How To Set Up Your Files for Efficient and Effective Sermon Prep

This is the fourth article in a series on How to Get Organized in Pastoral Ministry. Don’t forget to read articles one, two, and three!

When it comes to filing, there are two kinds of pastors in the world.

Black hole filers keep everything, but the stuff will never see light again. Anti-filers don’t file anything because they think they’ll never use it anyway.

I want to show you a third way: to collect resources that will help you efficiently prepare substantive sermons.

The four sermon prep files you need

1. Biblical files contain a file for each book of the Bible. Store articles, sermon notes, exegetical thoughts on Genesis, Exodus, etc.

2. Theological files consist of a file for each theological subject.

3. Topical files store articles or thoughts on various topics: leadership, counseling, productivity, etc.

4. Illustration files. If you’re like me, you think up most illustrations during your sermon prep. But whenever you come across a good one (e.g., in a book or sermon), store it.

Biblical and theological files feed you with conceptual content. Topical and illustration files feed you with practical content. The best preachers hit both.

Why do you need these four files? Two reasons:

1. These four things come to a head in sermon preparation. Last week I preached on 2 Thessalonians ch. 2 (biblical), which addressed false teaching (topical) on eschatology (theological), and I had a perfect analogy (illustration) from something I saw in Planet Earth.

2. Most commentaries stink. I’ll start a series reading three or four, but end the series using one or two. A solid file of articles and resources compensates for unhelpful reference books.

How to set up your sermon prep filing system

I store all my files in just three places. Each has folders or drawers for biblical, theological, topical, and illustration files:

1. A filing cabinet contains my handwritten notes and articles I have printed off or photo copied.

2. Computer files consist of exegetical and application sermon prep templates I have filled out, and sermon outlines or manuscripts.

3. Evernote stores web content, like blog posts.

Set up a file for each book of the Bible and each major theological topic in the three places above, even if you don’t have anything for it. This disposes you to collect resources, and to keep content you create.

How to efficiently and effectively use your sermon prep files

Files don’t help if you never use them or can’t access them easily. Here is a three-step process for using your files.

1. Pull out your biblical file. Keep it available until your sermon or series is finished, even if there is nothing in it at first, since you will contribute to it while you study.

2. Scan through your topical and theological files. I say scan – instead of read – because if it doesn’t look helpful immediately, it probably isn’t, and scanning is faster than reading. Pull out anything relevant to your passage. If you lack a file that you wish you had, create the file right away so that you’re ready to collect those things later.

3. Scan through your illustration file. When you use one, note the date and place you used it to avoid using illustrations repetitively.

Focus on filing quality, not quantity

When it comes to sermon prep files, nothing is better than something, if the something is crappy. Non-quality content costs you efficiency. You waste time saving it now and reading it later. If you actually use non-quality resources, you lose effectiveness.

Don’t miss the rest of this series on How To Get Organized:


  1. Nate Friedrichsen says:

    Really helpful, Eric. With so much content coming our way in the digital, always-on age, it’s hard to know what to do with it all.

    I’ve really benefitted from a three-fold combination of Spotlight for searching inside PDFs and my whole computer, Accordance for exegetical notes, and Evernote for everything else. maybe those will spark some more ideas for people.

    • Nate, thanks for the comment. I’ve never heard of Spotlight, I’ll have to check that out. I keep downloading ebooks (usually pdf), but haven’t figured out how to search through them quickly.

      • Great series of articles!

        I believe Spotlight is for Mac. Try Google desktop. It works wonders.

        You’ll find that you won’t need to be so organized to be effective! 🙂


  2. Andrew H says:

    Thanks for posting these! They have been really helpful to me. I was wondering, when are you going to add the 5th one? “Task List Options from Around the Web: Choose What Works Best for You” ?

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Andrew, I’m glad these have been a help to you. I changed the title of that fifth post to “Find a Task List System That Fits Your Personality.” You can find it here.