We have over 20 students in our first-year preaching class at Puritan Reformed Seminary. They come from all over the world. And they all want to excel in preaching. They are keen and enthusiastic to learn.
One thing they do not want to hear is that it will probably take them about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise in preaching (hopefully that includes preparation time!). While of course some people are blessed with more natural gifts than others, all the scientific research demonstrates that excellence in any area is not determined by our genes, but by systematic and disciplined practice – 10,000 hours of it to be precise.
Anders Ericsson, arguably the world’s leading researcher into high performance, has constantly insisted that it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work. That’s very encouraging to theological students and pastors, especially to those who feel their lack of gifts. But it’s also rather daunting. Because although practice is the most important ingredient in achieving excellence, it is also what we least enjoy and always try to put off.
Tony Schwartz, author of The way we’re working isn’t working recently published on the Harvard Business Review the six keys to achieving excellence that he’s found most effective for his clients in all walks of life. But before I give you these keys, and apply them to preaching, let me just issue a few caveats.
First, it is essential that a man be called of God to preach. Second, the Holy Spirit can and does equip with gifts beyond those we have by nature or nurture. Third, absolutely essential pre-requisites for excellent preaching are a holy life, prayer, and faithfulness to God. Fourth, God is sovereign and at times He overrules all human rules/keys. These principles are all basic and foundational. And they are covered at length in standard works on preaching. So Schwarz’s six keys to achieving excellence assume the foundation and are in addition to it:
1. Pursue what you love. As Schwartz says, “Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.” If you don’t love preaching you will never be good at it. If you don’t love preaching, get out of the way and let someone else in who does.
2. Do the hardest work first. Preachers, like all people, are drawn towards pleasure and avoid pain. But to excel we must develop the ability to delay pleasure and take on the pain of the most difficult work first. In other words, sermon preparation is best done first thing in the morning when we have most energy and least distractions.
3. Practice intensely. Schwartz argues for practicing without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then taking a break. He says that ninety minutes seems to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus on any activity. He also says that we should practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day. Although I’ve preached for 18 years without knowing this, when I look at my practice, it is pretty close to that pattern. Mornings for preparation, afternoons for pastoral visitation. Wish it had produced more excellence than I presently see.
4. Seek expert feedback in intermittent doses. I’ll just quote what Schwartz says here. “The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.” That’s certainly been proven in our practice preaching class at the Seminary. I’ve found focusing on one thing at a time for a few months really helps: introductions for a month or so, then conclusions, then illustrations, etc.
5. Take regular renewal breaks. This is something that students especially need to hear, but so do pastors. Research has shown that people learn better who sleep well and also play sports or enjoy hobbies outside of work. And no matter how much we love preaching, we need a few weeks a year with none to really rejuvenate our preaching.
6. Ritualize practice. Schwartz says that the best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them. He says “build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without squandering energy thinking about them.” I found it useful to sit down at the beginning of each week and block out sermon preparation time. If I just waited until I felt like it or had all my admin done then I would never do it or wait too late.
Obviously, the Christian student and pastor has more than genes or scientific research and process to rely on. It is one of the great blessings of preaching that the Holy Spirit gives us what we do not have and even have not worked for – at times. But most of the time, God works through ordinary means. He communicates his extraordinary grace through the ordinary means of grace. And for preaching, that includes hard work!