4 Ways to Improve Focus while Preparing a Talk

Preparing talks and sermons is one of my highest priorities as a pastor. I’ve often said that preparing a message feels much like writing a term paper, each week. I even heard someone say that sermon preparation is like delivering a baby each week and then on Monday realizing you are expecting again. It’s hard work and takes time. Without sustained focus and attention, sermon prep can consume an inordinate amount of time. (See my post here about how long we should spend preparing a sermon). To maximize my prep time, I’ve learned to focus my attention in these ways.

business man thinking about  new projects
  1. Visual gating.
    • Visual gating simply means to block out other visual distractions. In my office at church I have two desks. One is the main one that faces the office area which allows me to see out the window. Another one is around the corner in a nook. Only a bare wall stands behind my computer monitor. I use this one. At my home office I have my desk and monitor arranged in the same way. A bare wall stands behind them. I also use the ‘focus’ mode on Microsoft Word. It blocks out all the other panes and programs that lie behind Word so that the only thing I see is my current document. If you don’t use Word, you can buy several other programs that do the same thing. One company even found that the best way they increased employee productivity was to get them large computer monitors.
  2. Auditory blocking.
    • Ambient sounds can definitely distract us from our prep. I’ve used two techniques. I turn on a small fan that blocks most unwanted noise. However, if I really want to maximize concentration, I use my sound suppressing headphones and listen to the sound of rushing water with an iPhone app called Ambiance. You can get zillions of sounds through this app if rushing water does not work for you.
  3. Dopamine enhancement.
    • The neurotransmitter dopamine helps us maintain attention and is involved with reward in the brain. We need dopamine to help us concentrate. Too little and we don’t focus. Too much and we get wired. When we check off a task from our to do list we get a tiny burst of dopamine. Chocolate can increase it (although I don’t recommend keeping a jar of M & M’s on your desk). And, caffeine can boost it as well. I don’t drink coffee or tea, the two main sources of caffeine. However, sometimes I will drink a diet coke or use 5-Hour Energy. I’ve found that this energy drink does not leave me with a crash when it wears off. I wrote a blog on energy drinks for the busy pastor here.
  4. Minimized computer distractions.
    • When I study I turn off any email or social networking automatic reminders. Studies show that when social media and email interrupt us, it takes us several minutes to get back to the task.

What has helped you concentrate while prepare a talk or sermon?

INVITATION to a LEADERSHIP EVENT: This Tuesday, June 10, at 11 am PDT/2pm EDT I am privileged to join Brian Dodd and Greg Atkinson in a live broadcast on leadership. We’ll be talking about innovative leadership, avoiding people pleasing, and indispensable practices to help you grow. Here’s the link if you’d like to join us.

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How much time should a pastor spend preparing a sermon

how to write a sermon a sermonHow much time should a pastor spend preparing a sermon?

Recently I watched a video where a rather 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.

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.

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 kept your previous study notes, sermons, and materials upon which to refer back
  • how well you manage your time
  • what’s happening around you. Sometimes unexpected family and ministry demands arise that require our time that we other wise 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 thoughts 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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Retro preaching for hi-tech pastors: why and how I used a flannelgraph

I’m a techno geek … I stood in line for 5 hours to get the latest iPhone, I use a MacBookPro, I use an iPad on stage when I preach, I twitter, and I write a blog. Yet, sometimes technology gets in the way. I once tried a retro version of communication. It worked.

Back Camera

Our church is techno … we use video extensively, power point, YouVersion which allows people to follow the sermon on their mobile phone, and we’ve done texting feedback during services.

Yet, sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in too much technology.

Recently during our programming meeting, our creative director suggested that we use a different medium to help the sermon delivery…the old flannelgraph.

In case you’ve never heard of a flannelgraph, it was a Bible teaching technique extensively used many years ago. Sunday school teachers would prop up the flannelgraph on an easle (a large piece of cardboard with flannel on the outside) and as she taught us the Bible lesson that day, she’d stick cardboard images of people and Bible objects on the flannelgraph. The flannel on the back of the images would stick to the flannel on the board. Thus, the flannelgraph. Today the flannelgraph is being used quite extensively in areas around the world with illiterate populations.

This past Sunday we tried it. I taught from Ephesians 2 and 3 where Paul uses several word pictures. These metaphors made it easy to find and cut out images.

Here’s how it added to my teaching.

It was drastically different from how I usually teach. Its novelty helped the message stick.

It helped those familiar with the flannel graph feel a bit of nostalgia, which endeared them to the medium which enhanced the message.

It helped me easily remember the next point. I simply picked up the picture and stuck it on the board.

As I walked back to the board, it was easy to keep reviewing the main points when I referred back to the images.

It built interest as the people wondered what was next.

It helped visual learners stay more focused.

So, if you’d like mix things up a bit, give it a try. All it takes is a board (wood or foam core), some felt, and some pictures (I used velcro on the back to make them more sticky) and … PRESTO, you have a flannelgraph.

Although we still used powerpoint images on the screens so people could see the images in detail, I now have a new tool in my preaching toolbox.

What retro technique has worked for you?

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