How Often should Preachers Practice their Sermon?

I’ve served in ministry over 35 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.

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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Is a Pastor’s Job a Calling or a Career?

My good friend Godfrey Thorogood is one of the smartest guys around when it comes to church leadership. He served as FEB Central’s Leadership Development Director in Ontario and now is pastor at Thousand Oaks Baptist Church in Ontario. He’s worked with literally hundreds of pastors and once shared with me that he noticed a disturbing trend among pastors. I asked him to write this insightful guest post.

As I ask myself if ministry is a calling or a career, my mind goes back to the day in May 1978 when God spoke to my heart and said “Godfrey, I want you to help people.” I soon discovered that the manner in which God wanted me to help people was by becoming a pastor. Throughout the past 36 years, God has reminded me many times of that specific call to help people through pastoral ministry.

Since I know I was called by God to be a pastor, that call has driven my passion to serve God and to serve His church. Even at times when my passion waned and I wrestled with staying in pastoral ministry, God would take me back to His specific call upon my life, which in turn would renew my passion.

Over the past few years, I have seen the trend of some men viewing pastoral ministry as a career rather than a call.

As I come alongside to assist pastoral search teams in our churches, I occasionally hear from those search teams that some of the men whom they talk with seem to lack passion as a pastor and preacher. These search teams pick up very quickly that some of the men whom they talk with view the pastoral opportunity at a particular church as a way to advance their career rather than fulfill God’s call upon their lives.

When I finished serving as an intern in my home church, and was called to serve as assistant pastor in another church, the pastor of my home church told me not to view my role as assistant pastor as a stepping stone to future ministry. He said, “God may choose to use it that way, but go into the role with the mindset that God has called you to serve in the church at this time for however long He wants you to serve there”. He also said “Serve with passion, joy and with loyalty to your senior pastor and fulfill God’s call upon your life as assistant pastor in the church”.

I believe the words of my pastor are good words for all of us as pastors to be reminded of today.

Let’s not forget that we have been called to serve as a pastor. Take some time to read through Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Note the passionate statements Paul makes about his own life and ministry. Make his statements your statements as you think about your current place of pastoral ministry. Ask God to continually reignite your passion for serving God and His church.

What do you think about this view that a pastor should view his role as a calling versus a career?

You can reach Godfrey here.

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Should you get Closer to your Critics?

What’s happening in this picture? I used this in a recent talk and asked the church audience to give me their answers. Their responses included… two people are angry, they are upset, they aren’t talking, they disagree about something. One lady came up to me afterwards and said, “I think it means that she was right and he was wrong.” I chuckled at that one. In a phrase, this is what I see: two people, for whatever reasons, have cut themselves off from each other, both physical and emotionally. Leaders do that sometimes to their critics and naysayers. Here’s why that’s not a good idea and how we can stay closer to our critics.

One of the greatest survival stories ever began in August 1914 when the famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, sailed with twenty-seven men on his ship the Endurance. He planned to lead the first expedition across the Antarctic continent. However, his ship got stuck in heavy sea ice which eventually crushed it off the coast of Antarctica. Stuck on four feet of ice over mile-deep water, Shackleton and his crew survived 635 days and nights with poor shelter and limited rations in some of the harshest conditions known. Amazingly, on foot and by small boat he eventually got to safety and then rescued his entire crew. You can read the full story in the great book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

What was the key to this amazing story of survival? It was a quality of Shackleton’s leadership presence. The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured one of the most important characteristics Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival. He wrote in his diary, “Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly (my emphasis) that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; he never lost his optimism.”[1]

Shackleton illustrates a quality I believe leaders need: to maintain a calm presence with their critics, dissidents, and naysayers. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and potential troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

It’s a counter intuitive approach. Staying reasonably and calmly connected is the better way to lower the relational tension and personal anxiety we feel toward our critics. It can improve those relationships and it doesn’t mean that we become their best friends or that we let them run over us.

So, who in your ministry is your biggest detractor today?

  • An old-timer who has been in the church 40 years?
  • A board member who seems to always take a contrarian view?
  • A staff person who isn’t performing?
  • A volunteer who doesn’t like you?
  • Or?

Shackleton’s secret was that instead of pushing away his detractors he actually drew closer to those men. He made two of his troublmakers his bunkmates in his tent. And when he left on a lifeboat to assemble a rescue party, he took 3 men whom he felt might cause trouble with the men who were left.

Here’s what I suggest to maintain a calm presence with such people.

  1. Recognize the power of emotional and relational force fields.
    • Just as magnets have force fields around them, leaders carry emotional force fields as well. Our demeanor, words, and vocal tone all carry power. We can draw people to us or push them away (like the same poles on a magnet do). Great leaders monitor and control their emotional force fields because others will sense our tone. It’s a social neuroscience concept theory of mind that states that we can somewhat intuit the emotions, intentions, and thoughts of another. Although it’s not mind reading and we often misread other’s intentions, it is what some call our sixth sense. Great leaders recognize this and create welcoming rather than repelling emotional force fields, especially toward their critics.
  2. Take the initiative.
    • With our critics and naysayers, it’s easier to keep our distance even though we know relationship tension exists. A good leader, however, will take the initiative to reach out to a critic, even though he’d prefer that if, “they have a problem, they should come to me.” A simple conversation like this can potentially ease tension… “Hi, John, just wanted to check in with you. How are things going?”
  3. Practice empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside another’s shoes and see life from their perspective. Try stepping into your critic’s shoes to see you from their perspective. You might gain new understanding about what lies at the root of their resistance. Daniel Golemen (the emotional intelligence guy) believes there are three kinds of empathy. I describe them in this way: knowing empathy (we cognitively know our critic’s distress), feeling empathy (we feel our critic’s distress), and doing empathy (we are moved to help relieve our critic’s distress). Which kind do you need to express toward your critic?
  4. Become more self-aware.
    • Related to number 1 above, becoming more self aware refers to recognizing the power of emotional contagion, the concept that explains how others catch our emotions. If you act distant or cold toward someone, they tend to mirror your behavior. If you act friendly and open toward others, they tend to respond in like kind. Neuroscientists have discovered a unique set of brain cells called mirror neurons that play a role in emotional contagion. These brain circuits prompt us to subconsciously mimic goal directed behavior we see in others. Ask yourself how you come across to your critics. Would you want them to relate to you as you do to them?

Again, who’s the person in your life or ministry that criticizes or hassles you the most? Which of these four suggestions if applied might make that relationship better?

Even though we may not feel we have the strength or emotional reserve to relate in a positive way toward our critics, the Bible tells us that every follower of Jesus has the Holy Spirit. He promises to give us everything we need to relate in wise and healthy ways toward our critics. The Apostle Paul reminded us of this when he wrote these words.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (Rom. 8.9, NIV)

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[1] Marcuson, Leaders Who Last, kindleKloc. 1117.

5 Ways to Become a “Bounce Back” Leader

In a previous post I suggested 5 indicators that point to leaders who quickly bounce back from adversity, setbacks, and disappointment. I used the phrase “resilient leaders” to describe them. Since every leader will face difficulty, what can we do to become more resilient? Consider these practical steps you can apply in your life and leadership to ‘bounce back’ more quickly.

  1. Accept that fact that you will face setbacks.  While not constantly looking over your shoulder, remind yourself that with leadership comes challenge and hardship. So when difficulties do come, you won’t be blindsided by them. Welcome them as a teacher to help you learn more about yourself.
  2. Develop the discipline of ‘metacognition.’ Metacognition is a fancy term for, ‘thinking about what you are thinking about.’ Often when faced with a difficulty we get caught up in our negative self-talk, the thought stream in our minds that all is gloom and doom. However, by monitoring our thoughts we can catch this negativity before it overwhelms our thinking and emotions. Read more here about the Monday morning blues and metacognition.
  3. Give yourself some extra TLC. Often when we face setbacks we drive ourselves even more to fix the problem. Certainly when a “dam” has broken, we must go into emergency mode and increase our efforts. Often, however, setbacks don’t require our immediate, extra attention. In many cases we actually need more emotional reserve and thinking clarity to wisely tackle the issue. These come only when we slow down, tend to our soul, and take care of our body. Extra time off and more rest might actually be your best choice. Remember, Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  4. Stay in community. When hurt, it’s easy to withdraw to lick out wounds. However, during those times we need safe friends with whom we can process our pain. In this post I describe what to look for in a safe friend.
  5. Remember how emotional contagion works. Emotional contagion describes the process by which people ‘catch’ our emotions, both good and bad. When your church or organization faces a setback, make sure your body language, tone of voice, and words don’t send a defeatist message to your team. That can diminish team productivity and morale. While keeping authentic about your disappointment, communicate a hopeful, God-focused tone. They will catch the attitude you intentionally or unintentionally telegraph.

When you’ve faced a setback in your ministry, what has helped you bounce back more quickly?

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6 Dangers of Self-appointed Leaders

Malcolm Webber is one of my favorite leaders of leaders. With a PhD and over 20 books on leadership to his credit, he insightfully describes the dangers of a self-appointed leader in his book Healthy Leaders. He draws insight from a self-appointed leader named Korah described in the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapters 16-17. I’ve paraphrased these dangers below and contrasted them with 6 qualities of true God-appointed leaders.

Self-appointed leaders…

  1. resist existing spiritual authority (Nm 16.2).
  2. … criticize and question existing leaders (Nm 16.1).
  3. … accuse other leaders of what they themselves are guilty (Nm 16.3).
  4. aren’t satisfied with the positions they hold. They push for greater authority and position (Nm 16.10).
  5. murmur against leadership that God has appointed (Nm 16.11).
  6. ultimately face God’s judgement (Nm 16.31-35).

God-appointed leaders…

  1. willing submit to existing authority (Daniel’s repeated examples).
  2. when issues and questions arise, they appropriately appeal up the chain of command and go to their leaders in private and in person (Mt 18.15)
  3. avoid a judgmental spirit (Mt 7.1-5)
  4. wait on God to promote them (Paul and Moses spent years in obscurity before rising to significant leadership)
  5. only speak well of their leaders whether to their faces, behind their backs, or in the presence of others (Eph 4.29).
  6. lead with the eternal goal in mind to hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt 25.21).

Of these two lists, which one most characterizes your leadership? If the first list does, what changes do you need to make so that list two most characterizes you?

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