Texas pastors discuss the discipline of sermon planning & preparation
October 31st, 2016 / By: Keith Collier | Managing Editor / comments
With so many ministry demands vying for pastors’ attentions each week, sermon preparation can prove daunting. For this reason, careful planning helps pastors maximize their ministry and strengthen their week-to-week preaching.
The TEXAN interviewed five pastors of varying church sizes across the state to understand their approaches to sermon preparation. While each one has found certain methods and habits that work for him, they all agree that preaching is one of their primary ministry responsibilities and requires intentionality to be most effective.
Rather than attempting to come up with a new sermon topic the week before preaching it, most of the pastors interviewed plan their sermon series out several months in advance.
Gregg Matte, pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church, typically begins working on his fall sermon series in the spring. He typically preaches expositionally through books of the Bible, so he outlines the book and sequence of messages in the spring and shares it with the worship and creative teams in his church so they can begin their own preparations.
After the series is organized, Matte continues to study for the series during his annual summer sabbatical and then meets with a creative team every couple of months to brainstorm titles, illustrations and videos for upcoming sermons. Additionally, he sets aside one Thursday per month to get away and pray and think about the upcoming month’s worth of sermons, which allows him to “work on the ministry, not in the ministry” and gives him a “bird’s-eye view” of where he’s going with his sermons over the next several weeks.
With this roadmap in place, he simply has to work through the passage and prepare the sermon during the week of the message.
“What I like to say is that I try to go to the grocery store and fill the pantry, and then every week I’m cooking a fresh meal instead of every week running to the grocery story trying to get all the stuff to put in the pantry to cook that same day,” Matte said.
Similarly, Tony Mathews, pastor of North Garland Baptist Fellowship in Garland, plans his series out eight months to a year in advance.
“Though I think retreats for planning messages is a very good approach, I’ve found it helpful for me to plan in my offices at church and home where I have all the tools at my disposal,” Mathews said. “However, I recommend that the preacher goes to the place that works best for him. I will spend much time praying as I seek God’s direction for message topics. I will take a week at a time to do nothing but plan series and individual messages.”
Mathews typically sets aside one week in September, October and November to prepare for the following year. If he’s only able to plan part of the year’s sermon schedule, he adds a week in January or February to finish planning.
Josh Smith, pastor of MacArthur Blvd. Baptist Church in Irving, takes two weeks every summer for what he calls “study leave,” which is separate from vacation and designed for “long-term sermon preparation.”
“Normally during that time I am doing background study and not study for individual messages,” Smith said. “I only write individual messages week to week. I have never found it helpful to get too far ahead in sermon preparation. The freshness of the message in my own heart is significant for me.”
Similarly, Jared Wellman, pastor of Mission Dorado Baptist Church in Odessa, sets aside a week two times a year to plan out the next six months of sermon series.
“I usually bring in a speaker who preaches for me that weekend. This relieves me of the sermon preparation time that week and provides me with a time of refreshment and encouragement. I intentionally have the pastor in my home for dinner and ask him questions about the ministry and about sermon preparation.
“Most of the time I already have the series listed and my ‘retreat weeks’ in my office tend to be a time of branding the series with a title and graphic that reflect the overall message of the book, sorting out the series on the calendar, and working through the books in order to plan out the texts I will preach each week.”
Chris Osborne, pastor of Central Baptist Church in College Station, has a less formal approach to long-range planning. He preaches expositionally, verse-by-verse through books of the Bible, but he does not plan out the series months in advance.
Prior to preaching through a book of the Bible, especially longer books, Osborne uses commentaries to get an overview and general breakdown of the chapters in order to “look at the forest before I step into the trees.” Then, once he begins preaching through the book, he is week-to-week in the text, picking up where he left off the week before until he completes the book. For longer books, this may take many years. For example, Osborne said some former church members who attended during their time at nearby Texas A&M University joke with him that he was preaching in the Gospel of Matthew when they started college and was still in the book when they graduated four years later.
Osborne has preached through more than 30 books of the Bible during his 30 years of ministry at Central Baptist, and he has always tried to alternate sermon series between Old and New Testament and short and long books.
As for preparation during the week, the pastors said they maintain a structured schedule with intentionally planned time to work on the sermon.
Osborne said he follows the model he learned from W.A. Criswell. He built a “man cave” in his back yard, which is basically a library where he works on his sermons every morning from 6 a.m. to lunch. Monday through Thursday, he studies the text and researches sources. Then on Friday and Saturday, he works on illustrations and applications before practicing the sermon by preaching it out loud.
“I’m coming up with the content Monday through most of Thursday morning, and then about half of Thursday morning, Friday and Saturday, I’m figuring out how to stick it into their lives.”
Matte also devotes his mornings to sermon preparation but begins working on the sermon Tuesday morning and finishes by Thursday.
“I heard this from Jerry Vines: ‘Give your mornings to God, give your afternoons to the church, and give your evenings to your family.’ And that’s what I try to operate on,” Matte said.
Matte maximizes his time by using a volunteer research team made up of five to seven members of his church. Each volunteer will read a number of good commentaries on an assigned chapter of the Bible and sends Matte “gleanings of the best stuff.”
“That does two things,” Matte said. “One, it maximizes my study. I don’t have to read five different things and then figure it all out. I can glean from it, and if I want more information, I can go look for it because I have the commentaries and can look at it myself.
“Two, it puts together folks in our church that are good theological minds. They’re giving me some really good stuff. It makes them feel involved, and I’m equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry even with my sermon preparation. So I take that and read that, but they’re not giving me my message. They’re just giving me the historical aspects and commentary aspects of it.”
Smith guards his mornings as well, typically working on his sermon Monday through Thursday.
“I guard my morning study time and make sure my staff guards that time for me, and then I try to delegate as much as possible,” Smith said. “I have set aside time on my calendar every week for counseling. When those are full, I schedule people for the following week. I really try to stay out of as many administrative decisions as I can.”
With each of these pastors, they realize their schedules sometimes have to change due to circumstances like funerals or emergencies, but when this happens, they attempt to gain that time back in their schedule in the afternoons.
Regarding the specific steps each pastor takes in the preparation of a sermon, their approaches vary slightly, but a few major steps are consistent.
Each pastor said he always begins sermon prep with prayer and then reads through the passage carefully, noting insights and questions along the way.
“Prayer is the most indispensable resource at my disposal because it draws on the power and favor of God,” Wellman said. “Preparing a sermon without praying is like snorkeling without a snorkel.”
As Smith reads the text multiple times and prays through the text, he said he “thinks about the intent of the author, context, the emotion of the text, the call of the text.”
“Before any specific study I simply try to get as much out of the text as I can. I then do the exegetical work. Normally I outline the text and then consult commentaries.”
Mathews follows a similar process, studying the text to determine its meaning and theological emphases.
“After interpreting the text, I go through the process of contemporizing the text. This involves taking what was discovered regarding the ‘them,’ ‘there,’ and ‘then’ and applying it to the ‘here,’ ‘us,’ and ‘now.’”
These pastors then outline the text and work on illustrations and applications. Both Osborne and Matte noted that when preaching expositionally through books of the Bible, the text of Scripture itself provides the outline for the sermon.
“If you’re doing textual preaching, if you’re really honestly staying in the text and not jumping all over the Bible,” Osborne said, “you have your notes and your outline right there in the text.”
Osborne and Matte prefer to use illustrations from personal experiences or observations from everyday life and current events.
“I’m always cultivating illustrations; everywhere I go I’m thinking about that,” Matte said.
Osborne, who regularly reads news sites online and occasionally uses examples from the lives of church members if they give permission, said, “If they remember the illustration but not the point, then I’ve probably failed with the illustration.”
In terms of application, Mathews said he tries “to narrow down the goal of the message, which asks and answers the question, ‘What do I want my hearers to do?’”
Once all the study is complete and the pieces of the sermon are developed, some pastors create an outline to preach from while others write out a manuscript.
“I prefer manuscripting my sermons because it helps me with the flow of thought as well as how it might be delivered (and I also have aspirations to publish the sermons for our church library), but I never read the manuscript in the pulpit,” Wellman said. “If I preach with my manuscript, I preach from notes I’ve jotted in the left margins that summarize the major ideas. I wait until Saturday to jot down these notes, but I prefer not to preach from them and instead to go to the pulpit noteless.”
Wellman also benefits from discussing his sermon with others, which allows him to understand how the message might be heard and what questions might be raised.
Managing Time & Distractions
Of course, sermon preparation can be derailed buy any number of distractions, including ministry responsibilities, emails, text messages, social media and lack of motivation. For the pastors interviewed, a regular schedule helps eliminate many of these distractions.
“Sermon preparation is a creative art,” Matte said. “You can’t just decide that you’re going to do this and force the square peg in a round hole. At the same time, you have to be disciplined to get after it even when you don’t feel like it.”
Matte intentionally removes distractions during his study time, preparing his sermons at a desk separate from his computer and leaving his phone off or giving it to his secretary. Likewise, his laptop has Bible software but does not have an email program.
“You just have to get that place away where you’re getting more than just regurgitated commentaries into your message; you’re getting a word from God,” Matte said. “I can’t be watching emails come in while I’m in my Bible program.”
When asked for any additional advice for planning and preparing sermons, pastors drew from their wealth of experience.
“Plan ahead,” Mathews said. “This will ease the stress and demands of one’s ministry load.”
Wellman noted that when he seems to hit a wall, he takes a break from sermon preparation.
“If I am stuck on something, I’ll intentionally leave my office to run an errand, or close up my sermon preparation altogether,” Wellman said. “Sometimes even walking to the bathroom will allow me to grasp an issue I couldn’t quite figure out while sitting at my computer. On several occasions I was immediately able to figure it out before I even pulled out of the church parking lot.”
Osborne offered a reminder about the personal joy of discovery in sermon preparation.
“I’ve been pastoring since 1977, and I’ve always been a textual preacher. I can honestly say that I have never come to a Sunday in the pulpit when I didn’t know something new that I didn’t know before I started the text,”
“That’s what keeps me fresh and excited. There’s always something I didn’t know was in the text, but after studying it I’ve found something and can’t wait to share it with my congregation. That, for me, is the genius of textual preaching.”
Access preaching resources by searching “preaching” at sbtexas.com/onlinetraining.