Faithful Sermon Preparation in Busy Ministry (2)

Yesterday we proposed two ways of combining faithful sermon preparation with a busy ministry. Today we’ll look at how prioritizing sermon preparation and planning ahead also help that happy union. 

Faithful sermon preparation in a busy ministry…

3. PRIORITIZES sermon preparation

An old minister who was also a shepherd told me when I entered the ministry, “Feed the sheep and you won’t hear them bleating.” So true! I’ve seen extremely promising ministries ruined because the pastor did everything but feed the sheep. It doesn’t matter how many people you visit, how much you evangelize, how popular you are with the young folks, if you don’t feed the sheep, they are going to start bleating.

The opposite is true too; a church can get through many problems and troubles if the sheep are kept full and satisfied.

We must prioritize sermon preparation. If we do nothing else well, we have to do this well. If we do nothing else in a week, we must do this. Nothing must get in the way of sermon prep time. OK, we won’t have the ideal schedules we all thought we would have in Seminary, but we must still schedule our week to make sure that we have our sermons ready for our sheep.

  • They should be scheduled times. As fixed as a doctor’s appointment. Everything else is worked around sermon prep.
  • They should be regular times – in the same place in our calendars each week – so that our brain is in the groove and knows what to expect when the starting blocks appear.
  • They should be large sections of time – a minimum of 3 hours at a time.
  • They should be the best times in our week – our high performance times.
  • They should be uninterrupted times – we tell our families and our elders, maybe even our congregation, that these times are virtually sacrosanct. We get our phone on voicemail and shut off all digital distractions.

Faithful sermon preparation will never happen without faithful time management. It will amaze you how much you can get done in regular, concentrated times of study.

4. PLANS ahead

I rarely preached series of consecutive expository sermons. Maybe two in my whole ministry. I much preferred to preach texts that caught my attention or that met a particular pressing need at the time. However, that didn’t mean that I sat down on Friday or Saturday and started looking for a text. No, I was looking all through the week, looking for a text that struck me in my own reading, family worship, in visiting a home, in my reading of Christian books, or something that spoke to a local or national issue. Sometimes I would gather 10 or more texts like that in the course of the week and I’d only need three. Some of the others would be used in later weeks and some never became sermons at all.

My point is, I was planning ahead and not just waiting until the moment I needed to start writing a sermon. I wouldn’t just write down a text though; I would often write down my initial thoughts or even a skeleton outline. Often I came to prepare a sermon and nothing had really impacted me that week. But I had dozens and dozens of previous texts, thoughts, and outlines stored up that I often plundered.

You probably are not quite so free-spirited as I was and am. Most American pastors are preaching at least one series of consecutive expository sermons. In some cases two or three at the same time. I’m sure many of you plan ahead your series, even months in advance. That will certainly help you save time with weekly text selection. But you can also be planning a bit more by reading ahead, studying difficult passages before they drown you the week you have to preach them.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was from an older pastor who told me to preserve the fruits of your study. I’ve used various systems to build up a database of information on various theological issues and subjects so that when I come to preach on a text that touches on say fellowship, or adoption, or the atonement, I already have a list of articles, quotations, etc., that I can quickly access without searching theological tomes for them. Although the cataloguing takes time, it saves so much time in sermon prep.

As much of my reading is done online now, I use to bookmark Internet articles with keywords and highlighted phrases.

Next time we’ll look at establishing exegetical routines and at a pragmatic use of biblical languages.

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Faithful Sermon Preparation in a Busy Ministry

“Faithful sermon preparation” and “busy ministry” do not easily fit together. Often one has to be sacrificed – either I give up faithful sermon preparation or I give up busy ministry – and it’s usually “faithful sermon preparation” that gets the bullet.

So how do we try to hold these two opposing forces together? Faithful sermon preparation in a busy ministry…

1. Is PAINFULLY realistic

I well remember my first idyllic week or two of pastoral ministry. I had my color coded timetable, with 2-3 hours every day devoted to general theological  study, daily time in Greek and Hebrew, and a reading scheme encompassing eading a wide range of old and modern theological books. Then there were these beautiful long red sections called “sermon preparation” totaling maybe 15 hours per sermon.

Then ministry started happening. The phone calls began, the visits that took twice as long as expected, the inconvenient deaths, the visits to the local hospital (90 mins away in my part of the Scottish Highlands), Presbyteries, committees, problems in neighboring churches, and then wider denominational issues that would eventually result in our church being split after years of acrimonious controversy. Add on two children in 2 years, a new church building project, etc., and my beautifully crafted schedule was quickly forgotten. I think I observed it for about two weeks.

One of the most amusing exercises that I have my students do is draft a weekly schedule of what they think their week will look like in the ministry. They usually look very like my own ideal. Sometimes 30 hours of sermon prep, nil family time, and no day off. They look at me with incredulity when I start dismantling their beautiful plans with some good old-fashioned Scottish realism.

I once heard a famous American author and preacher say that no sermon should be preached that had less than 35 hours invested in it and it should be practiced 6-8 times before preaching! Multiple pastors’ heads slumped as he floated high above us in his own celebrity unreality.

Back in the real world, if we get to spend 10 hours on each sermon we are doing well. It’s probably going to be nearer 7-8 hours and in some cases 4-5 hours, especially if we have to prepare 3 sermons or more a week (as it was in my first pastorate, with four every second week). Remember not all sermons are equal. Doctrinal sermons or difficult passages will require much more preparation than a more devotional treatment of a Psalm. We need to be realistic.

It’s painful to accept this and work within these limitations. But if we don’t, we will eventually suffer pain in other ways.

I know of one pastor who only survived a few years in the ministry because he was trying to prepare every single sermon exactly as he had been taught in Seminary – following every single exegetical and homiletical step every single time. Eventually, the pressure he put himself under was so great that he dreaded sermon preparation, and found it impossible to preach any sermon that was less than perfectly prepared. Within a couple of years he was off work with stress and depression, and within another year he had left the ministry.

2. Requires PERSONAL preparation

Having said all that, I do want to encourage you to think of preparing sermons in a much broader way than the specific hours spent with the text and the commentaries. If that is the only sermon preparation we do, then our sermons will suffer, and so will our hearers.

We should regard our whole week as sermon preparation, because a large part of sermon preparation is personal preparation, preparing ourselves as well as preparing our sermons.

Our personal and family devotions are part of sermon preparation. They bring us into contact with God, His Word and His Spirit. They are not way over here on left field with sermon prep being over there on right field. No, they are on the same team, interplaying with one another.

Cultivate a meditative spirit as part of sermon preparation. Take your text with you as you drive; think on it as you go to sleep, as you shower. It’s amazing how much light we can get on our text away from the computer.

A holy life is also part of sermon preparation. Holiness is the greatest key to understanding the Bible. There is only so much that academic study can give us. Jesus said, “If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority” (Jn. 7:17). “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (Jn. 14:21). God hides truth from the wise and prudent and reveals it to babes (Matt. 11:25). If we live a holy life, God will open up His Word to us in a way that no amount of hours ever will. There are computer sermons and there are communion sermons.

Tomorrow we will continue this series on Faithful Sermon Preparation in a Busy Ministry by looking at (3) Prioritizing sermon preparation and (4) Planning ahead.

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What is a social conservative?

My friend Andrew Murray (no relation) is manager of Bethany Christian Trust, a charity for the homeless and vulnerable in Aberdeen. Some years ago, when he stood as a Conservative candidate for election in Edinburgh, he gave this speech (slightly edited here) on “What is a social conservative?”

The conservatism I believe in is often termed social conservatism and it can be summed up under six headings;

Firstly, I believe in the traditional Family and the Home as one of the principal symbols of social conservatism.

Social conservatives generally believe in the traditional view of the family as the basic building block of any stable society. While acknowledging that many families don’t always work out as planned, I believe that a solid, stable family is the best environment for children to be brought up. It is their first school where they are taught basic values. We are relational beings and the family is the place where we learn our social skills, our respect for authority and hopefully some good manners.

As any social worker will tell you, the attachments made in the first few weeks and months of a child’s life will affect their experience of relationships for the rest of their lives. For social conservatives the family is the most tried-and-trusted institution. It offers the kind of multidimensional care that the feed-and-forget state cannot. To quote John Hayes MP;

…government can undertake some functions undertaken by a family or a community. The state, or market, can replace the breadwinning role of a father, but it can’t tuck a child into bed at night….

Secondly, I believe conservative Values

It is hard to imagine a Conservative leader today standing up at the Party Conference and saying that the first of the Party’s main objectives is ‘To uphold the Christian religion and resist all attacks upon it’ as Winston Churchill did in 1946. Politics needs a moral context.

Beliefs such as capitalism without a moral context simply descend into the celebration of self interest.  Policies need to follow principles not focus groups and polls. Values such as justice, equality, decency, respect, compassion are not formed in a vacuum. When political leaders believe that they are the supreme power in a nation, and have no higher power to which they are accountable, it can lead to disastrous consequences.  There must be a divine standard to which we measure all our actions. As Lord Hugh Cecil has said:

Religion is the standard by which the plans of politicians must be judged, and a religious purpose must purify their aims and methods.  Emphasising this truth, Conservatism will be the creed neither of a superfluous faction nor of a selfish class.

Thirdly I believe in Realism, Pragmatism and a Limited Role for the State.

I reject the left wing idea that through social engineering and just the right amount of funding, a utopia is attainable. Stalinist Russia is surely all the evidence we need that a utopian society is a socialist fairy tail. To quote the Conservative researcher Michael Veitch:

For the Conservative, an appreciation of the fallen nature of mankind has led to an understanding of the appropriate view of the state.  Because people are flawed, it is futile for the state to seek to bend their wants and desires to its will – a common mistake of the Left through the ages.  Furthermore, because man is a flawed being, it follows that the state – a man made institution – is equally flawed.  History bears witness to the fact that it is therefore folly to place too much power into the hands of the government.

Conservatism is not controlled by an ideology like socialism. As conservatives we seek to pragmatically solve problems based on knowledge, realism, and tried and tested conservative values.

Fourthly, I believe in Responsibility

Many Conservatives talk about economic and social freedom, but freedom with no limits leads to chaos. Social conservatives believe in personal, community and corporate responsibility. The more people take responsibility the less the state needs to get involved. Responsibility cannot be legislated, it must be taught primarily through the family as children are brought up, and local communities taking responsibility for their more wayward members. Margaret Thatcher in her now famous quote on society can say it better that I can:

We’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. They’re casting their problems on society. And you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.

Fifthly, I believe in Compassion

Unlike the top down solutions of the left, conservatives understand that real compassion can only be communicated through people at a ‘grass roots’ level.

The conservative approach to compassion is distinctive. We understand that the institutions of civil society form the soundest basis for a caring society. School choice, zero tolerance of crime and a safety-net approach to welfare are other favoured hallmarks.  To quote John Hayes MP:

The state and the market are one dimensional – providing material care. They don’t provide the personal touch. Someone down on their luck doesn’t just need money dispensed from behind a plastic screen. He also needs encouragement, friendship and hope. He needs to know that someone is in his corner. He needs help to walk tall again.

Lastly, I believe in Tradition

Social conservatives do not look around for the latest political fad and do not collapse at the first challenge of political correctness. Our principles and beliefs are grounded in something stronger and deeper than passing fads. As Edward Leigh MP has said:

Tradition is accumulated wisdom. Established customs and practices have stood the test of time, and should be preserved for the benefit of present and future generations.


In closing, let me summarise social conservatism with this excellent quote from Russel Kirk in The Conservative Mind:

  • “Conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.
  • Conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity. They prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.
  • Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.
  • Conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order can ever be created.”

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