How Much Time Should a Pastor Spend on Sermon Prep

How much time should we pastors spend preparing a sermon? Recently I watched a video where a famous pastor answered that question. His response, “I study and read all the time and it takes me about one to two hours to put a sermon together.” Yikes! When I heard that I felt guilty because there’s no way I can prepare a sermon that quickly. I’m sure this pastor’s heart was right, but I wish he had qualified himself more. I doubt very many of us are that speedy. Here are some thoughts on sermon prep time.

bible study

In Haddon Robinson’s book, Biblical Sermons, he wrote that experienced preachers he surveyed spent an average of 16 hours preparing. That sounds more like it to me. That’s probably my average and I’ve been preaching for 25 years. Thom Rainer has an interesting post here from a survey pastors took.

So, how much time should you spend? It depends.

It depends on…

  • how long you’ve been in ministry. If you been in ministry several years, you have a backlog of study material. If you haven’t you will probably need to set aside more study time. I did in my early ministry years.
  • how well you’ve catalogued your previous study notes, sermons, and materials.
  • how well you manage your time.
  • what’s happening around you…sometimes unexpected family and ministry demands arise that require our time that we otherwise would have spent on sermon prep. No need to wallow in guilt when that happens.
  • your personality…some pastors have the gift of gab and can ‘make up stuff on the fly’ :), some of us don’t; some personalities require the preacher to process what he wants to say more thoroughly.

Here are a few ideas to consider as you answer this question for yourself.

  • Schedule your study and prep time during your best, most alert hours.
  • Set reasonable expectations. An hour or two is too little time for most just as 35 hours is probably too much.
  • Use computer tools readily available. I own a Mac and use both Accordance and Logos. I rarely use paper books. These tools have made my study time more efficient.
  • Trust God to use your faithful preparation. Seldom do ministry demands allow us to study as much as we’d like. We must do our best and trust the Holy Spirit to fill in the gaps.

How much time do you spend preparing your sermon?

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The iPhone App that Improved my Ability to Concentrate

One of the most precious commodities a pastor has is time. Ministry always beckons us to do more than time permits. I once heard a researcher state that most people have 35 hours of unfinished work ahead of them. However, if we use the time we have most effectively, we’ll become more fruitful for the Kingdom. This app has helps me concentrate better which has improved my time management.

concentrate

Preparing sermons, at least for senior pastors, is one of the most time consuming Kingdom commitments. Although I don’t preach every week, I still must prepare over 40 original messages each year. Each week I study 15-20 hours to prepare one sermon. That’s a good chunk of my week which requires concentration.

Some time back I purchased a $2.99 iPhone app that has proved invaluable to help me concentrate when I study. When I fully concentrate, I make much more progress than when my mind gets distracted.

That app, Ambiance, is a simple collection of natural (and man-made) sounds that I play on my iPhone through my headphones. They call it an “environment enhancer.” In case you are wondering, I don’t make money on the sale of this app and I’m not connected in any way to the company.

The standard iPhone earbuds work ok, but I purchased a pair of noise canceling headphones (Audio Technica) that block out most ambient noise. You can purchase more expensive ones, but this set works great for me. This would make a great Christmas present. They’re not Bose, but a third the price.

So when I study, I plug in, play a repetitive waterfall or beach sound, and become totally oblivious to the people and sounds around me. My ability to concentrate skyrockets. Science confirms that white noise helps us concentrate.

As Paul the Apostle wrote in Ephesians 5.16, … make every minute count. (CEV)

This simple $2.99 purchase has helped me put that command into practice.

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The Original Jesus

My friend Daniel Darling just released his latest book, The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is. Daniel is a great writer and provides an insightful look at the myths we create about Jesus. I highly recommend it. I’ve included an excerpt below.

orig jesus

Who is Jesus? The answer to this question is the foundation of Christianity. His deity is enshrined in all three major Christian creeds and has been held by the church for its two thousand years of history. Tozer says, “For more than sixteen hundred years this has stood as the final test of orthodoxy.” Theologian Michael Bird writes, “All in all, the testimony of the Christian tradition, based on its exegesis and experience, is that Jesus Christ is both fully human and divine.” John Frame says the deity of Christ is a “pervasive doctrine of Scripture,” and he sums up Scripture’s claims with three statements:

  1. Jesus bears divine attributes: holiness, perfect truth, wisdom, almighty power, immutability, glory.
  2. Jesus performs divine acts: creation, providence, miracles, forgiveness of sins, final judgment.
  3. Jesus in Scripture is an object of faith and worship.

Every generation faces new temptations to diminish or doubt Jesus’s deity. As you read this book, Newsweek and Time are likely working on the “Scholars Debunk the Supernatural Jesus” feature they run every Easter. This thin gruel of journalism will once again be answered by the most basic evangelical scholarship.

But red-faced skeptics and timid doctoral students are not the only ones tempted to flinch at Jesus’s unpopular claims. Even those who claim to be true believers have trouble grasping who Jesus is. It’s less hassle for us to just place Jesus where we want to, in a long line of inspirational religious figures. But for the Christian story to work at all, Jesus has to be more than a first-century Gandhi-like figure.

I’m guessing if you’re reading this book you’re a believer like me. Chances are you found this at a Christian bookstore or through an online review at a Christian blog or because millions of your friends posted on Facebook about how awesome it is.

But maybe, just maybe you are not a Christian and chose this book out of curiosity or boredom or because a Christian friend recommended it. If this is you, then for the rest of the chapter I’d like to make the case for why you might consider Jesus.

While more gifted apologists could give you in-depth answers as to who Jesus is, my aim is not only to fill your head with more information but to see God by his grace penetrate your heart with the truth of his Word.

I hope to show why Jesus is less compelling as a mere guru than he is as the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

Excerpted from The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is by Daniel Darling, Baker Books, 2014, by permission.

A Powerful Tool to Help Create Change in your Church

Change in every church is difficult, but necessary. Things that are alive, change. One powerful tool that can help move change forward in your church is storytelling. I’ve excerpted a brief portion of my newest book Brain-Savvy Leaders, the Science of Significant Ministry below that describes the power of storytelling to create change.

Hand writing Make a Change with red marker on transparent wipe board.

Narrative persuasion is a technique that uses indirect communication through story and example. Often we try to persuade others with a direct approach that communicates just the facts, like, “We are going to make a change, and here are the reasons why.” The direct approach often is not effective. Neuroscientists have confirmed common sense that storytelling has a powerful effect on behavior (Falk et al., 2012).

Storytelling helps others “see” through the eyes of another. As you solicit feedback as you prepare for your change, look for stories of people who are managing the change well. Tell their stories as you give updates about your progress. When your team members can see successful responses to change through stories of others, it will help them navigate the change better.

How has storytelling helped you move a change initiative forward in your church?

If you’d like a free chapter of my book Brain-Savvy Leaders, you can request one in the right hand column on this page by signing up for my blog postings.

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Sources:

  • Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 2746-2752). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition (permission granted for use).
  • Falk, E. B., Berkman, E. T., Mann, T., Harrison, B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2010, June 23). Predicting persuasion-induced behavior change from the brain. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30( 25), 8421– 24.

How Often should Preachers Practice their Sermon?

I’ve served in ministry over 30 years and I’ve preached a lot of sermons. Some have been good and some, well, not so good. Three factors have made the biggest positive difference for me: preparing my heart before the Lord, scheduling adequate study time to avoid feeling rushed, and practicing preaching my sermon. In this blog I suggest a few benefits from practice and describe my practice/preparation process.

gray word on red wall

As a framework, a few insights about me.

  • I’m not an A++ communicator. I’d say I’m a solid B+. God has gifted me with a good mind and relatively good speaking abilities, but I don’t command a multi-thousand person church audience. I’ll speak to several hundred people on an average Sunday.
  • I don’t have a photographic memory that allows me to memorize my sermons.
  • I don’t have unlimited energy, need 8 hours of sleep at night, and go into a semi-comotose mode at about 8:30 each night. So, I can’t pick up extra study hours at night. If study gets done, it must happen during daylight hours.
  • I study slow. I can’t quickly craft a message. Even after three decades of doing it, I still need 15 hours or so to create a message, excluding practice time.

Even with my limitations, I’ve discovered that practicing my sermon yields several benefits.

  1. Familiarity: When I practice, I become more familiar with the homiletic part (how will I say it), a different kind of familiarity than hermeneutic familiarity (what the Bible says).
  2. Improvement: When I practice my message, I notice how I can say things differently which improves what I eventually do say.
  3. Shortening: Practice often helps me realize that I can remove some parts of my sermon without affecting the message I want to convey. I almost always shorten my sermon as I practice it.
  4. Confidence: The more familiar I become with my sermon, the less I have to think about what “comes next” when I preach which increases my confidence during delivery.
  5. Memory: Although I don’t memorize my messages (I work from a complete manuscript), the more I practice, the more it imbeds into my subconscious which frees me to connect better with the congregation through eye contact and body language when I deliver it.
  6. Timing: I usually try to use humor in each message. Professional comedians practice a lot to improve timing in their humor. When I practice, it helps me improve my timing.

Here’s my routine.

  • I complete my study and write my manuscript at least two weeks ahead of time.
  • On the Thursday prior to the Sunday when I will deliver it, I review it again, tweak it, and highlight key phrases (all in Microsoft Word).
    • I save it as a PDF to my iPad app Notability, one of the best PDF markup apps available. I preach from an iPad mini, instead of paper notes. You can read about my experience with an iPad here.
    • I go to an upstairs closet in the church and preach it out loud once.
  • On Friday, I slowly and silently review it, further tweaking it directly on Notability.
  • On Saturday, I preach in out loud in my bedroom closet (second practice).
  • On Sunday morning, I practice it out loud one more time in my closet (third practice).

So, I practice it out loud three times and silently tweak it twice.

I’ve found that this pattern allows me to best prepare, without overdoing the practice.

What is your prep routine?

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