Last week I surveyed how long well known pastors – like Keller, Piper, and Driscoll – take to prepare their sermons. The discussion in the comments was fantastic. One commenter, Andrew, posted an interesting thought:
“This was really interesting. I’d also be interested to hear a similar breakdown from faithful, small church pastors. May give those of us who are not outrageously gifted a more helpful barometer!”
So I emailed faithful pastors who I know personally to see if they’d be willing to shoot me a couple short paragraphs of how they prepare. They each gave me a detailed description of their process, and I offer their thoughts here for you, and I list some ways they surprised me at the end.
These guys are not lead pastors of megachurches. They have not any published books. They don’t have a top 200 church blog. But they are good pastors who shepherd their people well.
How does their process compare to yours? Is there anything you can take from their sermon prep methods and incorporate into yours? Do they do anything you disagree with?
Jeff Brewer (@jnjbrewer), Lead Pastor of Hope Fellowship in Lombard, IL
My normal sermon prep for Sunday starts on Tuesday mornings in our staff meeting. We ask questions about the text, look for a theme, and talk briefly about application. After the staff meeting, I read the passage, start a Scriviner document, and begin to write down initial thoughts and outlines. I also try and read books that I think might be helpful to my thinking. I don’t read commentaries at this stage. On Wednesdays I’ll get in the text and read the passage again. In the mornings during my devotionals I’m praying for my heart to be softened as I prepare and study.
I typically block out all day Thursday and Friday for sermon prep, hoping to have a manuscript done by mid-day Friday. On Saturday night after dinner, I edit the manuscript and print out my first draft. I wake up at 5:00a.m. on Sunday morning and read through the manuscript as I am making coffee, marking in the margins what needs to be cut, fixed, or moved. I also typically scribble some additional application that has been on my mind through the night. I type out the changes, print out a new copy, read it through one more time, and head off to church to worship with the congregation.
Chris Spano, Sr. Pastor of Trinity Community Church in Bowie, MD
Although it’s not “sermon preparation” per se, the most important part is prayer. In his excellent (but now little known) book, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, W.G.T. Shedd describes the ideal prayer life of a preacher:
“The most holy and spiritual teachers and preachers in the church have been remarkable for the directness and frequency of their petitions…Some of them began their day with hours of continuous supplication, and then interspersed their [study] with brief petitions.”
I plan my week to imitate this ideal. I’m not a great preacher, but without lots of prayer, I would be a terrible preacher.
During the week, I spend 12-18 hours preparing a sermon between Tuesday and Thursday. Sometimes I slip into Friday. I begin with exegesis from the original languages. Then I consult commentaries, formulate a sermon outline, theme, and aim, write a full manuscript, give the manuscript to both my wife and my father to scrutinize, heed their wisdom, and then finish the sermon. On Sunday morning, I arise early to pray and mark up my manuscript like a Greg Beale/Scott Hafemann overhead (let the reader understand).
Jason Hill (@pastorjasonhill), Lead Pastor of Gospel Life Church in New Braunfels, TX
I generally spend 15-20 hours on the sermon. My prep time is concentrated in the later part of the week. The closer I am to Sunday, the more I am able to focus. As crazy as it sounds, I do real well Sunday mornings getting up at 3 am. I’m not one to sit at a desk for hours on end. I like to go for a run, a walk, or a hike, and I stop and type a note on my iPhone when a thought comes. I can’t tell you how many times while running that I get an “aha!” moment.
I do not look at the original languages, not because I don’t care to, but because I only took two days of Greek in Bible college. I observe the text, crying out to God for help to locate the main idea. I consult commentaries for help when needed, but I try to wait as long as I can to do so. The excitement of studying God’s word is seeing something that you discovered personally, with the Spirit’s help. When this happens, I find myself more eager share with my church. I preach from a manuscript to keep my train of thought.
Brandon Levering (@BrandonLevering), Lead Pastor of Westgate Church in Weston, MA
I spend roughly 18-22 hours preparing my sermon each week. My preparation is usually spread over several days, here and there in between meetings and other responsibilities, with usually at least one day set aside entirely for writing.
My preparation begins with exegetical work (3-4 hours). Lately I have been working in the original languages less than I would like, but I consult the Greek or Hebrew for difficult questions or differences among English translations. My goal at this stage is to get a feel for the structure, identify the main theme, aim, and fallen condition focus and raise interpretive questions to wrestle with (1 hour). I then move on to commentaries. By the time I’m halfway through a series, I look mainly at four or five that have been most helpful (2-4 hours). I create a general outline of the sermon, including where I need to illustrate and apply points (1 hour). The bulk of my time is given to writing the sermon. I produce a full manuscript, and follow it pretty closely on Sundays. I write a sermon once (as opposed to writing and rewriting), so it’s a slower process, especially as I work out bringing the passage to bear on life (10 hrs). I try to finish by Thursday or Friday. I invariably tweak a few things after a day or two (1-2 hrs). On Sunday mornings I spend time in praying over the manuscript, and familiarizing myself with it so I’m not enslaved to it.
Jeremy Vander Galien (@jvandergalien), Lead Pastor at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Ripon, WI
I have been lead pastor for six years, preaching at a rate of 46 sermons per year. At about year four I settled into my current sermon prep groove. I spend between 12 and 15 hours on sermon prep. I begin Monday morning and end two hours before I preach on Sunday. Monday through Thursday I get into the office at 8 a.m. and study until 11 a.m. This time consists of prayer, reading about preaching, and actual sermon prep.
My method of sermon prep is nothing spectacular. On Monday I read the entire book I am preaching out of (currently Revelation), and then read and re-read the text I will preach on Sunday (Revelation 2-3). I take notes in Evernote. On Tuesday I re-read the text and work on context: how the text contributes to the book and local context, how the local context contributes to my preaching text, the main idea of the text, and how the sub-points contribute to the main idea. I conclude Tuesday with an initial attempt at an outline. Wednesday I read and re-read the text, and then read between 2 and 5 secondary sources and commentaries. By the end of Wednesday I have a complete outline. On Thursday morning I read and re-read the text, and then write a full 4-6 page manuscript, which takes 2-5 hours. Friday and Saturdays are off days for me, though I am constantly mulling things over in my head. I get into the office by 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. After a time of Bible reading and prayer, I read the manuscript and make necessary adjustments. I take the full manuscript to the pulpit on my iPad.
Garrett Nates (@garrettnates), Pastor of Discipleship Ministries at College Church in Wheaton, IL
The number of hours that I spend on preparing a sermon is between 12-15 hours. I find that I have to marinate my soul in the text, having an internal dialogue with God and His word on an on-going basis. I typically begin my sermon preparation on Monday afternoon, and then spend the bulk of Wednesday and Thursday in sermon prep.
I read the English text and it’s surrounding context multiple times, and then print out 2-3 copies of the text from biblegateway.com and mark it up like crazy. I list numerous initial observations and end the day with a first shot at an outline. On Wednesday, I continue to make observations, but move towards interpretation and in depth word studies. I am not proficient in the original languages so I use Logos. I nail down a theological proposition, main points, and how to preach the gospel from the text. Finally I consult one or two trusted commentaries. By the end of the day I have a solid outline. Thursday is a big day for me, as I write out a full manuscript of my sermon. Throughout the week I look for ways to illustrate the text, and now I pull those out of the toolbox. My goal is to end the day with a full manuscript. On Friday, I go over and over my manuscript, almost to the point of memorization, so that I deliver it naturally. I have recently begun preaching from my iPad and I use Adobe Reader. That app allows me to highlight in various colors to represent a main point, supporting biblical passages, and illustrations. I can also write directly on the sermon manuscript.
1. Each pastor writes a manuscript. I thought for sure there would be some disparity here. Not so much.
2. Two guys, Jeremy and Garrett, preach from an iPad. Has anyone else done this with any success? I’m personally scared stiff of the idea!
3. Everyone in this post prepares throughout the week, with Sunday morning playing a key role in most of the pastors’ schedules. This is the case for me, too. I thought I’d a few more end-of-the-week types like Jason.
4. I expected more tech talk, but there was a definite lack of focus on apps and programs. They were mentioned, but not emphasized as much as I thought they would be. (Although I didn’t expect this from Spano. He’s not even on Twitter!)
1. Don’t rely on commentaries to do your interpretation for you. Each of these pastors does their own work first, and then digs into their books.
2. At the very least, have a really good idea of exactly what you are going to say on Sunday morning. You don’t have to manuscript, but none of the pastors above are winging it either.
3. Be yourself! I was comforted that no one in this post apologized for the preacher God has made them to be. By God’s grace we are what we are.
4. Pray! Prayer was a common theme in these vignettes, and for good reason. Preachers don’t change people’s hearts, God changes preachers hearts. He just happens to do it through preachers. To him be the glory.