading, placing sermon illustrations into Evernote, and the many meetings it takes to plan ahead for each sermon series.
Do I stray from this process? Occasionally, but I pay the price afterwards in terms of extra work later, more stress, and a less effective message.
Your Biggest Takeaway
If you get nothing out of this article, please take away this: the enemy of effective sermon design is trying to live up to someone else’s expectations.
Implement the principle of Minimum Effective Dose in everything you do and just be yourself.
If you’ve refined your process and it’s working for you, and it takes 13 hours or only 6 hours, then be thankful. You’ve found what works for you!
My only reason for sharing my process is to demonstrate that you can have a packed schedule as a Senior Pastor, spend only 8 hours a week in preparation, and still do a good job week in and week out.
As Chuck Swindoll once shared with me, “You need to be yourself to the glory of God. Period. The more you try to contort yourself into someone you are not, the more ineffective you will be in ministry.”
I couldn’t agree more