“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.