Preaching is the most visible aspect of pastoral ministry, and sermon preparation is a focal point of a preaching pastor’s week. In my own ministry, sermon preparation takes a lot of time and energy. Painfully I confess that it takes me a long time to prepare a lousy sermon, let alone a respectable one. As a preacher I have occasionally wondered how much time other pastors spend preparing their sermons.
In search of an answer, I conducted a survey (non-scientific) of 36 pastors from across the United States & Canada, from a variety of denominations, and various church sizes. Twenty-five pastors responded (a response rate of 69%) to my ten question survey about sermon preparation, and here are some of my preliminary findings.
1. Pastors spend an average of 11.5 hours per week on sermon preparation.
The average pastor in this survey reported spending 11 hours and 30 minutes in sermon preparation per week. Individual responses varied greatly, however. The number of pastors who reported spending more than 20 hours per week was equal to the number of pastors who reported spending less than 5 hours per week in sermon preparation.
Some pastors wished they had more time to prepare. “As a solo pastor,” one pastor commented, “I wish I had more time to devote to sermon prep, but there are so many other responsibilities.” Others, however, said they have made the intentional decision to limit sermon preparation time because they feel called primarily to the task of equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4). Still several other pastors said that experience in ministry has allowed them to dramatically reduce the time they spend in sermon preparation over the years.
2. Pastors are always thinking about their sermon.
On a recent Saturday night, my daughter asked me if I was done working on my sermon. I said, “Yes … well, actually, no. I won’t really be done working on this sermon until after the last service tomorrow.” In my case, a sermon is fluid, and never fully complete until preached. A pastor doesn’t preach because the sermon is ready: a pastor preaches because it’s time to preach.
Regardless of how much time they may spend in formal sermon preparation, the sermon seems to always be in the back of the pastor’s mind.A common theme in the comments from the pastors in this study was that the sermon “lives in my head all week long.” Pastors reported that it the time they spend reading books, reading scripture, praying, socializing, and even just pondering the sermon while doing other things may be an equally important facet of sermon preparation. One pastor said. “The sermons actually can be written in just a few hours… a lot of the time is just spent studying and thinking until the ‘light’ turns on.”
3. People in the congregation don’t often know how much time the pastor spends preparing for a sermon.
I asked the pastors, “Do people in your church understand how much time goes into preaching?” None of the pastors selected the option, “Yes, my church absolutely knows how much time goes into sermon preparation.” However, 52% of these respondents said many people, while only 8% of respondents thought most people know how much work it takes to preach every week.
Not surprisingly, the more time a pastor spends in sermon preparation, the more likely they were to report “people do not realize how much time it takes to preach every week.” A full 40% of pastors in this survey said they do not think most people realize how much time they spend preparing to preach every week, and these pastors reported an average of 26% more time in sermon preparation than their peers.Additionally, only two pastors in this study reported spending over 20 hours in sermon preparation every week, and both of them answered that people do not understand how much work goes into sermon preparation.
4. Comparing a sermon to a syllabus highlights the challenge of preaching preparation.
The old rule of thumb for sermon preparation I heard in my early years of ministry was “an hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit,” but is that an accurate expectation? In search of a more accurate rubric, I looked to Houghton College’s “time on task” rubric which helps faculty determine how much time it will take a student to complete various assignments. An ORAL PRESENTATION has an anticipated workload of 4 hours of preparation for every minute of live presentation (therefore, 100 hours of preparation for a 25-minute sermon). A RESEARCH PAPER, has an anticipated workload of “1.5 hours per finished page” and a JOURNAL or REFLECTION PAPER has an anticipated workload of “0.5 hours per each page of writing.” Based on my average sermon that would mean 28.5 hours of preparation for a research paper, or 9.5 hours for a reflection paper, which is closer to the average hours the pastors in this survey reported. I think this rubric is useful, if for nothing else, in recognizing the unique challenge of preaching every Sunday.
Thom S. Rainer’s research has found a correlation between sermon preparation time and overall church health: “Simply stated,” he says, “when the pastor spends more time in the Word, the church tends to be healthier.”¹ And it makes sense to me. There are many things a pastor can do that will have a bigger impact on individuals, but few things a pastors does will have an impact on as many people every week as preaching. A student can fill the pages or time required for an assignment, but most professors know the difference between a student who is giving a college-level presentation and a student who is just filling space. Likewise, a pastor can get up every Sunday and speak for 20, 30, even 40 minutes, but most churches can tell the difference between a pastor who has prepared to preach and someone who is just talking. “He who has earsto hear, let him hear.”
So if the average pastor spends 10 to 15 hours per week in sermon preparation, what are they doing with all of that time? How much time do pastors spend studying, writing, outlining, and editing? In my next article, I will share some of my findings from this survey about what activities makes up a pastors sermon preparation time, and how pastors might be able to maximize their preparation time.
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