One of the “pastor” questions I get asked most often concerns my process for sermon writing. The question is a little difficult to answer because I plan in six month blocks, meaning the sermon series I am currently preaching (the 10 Commandments) was planned with my planning group at our January 2019 session. I plan to do another blog entry looking at the long-range planning process I have used my entire preaching ministry, but for now let’s just leave it at this: by the time I actually start writing a sermon, I have already put in as much, if not more, work on it as I will during the actual writing process itself. Additionally, about 25% of the time I already have a good chunk of each week’s sermon written before the week of the sermon arrives. During these weeks I still write as much, I just spend time working ahead on future sermons. But inevitably a crazy week or two, which usually means out of town meetings, hospital visits, or funerals drag me back to beginning each sermon one week before it is preached…and when that happens, here is how that looks.
I begin on Sunday evening by uploading the just preached sermon into Dropbox, which I have used for about ten years. Since my preaching ministry began well into the computer age, I basically have every sermon I’ve ever preached stored in Dropbox. Next I copy and paste the scripture and all the pre-planning “stuff” from my group into a new document, read it over once, and then leave it to marinate till the next day.
On Monday I read over the scripture and pre-work again, and then read at least one commentator’s view on the passage of the day. My “go to” commentary is the New Interpreter’s Commentary (digital edition) I purchased in the early 2000s. I also have an eclectic group of individual commentaries I consult as needed. After adding all the commentary work to the document, I read through it all again and let it sit for awhile for my brain to process.
On Tuesday I consult my illustration file on Dropbox (which is about 10% mine and 90% a colleague’s with 30+ years preaching experience who catalogues EVERY illustration he uses in a very detailed manner) and several online illustration sites to see if there is a “perfect” illustration I want to use. I would say I find a good story about 30% of the time, which means I am not really a big storytelling preacher.
I also do any word studies I feel are important to understanding the intent of the passage for the week. Translating any language into English can be a difficult task, but when the original languages are Biblical Hebrew, which hasn’t been a spoken language for about 1800 years and is really only a cousin of Modern Hebrew, and Koine Greek, which was a dialect of Ancient Greek, and as such is only similar to Modern Greek, the task becomes even more difficult. Given this, I always spend time with an online interlinear Hebrew or Greek bible, an online Greek/Hebrew lexicon, and associated dictionaries. These three tools help me ensure I fully understand the passage in its original context and meaning, so I can (hopefully) apply it properly in today’s context.
Usually Tuesday afternoon I write the introductory paragraph(s), read through everything again, and then let it soak until Wednesday.
On Wednesday I launch fully into writing. If I’ve done everything well to this point, which includes lots of prayer asking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the actual writing goes quick. I usually write in 20-30 minute blocks, followed by a short break to allow time for my brain to catch up. When I get back at it I always read the entire sermon to that point, and then continue the process.
If all goes well I wrap up the writing before the end of the day, which allows another evening of reflection.
Thursday involves lots of reading, correcting, updating, rewording, and then more reading, correcting…you get the point. I think I’m at my best when the main writing process ends on Thursday. This allows a couple days to reflect on the sermon, which inevitably leads to a few last minute additions or revisions on Friday or Saturday.
The final question I get asked about the sermon writing process concerns time. As I mentioned above, because I do a great deal of work planning with friends, and then sifting through the work product before sermon week, I rarely start from scratch on Sunday/Monday…thus putting a time on sermon writing is difficult. The generic figure I throw out when asked is an hour of prep for each minute of sermon, meaning a 20 minute sermon requires 20 hours of research, study and writing. While this is a good generalization, there are sermons that take twice this much time, and others that come very quickly. A lot of this depends on the number of times I’ve encountered a particular passage in previous bible studies, sermons, or even in my seminary studies. But if you want a time estimate, I’ll stick with the generic answer mostly: an hour of work for every minute of sermon. However, the better way to describe it is the iceberg image I’ve attached to this post. You only ever see the proverbial “tip” of the iceberg, while the bulk lies below the surface. The same is true in sermon prep and writing.
I hope that provides some insight into my process. I’d love to hear your feedback to this post, and as always feel free to ask any questions of clarification!