When I was first drafted into a full-time pulpit I was a youth minister asked to serve as interim preacher. I recall my wife asking if I was worried or nervous about taking on this task. I told her my one worry was, “I just don’t know if I can come up with that many lessons each week!”
Talking with other preachers over the years, I have found that I am not the only one to ever think along those lines. Having to come up with anywhere from 3 to 6 lessons a week, plus devotionals and articles can be a daunting task for any preacher. Many know that anxiety that comes round each Monday because they have no idea what they are going to preach about next Sunday.
Those first years of full-time preaching were a tremendous learning experience. My delivery improved, as well as other areas of my ministry, but I felt like that the hodgepodge manner in which I continued to throw lessons together was far from acceptable. So, although I am not a “planner” by nature, I decided to plan my preaching a year in advance. Now, almost a decade later I am still making these yearly plans.
While I am neither the most experienced nor the most accomplished preacher out there, I do appreciate the opportunity to share my two cents. I recommend that every preacher make out a sketch of his year in preaching. He will discover, as I have, planning ahead removes stress and provides the satisfaction of having a clear view of where you are leading the congregation. It will assist you in faithfully proclaiming the whole counsel of God and add depth to your Bible study.
1. Put in the Time – Like anything worthwhile, sermon planning takes time (this is probably why many preachers never attempt it). I would argue that never having to scramble and find a sermon to preach is time well spent. Preachers approach this process in different ways. Some I know of start this process around September, another says he makes use of Thanksgiving holiday, and another says he usually does this planning on summer vacation with his family. Personally prefer to begin my initial planning in August. I have found this allows me to already have a preaching direction in mind by the time I go to Polishing the Pulpit. This provides me with an opportunity to look for materials and books that will assist me all year. The point is set aside time and start planning. If you wait too long in the year the effort becomes the stressful scramble you are trying to avoid.
2. Get out Your Calendar – The first place to start is to make note of specific dates. These would include:
- Days you will not be speaking. Vacation days, days you will be gone for meetings, dates when guest speakers will be speaking, etc. Remember to talk to your Elders about any guest speakers they may not have shared with you, like visiting missionaries.
- Congregational dates. Vacation Bible School, Gospel Meetings, Friends and Family Days, etc. These may not only affect the immediate dates, but may affect your preaching leading up to these events.
- Secular holidays (Mother’s day, etc), Historic dates (12/7, 9/11, etc), and Religious days (Yom Kippur, Passover, etc). I do not believe we always have to preach Mother’s Day sermons and the like, but these dates often do provide unique opportunities for preaching.
3. Think about a Theme – Many congregations have yearly themes, but members in those same congregations rarely know the theme after January. A theme can serve as a tool in sermon planning; a way of tying the year together.
- Pick a theme that doesn’t back you in a corner. A friend of mine lamented the fact that his elders had picked Psalm 133, a three-verse psalm, as their theme. By the fall of the year he was hard pressed to find another sermon to preach from that text.
- Pick a theme that you are excited about. It is hard to preach boldly an idea you haven’t fully bought into.
- Think outside the box. I started out preaching our yearly theme at the beginning of each month, like I had seen other preachers do. That made twelve lessons in my yearly plan. Then I began to see the theme as a springboard for all my lessons that year. So the theme of “If I be lifted up” (John 12:32) became a challenge to really lift up Christ before the congregation that entire year. It turned into a plan where almost every sermon and class revolved around Jesus’ life, character, example, and teaching. The congregation loved the focus and the continuity.
4. Brainstorm – Get out your pencil and paper and write down every sermon and class idea that comes into your head. Think expository, topical, textual, and narrative. Think doctrinal, inspirational, devotional, and practical. Think about books you’ve read, books of the Bible you are excited about, the needs of the congregation, and things that have not been preached on in a while. Think about Christian evidences, word studies, favorite passages, and commonly misunderstood passages. As you brainstorm you will find you will have too many ideas for just one year of preaching! One activity I enjoy is reading titles. Much inspiration can be found in titles alone. Survey bookstore catalogs, lectureship books, book chapter headings, and magazine articles and make note of ideas that will preach. Keep a brainstorming file and whenever you find a good title or sermon thought put it in the file for next year’s planning session.
5. Strive for Balance – Balance is always the goal when it comes to preaching. Balance is sacrificed when no thought is given to sermon planning. A yearly plan gives a bird’s eye view of your preaching and reveals what is being over emphasized and what is being neglected. It reveals patterns and enables you to give the congregation a more balanced diet. Look at you plan and ask questions like:
- How often do I preach out of the Old Testament? New Testament?
- Have I been riding a hobby horse lately?
- Am I preaching enough first principles?
- Do I tend to be more topical or expository?
6. Utilize Series – Don’t just do a series to fill in slots. Be purposeful. Make sure each series compliments your plan. A good series of lessons can be a way to build excitement throughout the year. Don’t let a series feel blah. Come up with a good title, then create an ad for the bulletin, .PPT announcements, website, and Facebook. Use your series to create buzz at different points throughout the year.
7. Involve Others – Don’t try to do it alone.
- Involve God. James teaches that wisdom comes from above and that we must pray for wisdom. Let us not forget to pray for wisdom in our preaching and planning.
- Involve Elders. They have valuable insights into the congregation and may be aware of needs of which the preacher has no knowledge.
- Involve Deacons. Certain ministries may call for certain sermons.
- Involve members. Survey the congregation to solicit questions and topics.
8. Finalize a Master Schedule – Once you have written a rough draft in your calendar, take it a step further and create a spreadsheet of the year with all the dates and lessons. This is far more practical than having to flip through an actual calendar. It also that serves as a master record of your plan, which is easy to print and edit. Throughout the year I continually edit this document to reflect any changes to my plan.
9. Be Flexible – Issues and needs will arise that are not in your plan. There will be national news, congregational crises, and unexpected events that arise and need to be addressed from the pulpit. Sometimes it’s just that the topic you had planned isn’t appropriate at the moment. Be flexible and be creative. Often you can make these unexpected adjustments fit a plan or a theme with just a little creativity.
10. Share your plan – I do not suggest that you hand out the entire plan, but it is good practice to let the congregation know what is coming up. Provide a monthly sketch on the first Sunday of each month, list “Next Sunday’s Sermons” in the bulletin, or advertise next week’s sermon titles on the church sign outside. Sharing your preaching vision lets people see the thought and effort you put into your preaching.