The Number of Hours Keller, Piper, Driscoll (and 5 Others) Spend on Sermon Prep

keller-piper-driscoll-sermon-prep

There are various opinions on how long it should take someone to prepare their sermon for Sunday. There are minimalists, maximalists, and everything in between.

No matter where you are on the spectrum, it should comfort you to know that well known preachers span the entire spectrum. So how long do well known preachers take to prepare a sermon? Here’s what I found.

Well known preachers spend between 1 and 35 hours on sermon prep

- Mark Driscoll – 1 to 2 hours. A couple years ago, Driscoll caused a bit of a ruckus when he tweeted, “Prepping 2 sermons today. Thankfully, a sermon takes about as long to prep as preach.” Last week he tweeted something similar, “Time to put the sermon together for Sunday. 1-2 hours.” Obviously, a lot of pastors are surprised by those numbers. Driscoll explains:

By God’s grace my memory is very unusual. I can still remember a section of a book I read 20 years ago while preaching and roll with it. I’ve also never sat down to memorize a Bible verse. Yet, many just stick, and I can pull them up from memory as I go. Lastly, I’m a verbal processor. I think out loud, which is what preaching is for me. A degree in speech and over 10,000 hours of preaching experience also helps. And most importantly and thankfully, the Holy Spirit always helps.

When I get up to preach, the jokes, illustrations, cross-references, and closing happen extemporaneously. I never teach others how to preach, as my method is not exactly a replicable method—nor a suggested one. But it works for me.

- Tim Keller (small rural church) – 6 to 8 hours. Keller shared this about his early days pastoring and preaching:

I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time [on sermon preparation], however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work–that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff I put in 6-8 hours on a sermon.

- Tim Keller (big Manhattan church) – 14-16 hours. When you have a staff of pastors doing ministry alongside you, that affords the lead pastor more time to put into his message. Check out this two minute video to learn how Keller spends those 14 to 16 hours.

- John Piper – All day Friday, half day Saturday. It’s hard to get an exact number from Piper’s explanation of how he prepares his sermons. When you read it (or watch it), it sounds like something like 14 to 16 hours though. Piper, like Driscoll, admits that his process is less than replicable:

It works for me. Most people who hear I do it that way say, “No way can I start on Friday.” Or, “No way can I take a manuscript into the pulpit and not have it be canned.” No problem. Wear your own armor, not mine.

- Stephen Um – 24 hours (update: 15-16, see comments). Um broke down his entire week as it pertains to his sermon prep schedule in this TGC post. The uniqueness of his pattern, in comparison with the men already listed, is that he prepares throughout the week.

- Matt Chandler – All day Tuesday, all day Thursday. It sounds safe to say 16-plus hours for Chandler. While walking through his preaching habits, he says he blocks these days off, and takes care of the rest of his responsibilities on other days of the week:

Tuesdays and Thursdays are study days for me. I put together sermons and pray and study on those two days. The rest of the week I am meeting with people and trying to shepherd well the people God has asked me to lead.

- Kent Hughes – 20 hours. I can’t remember if it was this Q and A panel, this conference message, or some other time I heard Hughes speak, but he said he spent 20 hours on a Sunday morning sermon, and 10 hours on a Sunday evening sermon.

- John MacArthur – 32 hours. Another throughout-the-week guy, MacArthur takes 4 days, at 8 hours per day to prepare to preach. Here’s the gist, but Colin Adams shows how each day breaks down.

Day One: Exegesis; Day Two: Meditation; Day Three: Rough draft of sermon; Day Four: Final draft, handwritten.

- Mark Dever – 30 to 35 hours. CJ Mahaney interviewed Mark Dever on the preparation and delivery of sermons. Here is an excerpt of their conversation:

CJM: All right. Average number of hours each week devoted to sermon prep?

MD: Thirty to 35.

CJM: How long do you speak on Sundays?

MD: One hour.

CJM: You work from a manuscript?

MD: I do, though I don’t generally recommend other people do that.

CJM: Why?

MD: Manuscripts can just be deadly boring. I don’t want to say there are few people who can use a manuscript well, but it is definitely a minority.

Lessons to take from this survey

At the very least, we can take away some steps not to take as we try to become the best preachers we can.

1. Don’t choose a set number of hours because so-and-so does. Good preachers are all over the place. There is no certain amount of time you should spend. Simply determine how long it takes for you to preach a good sermon – not perfect, but good.

2. On that note, don’t expect preaching success to come from locking and loading other pastor’s habits. Driscoll, Piper, and Dever each acknowledge that they don’t have the most replicable sermon prep process. Bullets for them could be blanks for you.

3. Don’t find your identity as a preacher in how much time you spend on your sermon. Don’t be proud of how many hours or how few hours you spend preparing. Again, there are very good preachers who are all over the spectrum. Your prep is not the end, but a means to an end. Your identity is in Christ and your role is to be a herald of Christ.

4. Don’t let your sermon prep get in the way of shepherding people or leading your church. We saw that Chandler and Keller (especially in his smaller church days) set aside plenty of time for that part of ministry.

Besides that, there is freedom. No “should’s.” If you’re not sure how much time you should spend preparing, experiment until you know who you need to be and what you need to do to be the best all around pastor – not just preacher – you can, according to God’s grace and only for his glory.

Comments

  1. Richard Lucas says:

    I think your info is off from MacArthur. He might spend that much time TOTAL in a week, but he preaches 2 new hour long expository sermons every Sunday, from different books of the Bible. I think most (if not all) of the other guys you surveyed only preach one new sermon each Sunday.

    In MacArthur’s book on preaching (1st ed. from 1992) he clearly writes on p. 334, “I used to spend about fifteen hours on a sermon, but now it is about eight or ten hours.” And that was over 20 years ago! Not to mention he also has at least one or more other speaking engagements each week, such as at the college or seminary chapel or some other conference venue.

    I’ve other people reference the quote on the book jacket of his study Bible where he says it was 30 hours a week for 30 years of prep for the notes, but again, that is 2 new sermons every week, 15 hours each.

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      That’s interesting, because the blog I linked to said that the breakdown correlated with MacArthur’s book on preaching.

      • Richard Lucas says:

        I think he just meant it correlated in terms of what he did each day, namely the pace of what he tried to cover throughout the week. I think the blog author just assumed that it meant he did it for 8 hours each day. I have a hard time believing MacArthur spends a full 8 hour day on nothing but meditating on only one of his sermon texts all day.

        By comparison, I listened to another interview where he talked about his mentor Charles Feinberg, who used to spend a full hour every day on Bible reading, and how MacArthur tried to keep that pace too, but was forced to cut that back because of other demands. He’s a pretty busy guy!

        So, I think what he wrote in print is a more reliable guide than what the other blogger speculated from a conference talk.

        I do appreciate this info…thanks for sharing it. I’m sure some guys’ habits change over time too (like Keller mentioned).

        • Richard Lucas says:

          And again, even IF MacArthur did do nothing else but meditate for the full day on the sermon text, he still preaches 2 full new sermons every week, an hour long each, from different books of the Bible. That alone should cause us to divide up his sermon prep time in half for comparison purposes.

  2. Richard Lucas says:

    Also, FWIW, while no longer in regular pulpit ministry, Ligon Duncan delivered this lecture at Southern Seminary while he was pastoring First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MI.

    http://www.sbts.edu/resources/lectures/mullins/principles-of-preparation-and-normal-practices-for-preaching-at-first-presbyterian-church/

    I haven’t listened to it since I heard it in person (2004), but if my memory serves me, he said that he typically preaches 3-4 new sermons every week, and while he preferred 8 hours of prep per sermon, he typically got about 4 hours each.

  3. Richard Lucas says:

    Again, I’m not trying to be nit-picky, but I do think it can be discouraging for many preachers to hear that some of their preaching heros spend a lot more time than they can give to sermon prep.

    I’m not exactly sure how you calculated the number of 24 hours for Stephen Um, but he explicitly says in a comment on that same TGC post:

    “my average weekly sermon prep is about 15-16 hrs. the rest of the time on sat and sun is really for prayer. some men consider this part of their sermon prep and others don’t but i think 14-16 hrs is relatively common for many men that i know. again, we need to work w a weekly rhythm that works for you. i was not presuming that everyone should follow my weekly pattern but thanks for your thoughts. i was simply given an assignment to share about what i do, thx-stephen”

    So, maybe if you include the time spent in prayer, that’s where the 24 hours come from, but when he added it up himself, he summarized it as 15-16 hours.

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Thanks for all your thoughts, Richard. I didn’t read the comments for the post, only the content of his article. I saw 6 1/2 hours on Tuesday, 4 on Thursday, 8 on Friday, 3 on Saturday, and 3 on Sunday. So, yes, I was including the prayer part. That gets to 24 1/2, but I opted estimate down on the 1/2 hour. Thanks for sharing the comment that Um left on that post. That clarifies things.

  4. Brian Mitchell says:

    I don’t think that Driscoll is being completely honest. He has used Docent communications for years, which prepare sermon briefs. He does have a nearly photographic memory, but I know for a fact that he spends a lot of time reading and preparing for messages. He not only utilizes the research from Docent but he also uses much of what he’s reading that week. If he’s saying he sits down and takes 2 hours to write an outline, etc. maybe that’s what he means. But it’s not true that he only takes 2 hours to prepare for the sermon, because he not only has the help of Docent but he does take time each week to read and pray which is a part of the sermon preparation process.

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Brian. I just buzzed over to their site, and discovered that Matt Chandler uses them, too. You’re absolutely right that that explains why Driscoll’s personal time on his sermon is so low.

      • Brian Mitchell says:

        Yup. Driscoll, Chandler. Tullian T. and many others use them. They’re a great research group. But I think it discourages pastors of smaller churches (who wear more hats without exec. pastors, other staff etc.) if these megachurch preachers don’t explain this. In the end, sermon preparation time larger depends upon how many other pastors there are to fulfill other responsibilities.

        Tullian did in an interview at preaching.com but others don’t seem to say much about it. If you go to the Docent site you’ll see Driscoll does a promo for them.

    • Ben Thorp says:

      It’s also difficult to judge Driscoll’s time because he also does a lot of wider research, planning well in advance, for each book/series that he preaches through, but doesn’t tend to include that in the “1-2″ hours. By the time he gets to prepping an individual sermon, he’s generally already spent a number of months gathering his thoughts, collating articles and reading books on that particular portion of Scripture.

  5. Interesting question. I once asked my father (after church one day when I was interning in his church) how long it took him to prepare a sermon. His answer was, “That one took about 35 years.

    His point was that he didn’t want to tell a young man how long he spent in preparation. He spent much longer hours in prep in his 20s and 30s. By the time he had been decades in the ministry he had a much greater store of studies to draw on, and he had also learned many economies of time. He feared that if he told a young man, “I spend x hours in prep,” that young man might think, “Wow, so x hours is ample prep time for a sermon,” and that’s just not necessarily so.

    • Well said,
      If you listen to Mark Driscoll speaking in inolder Acts 29 messages on sermon prep he brings this same point up… Also the fact that you must steep in the word and the sermon must become real for you before you can deliver this to anyone else.

      Familiarity with the text and the audience are huge as well. Mark is an amazing speaker and brilliant but the intellectual level at which he aims on sunday isn’t as high as Keller. He could certainly get there but he would be speaking above his audience. Also Mark’s Sermons are outlined way in advance. He spoke at a Resurgence all day event and gave the compete outline for Nehemiah 6months before he taught it at Mars Hill.

  6. I think Driscoll also said that he prepares his preaching calendar a year or more in advance, including whole-book exegesis and research. So he knows exactly where he is going at every verse in the book way before he sits down and prepares an individual message.

  7. This was really interesting. I’d also be interested to hear a similar break-down from faithful, small church pastors. May be give those of us who are not outrageously gifted a more helpful barometer!

  8. Jonathan Bonomo says:

    Thanks for this post. Very interesting.

    Given the request of some for pastors of smaller church, here’s my general run-down as a small church pastor who generally puts in around 69 hours of ministry per week.

    I generally spend an average of 16 hours or so on sermon prep. Some weeks it all just clicks and I can go 12-14. Others are a struggle and it’s more like 18-20. I’ve gone over 20 with some particularly difficult texts or sensitive topics (for instance, Parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16, and most recently, the topic of Herem warfare in Deut. 2-3). But 16 seems like where I’m at right now in general.

    My ideal weekly schedule looks something like this:

    Tues., 8-12:30 = exegesis (always with an eye toward application).

    Tues., 1-5 = commentary consultation. (Thinking and praying and writing all the way through)

    Wed., 8-11= synthesis of my notes into a preliminary (far too long) manuscript. (Wed. Late morning I plan our morning worship service, then afternoon and evening is reserved for meetings, phone calls, mid-week bible study prep., and Wed. night Bible study).

    Thurs., 9-12:30 = trim the fat and massage the message! Ideally, I have the final manuscript by Thursday afternoon, and then head to the local coffee shop to read/talk with folks, evangelism, etc, for the rest of the day.

    Fridays I spend on Sunday school, evening worship and discussion planning (we do sermon review and discussion in our Sun. evening service) outreach planning, meetings, calls, etc.

    Saturdays are miscellaneous: men’s group, church events, outreach, session meeting, etc. But I will usually look over the manuscript quickly once or twice for around an hour.

    Thanks again.

    Jon Bonomo
    Faith Community Presbyterian Church (PCA)
    La Porte, Indiana

  9. Wow!! 1-2 hours total for Driscoll? Including just meditating on the scripture, word searching, reading and just letting it stew in his mind? I think that’s pretty highly unusual if that is every week, week in and week out of the year. But if he says it then I reckon that’s it. I have been preaching 2-4 messages a week for 18 years and there have been several times that 2 hours was enough, because of time constraints out of my control and God’s grace. most the time though 12-15 hours for 2 sermons and then add 3 hours for each additional ones. Until I read this I thought I was a fast reader and prepper… not now. I will say that many times i do much better with the 3 hour sermon prep than the longer prep time. makes me stop and re-think prep time now.

  10. Jeff Johnson says:

    This post was encouraging to see that not everyone spends anywhere near the same amount of time in sermon prep. There are times when I’ve felt really guilty about not putting more time in, even when I’ve gotten together everything I think needs to be done. I had a preaching professor who said that we should spend at least 40 hours per sermon. I’ve found that to be completely unworkable. It would be impossible for pastors who must prepare multiple sermons each week. Also, I have not seen a correlation between the raw number of hours in preparation and the perceived effectiveness of the sermon. In fact, there have been times when it seems my most prepared sermons fall flat.

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