Long-Range Sermon Planning

August 29th, 2012

A cartoon appeared in one of the early issues of Leadership, poignantly portraying the common panic of preachers. The preacher sat behind a pile of books, eyes wide with fright. On the wall was a unique calendar, the Preacher’s Calendar, in which every other column was labeled “Sunday” while the alternate ones were labeled “Monday-Saturday”

I remember the feeling all too well from my early years in ministry. Every other day seemed like Sunday. I began the week with the panic of, What in the world am I going to preach on this week? The panic increased geometrically if my uncertainty carried into Tuesday and Wednesday. But the scenario changed. Instead of running out of ideas, I soon had so many, I could not find enough Sundays to preach on them all. Discovering the value of planning ahead was the key.

Long-range sermon planning refers to a full calendar season, from September to August. Some preachers resist the idea of planning ahead. Perhaps it is the fear of not having enough ideas, or perhaps it is a personality or work style that makes it hard for them to think and project ahead. But more common is the fear that long-range planning means pre-empting the Holy Spirit, losing spontaneity and the ability to respond freshly to current needs. There is no need for such a fear. Those who plan ahead are often surprised at how, in the planning process, the Holy Spirit has gone ahead of us and anticipated needs. In addition, we give ourselves permission to interrupt a planned sermon if something else presses for urgent attention.

Careful thinking about the preaching task will show us there is good reason for planning ahead. Preaching is a task that demands our best, not our leftovers. It is a task so high and noble that it rightly requires the highest priority on our list of duties. Haphazard planning is beneath the dignity of a sound preaching ministry. When it becomes clear to others that we plan ahead (and it will become clear), it tells them that since their preacher takes the task seriously, they should listen in that same spirit. Paul looked back on his ministry at Ephesus and could, with a clear conscience, say, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27 NIV). The healthy nurture of a congregation over a period of time requires that a full balance of types of biblical literature, issues, and dimensions of doctrine be presented to them. Only a balanced diet will nurture a church well, and long-range planning gives the best assurance that the diet will be balanced.

Benefits of Long-Range Planning

Those who practice long-range sermon planning have discovered a number of benefits.

  1. Panic is replaced with satisfaction. Many preachers initially find weekly anxiety to be a negative influence on their love for preaching. Planning ahead not only removes the anxiety, but it also makes sermon writing and preaching much more fascinating and rewarding— a Spirit-led adventure!
  2. The quality of preaching is upgraded. Who of us does not want, and need, higher quality preaching? No one would deny that preaching is a difficult task, especially when done well. So how can we be sure we have caught the core idea of our passage, found its clear application to our hearers, or discovered the best way to communicate it? Many of our messages would be of higher quality if we let them incubate for a number of weeks instead of writing and preaching against tight deadlines.
  3. Our study is more directed. Preaching requires study, but the press of pastoral duties often competes with study time. Inadequate planning usually eliminates serious study of a passage. We often have to go with what we have on hand because deadlines are approaching. Advanced planning helps us anticipate the subjects and passages we ought to be studying, thereby giving us the opportunity to plan our personal reading diet to complement our preaching schedule.
  4. We get a broader view of our preaching ministry. If we are preoccupied only with the immediately approaching Sunday, we do not get the chance to step back and take an overall look. Yet healthy preaching requires times to look at the big picture and ask ourselves questions such as: How balanced is this diet of preaching? What percentage of sermons is based on the Old Testament, Gospels, and New TestamT letters? What evidence exists that I may be pushing my pet peeves? What Christian doctrines have I been avoiding?
  5. We can collect better illustrative material. No one can overestimate the power of a good illustration strategically placed in a sermon. But most of us know the frustration of uncovering the perfect illustration—three days too late! How much better to have in mind the material that is scheduled for months ahead, with files set up for each, and then be able to drop a good illustration in the file so it is there when we need it in a month or two.

The benefits of long-range sermon planning are so outstanding that many preachers say they would never go back to any other way.

How to Do It

How do we approach this task? What methods shall we use? Each preacher must develop a method that fits her or his work patterns, but it is possible to identify a few common, overlapping steps that have helped many preachers.

  1. Create a general hopper. Many preachers make use of a filing system. One I found useful was to label a large file folder “Hopper for Preaching” and then toss in ideas for sermons and series that came to mind in my reading, devotions, pastoral work, conversations, and so on. This bulging hopper became a vast resource for sermon planning. Preachers today might want to set up a file of ideas on the computer, including all references, and scan in pages with special ideas for sermon starters.
  2. Pray. Throughout the course of a year, there will be many needs and considerations of which the Spirit alone is aware. Preachers will make crucial choices in planning that will affect congregational life, so they need discernment. That means preachers must surround all planning with prayer. Prayer for sermon planning must be a part not only of a pastor’s personal prayers but also of the prayers of the church staff, elders, and congregation.
  3. Analyze. Preaching involves careful study of the Word, but it also must involve a careful study of the congregation to discern the needs that ought to be addressed. Those who preach must know the Bible, their parishioners, and the world they live in. They must review impressions gained in pastoral work, personal conversations, and observations. They must also consult with the church staff and the worship committee about the needs they see in the congregation. One suggestion is to include an insert in the weekly bulletin that invites the congregation to offer ideas for matters that ought to be addressed or passages that ought to be studied during the coming year. Doing so helps to accumulate many impressions that feed planning.
  4. Chart the year. A preacher might design a chart for the fifty-two Sundays and special weekdays for worship, noting the seasons of the Christian Year from Advent through Pentecost season as well as local special observances. Then he or she might chart in vacation times and blocks for series of sermons planned for each season. Those who follow the lectionary will have great help in making these choices. For those who regularly preach from one of the confessions of the church, the structure of the confession will serve as a guide.
  5. Flesh it out. When the chart is blocked for each season or series, the preacher can begin breaking down each season or series into weekly segments, including the Scripture passage and theme or title. The farther out the week, the more general is the planning. For example, if a preacher does his or her planning during the summer, then he or she may flesh out September through January with a specific passage, theme, and title and only generally sketch the next six months (February through August), waiting to plan them more specifically after the first of the year. 6. Share it. Most of the work to this point will have been private. But it must be shared with others in order for collaborative worship planning to begin. It is good for preachers to share their master preaching calendar with the church staff and other key individuals and committees for their information and planning.

Preachers who have developed a planning method that works for them often say they find that sermon preparation goes more easily. When preachers plan in advance, their preaching is of a better quality, and the whole experience of worship planning is more satisfying for all.

This article is adapted from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. The complete digital edition of the NIHOP is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.
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