4 Ways to Improve Focus while Preparing a Talk or a Sermon

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.

  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 to Have a Tough Conversation with a Staff Member

Leadership often requires that we sometimes must navigate a tough conversation with a staff person. It’s easy to neglect such vital conversations for several reasons: fear, they’ve gone sour in the past, we don’t know how, etc.  But to lead well, we must not avoid those talks. I’ve learned that a simple process called active listening can help make those interactions go much better. Here’s how it works.

First, appropriately set up your conversation. Assume, for example, that an employee named John is consistently late to work and you need to talk to him about that. To give him some sense of control (when we feel like we have control we can dampen the brain’s fear response), don’t spring the conversation on him. Ask John in a non-emotional moment that you’d like to talk about office hours at his convenience. Ask him to let you know a time that might work.

The conversation might go like this.

John, I’d like to chat with you for about 15 minutes about our office hours. Would you mind looking at your calendar and suggesting a couple of times that might work with your schedule? After I hear from you, I’ll check my schedule and then we’ll set a time. Thanks.

So assume that you both agree on a time. Before you meet, carefully think through what you want to say using this simple acronym, DESC. This easy-to-remember tool can help guide your conversation, keep it positive, and secure commitment for the desired change. Here’s what DESC stands for.

  • D: Describe the negative behavior.
  • E: Express the emotions you feel when you see the negative behavior.
  • S: State the positive behavior you desire.
  • C: Explain the consequences that will result with the new positive behavior you desire.

Here’s what a conversation might look like using the DESC model. I’ve shortened the conversation for brevity’s sake.

D

John, I’m noticing that you are often late to work. As you know we want to be here at nine so we can get in a full day of productive work.

E

When you are consistently late for work I feel frustrated because it does not provide a good example for the rest of the team. Sometimes I also feel angry at you because we’ve talked about this before. I don’t want to start my day feeling frustrated or angry at you.

S

Going forward, I want you to be at work at nine.

C

When you start arriving at work on time, it will help keep up team morale and help me start out with a positive disposition toward you for the day.

After you share your thoughts above, ask for a commitment from John to be on time and then set a mutually agreed upon follow up date to gauge progress.

This simple tool works not only in the workplace, but at home as well.

How have you handled those difficult conversations?

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6 Ways to Build Community in your Leadership Team

God created us to live and work in community. The more community we experience, the stronger our teams. Highly productive teams often exude strong personal bonds and work in an atmosphere that fosters community. Good leaders understand the importance of community and actively seek to build it among their teams. Consider these 6 ways to build community in the teams you lead.

  1. Provide regular relationship building experiences for your teams to deepen their chemistry and their friendships.
    • Foster the sense that nobody is in an ‘out group.’ If some team members are perceived to be in an ‘out group’ it can set up a subtle prejudice that can affect team dynamics. Teach your team that because we naturally default to seeing others as being in an ‘out’ group, your team must be vigilant to avoid it. Monitor for cliques. Be vigilant especially when you bring new team members on board.
  2. Create physical gathering places in the workplace that encourage socialization. 
    • Something as simple as water cooler conversations can help build community.
  3. Regularly remind your team to see other team members’ perspectives.
    • Teach your team to learn to walk in other team member’s shoes. It’s called mentalizing. Mentalizing helps us see situations from the perspective of others. Studies show that the more we do this, the more we are likely to feel empathy toward and relate more positively to those whose perspective we are taking.
  4. Help team members share their goals.
    • When team members share goals, their connection to each other and their commitment to the team’s goals will intensify.
  5. Build an attitude of gratitude among your team.
    • Model gratitude so that your team can see it in you. Regularly explain how gratitude not only is Biblical but that it actually helps build team cohesiveness.
  6. Build trust.

What have you done to build community in your team?

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3 Qualities Necessary to Learn from our Critics

Nobody likes to be criticized, at least not at first. Sometimes criticism is warranted. Sometimes it’s not. And sometimes it hard to differentiate between the two. The writer of Proverbs implies that we should learn from and even seek out the beneficial wounds from our critics. Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. (Pv 27.6) But when we need to heed a message from a critic, how can we position ourselves so that we can benefit from it? Below I suggest three ways we can do so.

  1. Stay teachable. We must be willing to let others tell us what we may not want to hear. We must cultivate an open, non-defensive heart. I’m trying to create such a culture among our staff through one of our key staff values… Continual growth and learning: We welcome constructive feedback. For a list of our staff values, read this blog post.
  2. Keep accountable. One way to stay open to the message from a critic is to develop a mentoring relationship with another person and/or use a coach. I meet with my personal coach each month via FaceTime. (I explain why every pastor should get a coach here.) He is free to ask me tough questions about my life and ministry. I’m also directly accountable to the chairman of the board. Without accountable relationships, we can easily miss our blind spots. I need someone in my life, including my wife, that cares enough about me to ask those tough questions and tell me what I may not want to hear.
  3. Develop a bias toward action. Tom Peters who wrote In Search of Excellence popularized this term. It simply means do something. In other words, when a critic tells us what we don’t necessarily want to hear but need to hear, a bias toward action means that we act on it. Learning from our critics means more than assuming a listening posture. It also includes a doing posture as well. 

So the next time you get criticized, ask yourself what you need to learn from it, if it came from a less-than-friendly source get the perspective from someone who cares about you, and then act upon it.

What other quality do you believe leaders need to learn best from their critics?

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Should Pastors Tell Church People to Obey Them?

Several passages in Scripture pose challenges to preaching. Even so, we shouldn’t skip the tough ones. However, when we must deal with tough passages such as this one below, we must take care how we teach them. Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13.17, NIV) That first part, “Obey your leaders,” poses the challenge. How should we approach the “followership” concept this verse speaks to?

Should Pastors Tell Church People to Obey Them? Dr. Charles Stone

I’ve excerpted a section from my book 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them below that captures the essence of this verse.

“Obey your leaders” sounds quite strong. Certainly this does not condone dictatorial leadership, as Peter makes this clear in saying, “Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your good example.” (1 Pet 5.3, NLT) After all, God calls us shepherds, and shepherds don’t push—they lead. Unfortunately, in our world, where self is king and where those in spiritual authority have abused their power, many in our churches would struggle with a sermon titled “Obey Your Leaders.”

But that’s not the part upon which I believe we should focus. It’s the last part: “that their work will be a joy, not a burden for that would be of no advantage to you.” Often it seems ministry brings more burdens than joy. After a tough meeting I sometimes wish I could get away with giving an elder a swirly. Other times, in response to a critic, I’m tempted to use King David’s words as a club: “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” (Ps 105.15)

Other translations render “that their work will be a joy” in these ways:

  • So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. (CEV)
  • Let them do this with joy and not with grief…. (NASB)
  • Give them reason to do this joyfully and not with sorrow. (NLT)
  • Let them do all this with joy and not with groaning. (ESV)

A similar verse mirrors this one. Paul writes, We ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. (1 Thes 5.12, NIV)

Other translators render “respect” (Greek: oida) as “appreciate” (NASB), “be thoughtful of” (CEV), “honor” (The Message, NLT), and “pay proper respect to” (TEV). On the other hand, just as “obey your leaders” can sound dictatorial, these statements can sound like they promote the self-serving, egotistical, and narcissistic.

Don’t make us sad…Honor us…Respect us…Make us happy…Appreciate us…Give us reasons to be joyful.

These thoughts likewise might seem oxymoronic when contrasted to our ministerial call to selflessly give ourselves away. But no matter how they’re translated, these verses raise some important questions. Is it wrong to want our ministries to bring us joy? Would we be sinning or at best self-serving to expect from our congregations certain things that would make serving them more joyful, less burdensome?

Should we dare even broach these matters? Did one pastor correctly assess church folk when he said, “Most truly aren’t concerned with my joy”? Conversely, should we affirm the answer of several others that “My joy is from the Lord, not from people”?

I don’t suggest a simplistic solution to pastoral joy. However, God’s Word leaves no room for misunderstanding. He expects believers to respond to healthy pastoral leadership by taking concrete steps to help make ministry more fulfilling for His servants.

Perhaps the key to making this truth become reality in the church lies in this: the church must see us as servants first and foremost. When we model Christ-like servanthood, I believe we create an atmosphere conducive for those in the church to become good followers, without our having to demand it.

What do you think? What do you believe is key to making this verse a reality in the church?


“I just learned insight about how to encourage followership in the church.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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