It’s Friday, and it happened again. You’re sitting in front of your laptop trying to come up with something to preach on Sunday. Your mind is blank. Your soul is dry. You’re frustrated and angry for getting to this point again. You were so excited earlier in the week about what you wanted to share. Now, you don’t want to be here, stuck doing sermon prep. It’s the weekend and there are other things you’d rather be doing. All the while your cursor is blinking, “You’ve got nothing. You’ve got nothing.” (There’s a reason they’re called curs-ors.)
Sunday comes around relentlessly. No sooner have we finished preaching and the specter of what to say next week is upon us again. Every pastor has been there. I’ve been there. It’s disillusioning and flat-out frustrating. And we think, “there has to be a better way.”
The good news is: there is.
Imagine for a moment having 18-24 months of sermons pre-planned. Sermons for each and every week. There’s a system I’ve been using for years that can help you do just that. It’s revolutionized my preaching and brought my weekly sermon prep from dread to joy. Hopefully, it can help you, too.
There’s nothing magical about 18-24 months. This strategy can be applied to any range of time. I personally like a 12-month cycle, beginning with the start of the school year. The annual rhythm fits my personality and church culture. This approach works with any style, too – whether you’re a solo preacher or part of a team, preaching from a lectionary or using home-crafted series.
Essentially, it’s all about bite-sized chunks. We’re eating an elephant here. So having a step-by-step game plan is essential.
Step #1: Get Away to Do Sermon Prep
Schedule yourself off for at least two Sundays, back-to-back. Turn on your out-of-office reply for both email and voicemail. Don’t check messages. Don’t schedule appointments. You’re going on a planning retreat. You could literally get away, or work from your home or local coffee shop. The important thing is that you’re removed from the daily to-do lists for a concentrated period of time.
Important to note: This is not vacation. Your job for the next two weeks is to craft a preaching schedule. It’s time to clear your head and look ahead. If you fear pushback, encourage your congregation that preaching is one of your main duties and an anchor to church life. Sermon prep needs focused attention and you want it to be good. You might even send an email to the congregation before you go, describing what you’re doing.
Step #2: List the Dates
For the timeframe you’re planning, make a one-page, two-column list of every Sunday and special midweek service your church celebrates (e.g. Christmas Eve, Good Friday, Lent and Advent services). I like to see a year on one page. This is your preaching calendar. If you run a year-round midweek service that has a different theme than the weekend, treat that as its own preaching calendar.
Step #3: Note What You Know
Every church has certain topics and events they discuss every year. Events like Confirmation and graduation or topics like stewardship and serving commonly receive some sort of Sunday spotlight. Often, these have predictable dates, too. On your calendar, go ahead and mark these dates first, along with any noteworthy holidays, three-day weekends, and community events. (For instance, if you know the first weekend of the county fair you’ll not gather for worship, mark this down.)
Step #4: Set the Calendar Aside and Sermon Prep
Now that you have your dates outlined, it’s time to start crafting content! Set the calendar aside. We’ll come back to it later. Let’s focus on what you’ll say each week.
Step #5: Go to 20,000 Feet
This is where I like to begin sermon prep. I ask myself, “What’s an overall theme I can follow for the year?” I find this gives me focus. In this step, all we’re going for is a big-picture idea. Don’t sweat the details.
To get your mind ready for sermon prep, ask questions like:
- Where do I want to take my congregation this year?
- What do I hope God accomplishes here?
- What do they need to hear?
- What’s churning in my soul?
- What am I reading/hearing/learning/experiencing that’s impacting me?
- What kind of questions are people asking?
- What challenges are people facing?
- What about God do I delight in that I really want to share?
You’ll be amazed what comes out of this step of sermon prep. Here’s some themes I’ve come up with over the years:
- 13 (the letters of Paul)
- Soul Speak (prayer)
- How to be a Christian and Live out Your Faith
- 40 New Testament Passages You Need to Know
- Sinners and Saints (stories and profiles of people in the Bible and church history)
You’ll come up with your own. Keep in mind that the catchy title isn’t what’s important. All you want at this step is a concept to give you direction in your sermon prep. If nothing else, there are 66 books in the Bible to choose from. That’s 66 years of preaching! (I know. You’re not going to spend a year on 3 John, so maybe less. But you get the point.) There’s more to preach on than you can hit in a lifetime.
Step #6: Frame Your Focus
In a simple paragraph or two, write down your theme, what it’s about, and why you want to go there. This might take some time. Your answers to the questions above could produce years of content. Or, your time in prayer and contemplation could produce a clear path of direction and you know exactly where you need to go. Whatever you see from 20,000 feet, take the time to clearly define what can be most fruitful for the next 18-24 months.
Step #7: Build an Arc
What comes next is taking that focus and giving it a sense of progression and flow. Here’s an analogy that might help: If your preaching is like a TV season, the prior step summarized what the season is about. This step of sermon prep is about dividing it into episodes.
If you’re a lectionary preacher, this is easy. With your theme in mind, skim the weekly passages, list what passages strike you (and the Sunday they’re assigned), and make a note of why they’re resonating with you.
If you like to preach through a book of the Bible, it’s just as easy. Find a way to divide up the book into bite-sized chunks that you’ll hit each week.
If your approach is topical or series-based, jot down topics you’d like to preach on this year within your theme. Then, break those topics down into a few bullet points each.
Whichever method you use, the goal is to come up with a list of passages or topics you want to share over the year that speak into the overarching concept you’re trying to communicate.
Step #8: Sleep on it then Return
Now that you have your starting list, walk away. Give it at least a day to marinate then come back with fresh eyes and see if it still makes sense. Add new ideas, expand on current ones, eliminate what doesn’t work.
You might also find that you over-emphasized certain things. We all do this. So I like to make sure a ministry year hits four things:
- Prophetic calls (or calls to action)
- Foundational truths
- Felt needs
- Pure gospel
Every sermon can have all four of these, but I find most messages put one of these center stage and most preachers gravitate towards one or two. Look over your list and see what’s lacking. Beef it up in that arena.
Step #9: Link Your Lists
It’s time to marry your content with your calendar. Take your topics and give each week one of the passages or points you wrote down in your sermon prep. As you map out what each week will look like, remember this is your calendar. You have the freedom to combine thoughts, divide larger points across multiple weeks, and cut what doesn’t make sense. Tailor as you need. The goal is to give every week a talking point. As you do, see how well you can create a sense of progression. You can also let the seasonal mood or tone of a liturgical season guide you.
Sermon Prep Pro-tip:
No one cares how perfectly your preaching schedule conforms to a calendar. Only you do. Most congregations just want good messages with a sense that we’re going somewhere. So go with solid topics you’re excited about and minimize “filler” Sundays. If you find yourself a little light on content with weeks to spare, do some reading. Play in some commentaries, books, or journals. Skim some YouVersion plans. Hit some online resources. It usually opens up insights to additional topics. And if you find yourself with more messages than weeks available? Then then plan further out. Remember, this is YOUR calendar.
Step #10: Write Executive Summaries
Now that you have a theme, weekly topics, and dates, you’ll want 1-3 sentences describing what each week is about and why you think it’s important. Note any pertinent Bible passages that strike you and feel free to give quick descriptions of what those passages are about, as well. If there’s any creative ideas, insights, or streams of consciousness you want to remember, write those, too. Data dump any ideas. Just don’t feel like you have to come up with a lot. This is mainly for your own benefit. Don’t worry if it’s comprehensible to others.
Step #11: Share the Plan
Whether you build this step into your planning retreat, or schedule a meeting upon your return, invite others as a part of the process. Share the plan with your co-preachers, worship director, a creative team – whoever needs it and whoever can offer insights. You’re not asking permission or looking to change the flow. You’re inviting them to build on your ideas. Share this in something like Box, Dropbox, or Google Drive. That way everyone can see ongoing changes you make (you’ll always be tweaking this).
Step #12: Don’t Forget the End Game of Sermon Prep
By the end of the process, you’ll have an overview page, a calendar page, and executive summaries for each week which you and your team can access. Not bad for a couple of weeks of planning! This is your roadmap for the next 18-24 months. You now have a direction to go with a brainstorm of ideas so that you’re never looking at a blank screen again.
In a future article, we’ll share how to use this preaching roadmap for the detailed work in series-by-series and week-by-week planning. Contact us for samples or if you’d like some guided help doing sermon prep and setting up your own preaching calendar!