How can a pastor make the most of limited sermon preparation time? There is no one right amount of time to spend in working on a message, but whether they are able to spend a lot of time or not, every pastor wants to maximize the impact of their sermon preparation time.
When analyzing the results of a recent non-scientific poll I conducted among 26 pastors, I realized that there were three distinct groups of pastors in regard to the amount of time they spend in sermon preparation. The differences became clearer when I split them up into three tiers, the lowest 8 pastors in terms of reported time, the cluster of 9 pastors in the middle of the pack, and the 8 pastors who reported the most sermon preparation time:
Tier 1: 6 hours, 18 minutes
Tier 2: 10 hours, 36 minutes
Tier 3: 18 hours, 7 minutes
What was most interesting to me about these results was that those who spend the most time prepare their the most are spending their time differently. Compared to the Tier 1 group of pastors, the Tier 3 pastors spend:
74% more time studying
169% more time writing/outlining
657% more time editing
357% more time rehearsing
361% more time in long-range planning
So what does that mean? Yes, they spend more total time studying and writing their sermons (10.5 hours compared to less than 5 hours), but there are five things pastors can learn to make the most of their sermon preparation time based on this data.
1. Edit Your Sermon
The Tier 3 pastors in the study said they spend 657% more time revising their sermons than Tier 1 pastors (almost 4 hours compared to 30 minutes). As one of my seminary professors used to tell us when he would return our papers, “There is no good writing; only good rewriting.” I might say, “There are no good sermons; only good revised sermons.”
Of course by “edit” we don’t mean you have to worry about punctuation or spelling errors because you’re not submitting your sermon for a grade (unless, of course, those hinder your ability to effectively deliver the message).Instead you would want to watch for things like (1) Does this flow? (2) Are any sections too long? (3) Do I spend adequate time introducing the sermon? (4) Do I spend adequate time concluding the sermon? (5) Am I saying what I am really trying to say? (6) Can I effectively summarize this sermon in 1-2 sentences? (7) Where do I need to inject humor? (8) Do my illustrations distract from the message, or help it? (9) Is everything in my sermon where it belongs, or do I need to move this story to the beginning, or this quote to the end? (10) Do I have enough for this sermon, not enough, or too much?
One pastor commented, “I can preach a 27 minute sermon on 25 minutes of prep for a run of the mill sermon,” but this participant pointed out that the bulk of sermon preparation consists of finding the right way to say something, not just saying it. Another pastor confessed that more preparation time actually results in shorter sermons, not longer, “since it takes longer to figure out what not to say than what to say.”
Rewriting and editing may be the single most important factor in making the most of your time in sermon preparation. It is not the most fun part of sermon preparation, but it might just have the greatest payoff.
2. Read & Plan Ahead
The second biggest difference was that the Tier 3 pastors spend 361% more time on long-range planning (102 minutes compared to 24 minutes per week). Some have one time when they plan for the whole year, some spend time in long-range planning every 2-3 months, while others still spend a little bit of time every week.
One of the biggest benefits of long-range planning is it allows you prepare to preach even when you are doing something else. The reticular activating system is a cluster of cells in your brain stem and their primary function is to decide what you notice, and what you do not notice. Mark Batterson writes, “That is why goal setting is so important. It creates a category in your reticular activating system, and you start noticing anything and everything that will help you accomplish the goal.” So once you make a preaching plan for the coming year, your brain – all on its own – will help you start to notice stories, quotes, and insights in the course of your daily activities. Then all you have to do is gather them.
Similarly, many of the pastors reported how reading is essential part of being ready to preach, even if not a part of their preaching preparation for that week. “Reading will deepen the well from which the preacher can drink,” says my colleague at Houghton College, Dr. Rich Eckley, “Pumping the well dry, conversely, churns up the same tired clichés.”
One of the best ways you can maximize your sermon preparation time is by planning ahead, and reading. Planning and reading will populate your sermons with rich content, even if you do not realize it is happening at the very moment.
3. Rehearse: Practice What You Will Preach
The final major difference was that Tier 3 pastors spend 357% more time rehearsing their sermons than the Tier 1 pastors (over 2 hours compared to less than 30 minutes). Particularly surprising to me was that those who said they rehearse their sermon delivery reported spending on average 35% more time in total sermon preparation than the rest of the group, but less than half of that additional sermon prep time is being spend on rehearsal. On average these pastors reported spending 1.5 hours in sermon preparation. Therefore, those who rehearse spend 19% more time in total sermon prep than their counterparts before their time rehearsing their sermon.
In response to this survey, 60% of participating pastors reported that they rehearse delivering their sermons. Some of the other pastors offered a variety of explanations for why they do not rehearse their sermon, like one pastor who said, “I cannot preach to an empty room. I stumble over every sentence.”
Dr. Lenny Luchetti, Professor of Proclamation & Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary, urges pastors to spend time in rehearsal: “Preachers should spend adequate time between the completion of the sermon and the actual preaching event reflecting on how they will say what God has called them to say to their congregations. In other words, preachers will want to practice what they preach.”
It may be uncomfortable at first, but one of the best ways to improve your preaching, and make the most of your preparation time, might be to practice preaching your sermon. In my case, this is when I do the bulk of my editing. I will get hung up on a section, or realize that something is not flowing naturally, or that I need some levity mixed into a particularly long section, so I will rewrite or revise, and come back to rehearsal again.
4. Avoid Interruptions
You can maximize your sermon preparation time by eliminating distractions. Pastors often like to prepare to preach at a coffee shop, but these places are rife with distractions. “A key to maximizing my time is being able to get at least a few hours in (ideally several hours) without interruption,” noted one of the pastors who reported sermon preparation time almost twice the average of the total group.
It is so basic that it hardly seems worth noting here, but a key to making the most of your sermon preparation time is to avoid interruptions. Put it in your calendar, clear your desk, refuse to be interrupted, get away from anything that will distract you, avoid social media, turn off your email, and get down to work. One pastor noted, “If I can have uninterrupted blocks of time, I can cut down my sermon preparation time by as much as 30 percent.”
5. Prayer and Personal Devotion
Only two pastors noted in a comment section that they pray as part of their sermon preparation. Did prayer shorten their sermon preparation time? Quite the opposite: they actually reported spending twice as much time in sermon preparation as the rest of the group (20 hours per week compared to 10 hours per week for the pastors who did not comment about prayer).Sermon preparation does not show a lack of faith, and prayer need not compete with preparation. For those pastors who indicated prayer as a component of their preparation, prayer is not a shortcut. I suspect they see it as something that strengthens their planning, though. As Richard Baxter wrote centuries ago, “All week long is little enough to study how to speak two hours; and yet one hour seems too much to study how to live all the week.”