How 6 Faithful, But Not-Famous Pastors Prepare Their Sermons

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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.

 Some surprises

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!)

Some takeaways

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.

Comments

  1. I started using my iPad in my preaching and children’s ministry teaching (I manuscript that, too). It’s actually pretty nice to use.

    I write my manuscript in Pages, export as an ePub file and load the notes into iBooks, which is ideal since I can make the text really big (which equals less obvious looking down). The only thing to remember is to turn off the autolock, turn down the brightness so it’s not noticeable, and lock the rotation.

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      This size of the text was always an issue for me. Loading it into iBooks makes total sense. Never thought of that.

  2. One of my guiding points each week: From Vance Havner, “The devil doesn’t care how much time a pastor spends preparing his sermon as long as he doesn’t prepare himself.” (para)
    Thanks for your site.

  3. I was also surprised that all of the pastors wrote out full manuscripts. I’ve never done that, but apparently some find it very helpful.

    I used to print out my outline and just use it to preach. But I decided to try preaching from my wife’s iPad when we were traveling and I didn’t have easy access to a printer. I saved the file in pdf format and used iBooks to read from it. It actually worked out very well and I think I’ll start doing it more often.

  4. Many thanks for running with this idea…it was even more helpful and encouraging than I thought it would be! I Your observation #3 under ‘takeaways’ encouraged me the most. Praise God for ministering grace.

  5. Willie Harris says:

    I preach from an iPad and love it! I will type of my sermon in a Word doc, convert it to PDF, and then transfer it to the iPad. I use PerfectReader to view the document and can turn the pages by swiping. PerfectReader also does annotations for last minute notes or highlighting.

  6. After five years working as the Associate Pastor of Youth and Music, my pastor died of a heart attack while preaching through Romans. He finished with Romans 8:33. Going from preaching to students each week to now preaching to the entire congregation, I felt deeply impressed to continue where my pastor left off in Romans. I picked up with Romans 8:31-39 and I am preaching tomorrow on Romans 10:1-5. So, needless to say, prayer has been the most important element to me.

    As far as technology goes, I have been preaching off of my iPad since it first came out several years ago. I do not write a manuscript, but instead preach from an outline. I create this outline on my Macbook (with Pages), but then export it as a PDF to Dropbox, making final preparations on my iPad with an app called iAnnotate PDF. This allows me to strikethrough or highlight text, make separate textboxes or even type onto my sermon outline. I have literally preached hundreds of times off my iPad with no problems.

  7. This article seems to be written in such a way that assumes each pastor is only preparing one sermon. Is it true that many pastors only preach one sermon (maybe multiple times) per week? I find that I preach Sunday morning, Sunday night, and do an in-depth teaching session on Wednesday nights as well. Plus, I work outside of the church anywhere from 1-3 days per week. Anybody have any recommendations for a young pastor like me on how my time should be spent in sermon prep? Thanks!

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Good question, A.J. Carson has a great lecture on this topic. You read the summary here: http://slavepj.com/2009/01/23/preaching-through-bible-books-by-da-carson/. You can download the lecture here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/resources/entry/Preaching-Through-Bible-Books#

      • Eric, first of all I enjoyed the article and have now found your page and will consume your other writings.

        As I was reading I also wondered about what seems to be only a fantasy world of staff and virtually unlimited hours for sermon prep – something I can only imagine. I, like a couple of the guys who also commented, preach on Sunday AM, PM, Wed. night and small group each week. In addition I teach a couple of Bible classes at a local Christian high school and serve as a chaplain for their football team. The point is not how busy I am but how my time has to be divides very carefully. (did I mention that I also just finished earning a masters degree)

        The one thing that has helped me the most is to schedule out my preaching topics/texts far in advance. this last year I scheduled the entire 12 months sermons. This took several days and a lot of intense prayer but it was worth it in the long run. It mostly helped me when the week was filled with those surprise time killers like sickness and funerals.

        I would like to hear comments from preachers in churches where they are THE speaker and also the maintenance guy, etc.

  8. I have been preaching from my iPad for a little over a year now and find it works great. The brightness of the screen helps me to see the notes better. I also like the fact that I don’t have to turn any pages if I am preaching with a manuscript; I simply scroll up as needed. I like that I can adjust the font to the size I need and can angle the iPad so that I can use it almost like a teleprompter. This allows me to have better eye contact with my audience while still being able to focus on notes when using a manuscript.

    I use dropbox to get the message to the iPad. I actually keep the message in dropbox and view it from there instead of moving it to another program. Works great for me!

  9. I have never faced this issue but always wondered how to address it: How do those who preach with a manuscript address the congregation when a local/national event (tragedy) happens a day or two before the scheduled sermon?

    Obviously even through manuscript we rely on the Spirit to lead in such circumstances, but do pastors preach another sermon? Do they only address the issue, have prayer, then preach the sermon prepared throughout the week? Just curious.

    Great article!

  10. I am a fairly new pastor at a small rural church but do use an iPad. Some of my folks were a bit skeptical at first but they got used to it. I do carry my Bible and refer to the text from it. I also type out a manuscript as we’ll. I am also bi-vocational and it seemed that the pastors in this article are full time and only preach once a week. Our church just recently exchanged a Sunday night service for small home groups but I do preach/teach on Wednesdays as well. I spend just about every morning beginning at 4am in sermon prep. Any advice on bi-vocational pastors for prep? Would love to hear how some other guys do it.

  11. I start my prep on Monday morning and over the next three days spend about 20 hours preparing my sermon. I start with prayer. Then spend the majority of my time in studying the text and reflecting on it taking notes on my computer. If I spend any time at all in a commentary it is very brief and only after I have grappled with the text myself. I then type out a one to two page outline (preferably one page) This is what I take into the pulpit. (I have rarely used a manuscript) This allows me time to meditate on the message and edit as lead by God for the remainder of the week. Sunday I get up early pray read my notes and prepare my heart to be God’s man. I also spend the remainder of the week preparing for the evening Bible study and a men’s study I do on Thursday evenings. These are more of a teaching format so I use book outlines I have put together over the years (been a pastor/teacher for almost 40 years). When I first started in ministry I worked and prepared so I just did not sleep much :’) Key is disciplined time management and realizing it will get easier as time goes on because you will build on your studies as the years go by.

  12. i am not a pastor but in our church we are given the opportunity to prepare a short sermon or encouragement. At present i am in a ministry training. I would really love to be able to preach to the congregation but in the past what i have done is to write out a detailed researched topic and read it word for word. I really dont feel i could go up in front of the congregation and speak impomptu. i feel i wouldnt remember key words and end up stumbling . but i can really see myself doing well but do not have the courage to try it.
    Any advice welcome

  13. David Colvin says:

    I just happened to stumble upon this article as I was looking for commentaries to purchase for sermon prep…I normally stick to one or two commentaries and am trying to find one that that I like that I can put on my Ipad.

    anyway I thought I would post my sermon prep as I find it very diffrent than many of the others that have posted.

    I like many of the previous pastors, used to spend any where from 15- 20 hours in sermon prep. That has recently changed, as far as I am concerned for the better.

    I used to preach anywhere from 30-40 min each Sunday, but changed that too…Now i preach only for about 20-25min….anything longer than that and I lose them and am unable to drive home the message I want my congregation to take away.

    I also use an Ipad to do my sermon prep and to preach from…Unlike most pastors I don’t transfer my documents to another app to preach from. I work in pages and I preach from pages, and I have been doing that for about 2 1/2 years. I find that it works best because I can change up my sermon with in seconds…I have even done this right before I have to preach. There is a danger to cause the keyboard to come up when your preaching, but this has never happened to me…..however if you are worried about that, get a bluetooth keyboard and put it under your pulpit and the keyboard will not pop on your screen….but again I never had a problem with it.

    My sermon prep acturally begins a couple months in advnanced….I think on over arching theme’s….areas where I feel the congragation is needing to learn or develop more in there faith. Then I post that on my white board in my office to think about..

    Then I begin to think about passages (either one’s familar to me or passages I have read in my daily bible reading that pop out at me). I begin to think about a sermon series that I can do that will address those over arching theme’s I want to hit on in that year.

    Once I get a concept of a sermon series, I begin to look at the various verses (if it is more of a topical sermon series), or the book/chapters (if it is more of a verse by verse sermon series)……then in my bible app (olivetree is what I use) I make notes by each text I will use, and then place it in a catagory under the sermon series heading.

    I then quickly review the passage and write down some introductory thoughts and try to out line my three main points (though they may change,…they typically stay the same) then I move to the other passage in the series.

    I try to get at least two sermon series ahead….Right now I have my sermon series leading up to Easter.

    Now in the week….I start Wed morning (I go on visitation on Tue)….I take my sermon from my notes and copy and past them in my pages….and begin to work out of that the sermon. I try to make sure that everything is to the point and that my main points are not too long…my introduction has a hook and delivers the problem and the answer and that I drive it home with a conclusion. This all takes anywhere from 8-12 hours….which leaves me free to go and do more visit, outreach, projects and various other duties

  14. How wonderful to hear from these guys! Yesterday’s Pastor’s Luncheon in my area was along these lines as well, and it was the best Pastor’s Luncheon I had ever attended. I am nearly 60 years old, and have been preaching since I was 15. But I am always open to learning how other preachers prepare.

    I have been in full-time ministry most of those years, but spent 13 years in bi-vocational ministry. Finding time to hear from God, do my study, then prepare the message was a weekly battle.

    So, Eric, from reading some of the comments (which I found just as helpful!), I would suggest a post on how bi-vocational pastors prepare. I believe there would be quite a difference in methods–not short-cuts necessarily, but entirely different approaches. Thanks for your work!

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