I recently became the lead pastor of my church, which means I’m now responsible to preach at least 40 times a year. I’ve taught in a lot of youth and children’s ministry settings, but the weekly sermon takes more out of me. At the same time, other demands, like urgent pastoral care cases and administrative leadership, have been added to my plate. How would you recommend I go about getting a handle on my preaching preparation?
Jimmy, first off, congratulations on being honored with the new role you have been appointed to. As you are feeling, there is a burden of responsibility that comes with that role that is different from other ministry loads you have carried previously.
First, there is the load of responsibility. You now feel the enormity of being the senior human leader in the church who speaks week in and week out to deliver the Word of God. Anyone who takes this seriously finds it daunting.
Second, there is the organizational responsibility. Ministry includes a seemingly never-ending list of administrative duties: meetings, policies, procedures, phone calls, emails, meetings, planning, budgeting, etc. Most preachers I know do not excel in these areas. They are “prophets” who preach and teach, and/or “priests” who provide counsel and care. They are not “kings” who organize and administrate. (You can read more here on the concept of prophet, priest and king in leadership.)
I was speaking to the head of an organization that does employment searches for churches, and he said that the demand for executive pastors has exploded in recent years for this very reason—to free up the preacher/leader/pastor with someone who complements them rather than competes with them. If you want more information on executive pastor roles and responsibilities, Sutton Turner (executive pastor at Mars Hill Church) has written many blogs and a book to help.
Third, there is the relational responsibility. Now that you are up front often, more people than ever will feel close to you, want to get time with you, and take time and energy from you. As a pastor, this is part of what we do, because we love the people. But you also have limits in time and energy.
This is where a robust small-group structure that is sermon-based is beneficial. Other leaders who are gifted and able to meet with and invest in people are also a big help. In my experience and research, once a church gets beyond 80 people, even the hardest-working and most loving pastor is simply out of hours in the day to meet with and love all the people.
Fourth, there is the preaching responsibility. There is nothing like preaching. As a non-Christian student body president in high school, I often spoke to groups of a thousand or more. I also got my bachelor’s degree in speech and often spoke to crowds. Like you, I cut my teeth teaching in a college ministry for a few years before I began preaching every week. These early experiences did not take the energy out of me like preaching.
No form of speaking I have ever done has taken my energy like preaching. An old seminary professor who trained a lot of preachers once said that an hour of preaching was akin to eight hours of other work insofar as how much energy it cost.
If you are privileged to preach more than one sermon each week, that will help you improve as a preacher, but it can also be doubly exhausting. At my peak, I think I was preaching six sermons per Sunday, nearly every Sunday of the year, for over an hour each time. On Monday I felt like I had been hit by a truck. As the months wore on, I felt equally terrible on Tuesday and Wednesday.
There are a lot of things I can do for eight or nine hours a day, but I found out the hard way that preaching is not one of them. Preaching requires a day or two of message preparation for most preachers. Those who memorize or manuscript often require longer. Preaching also requires the messenger to prepare spiritually, as we have to repent of our own sin, get alone with God, check our hearts and invite the Holy Spirit to make us students before we are teachers.
Preaching expends a great deal of energy emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically. Once the preaching is done and the adrenaline wears off, most preachers hit the proverbial wall physically and emotionally. I’ve heard it said that Monday is the most common day that a pastor resigns, often because of the depression that sets in after they have poured themselves out on Sunday.
With all of that in mind, here are a few practical tips:
1. Rest on Holiday Weekends
If you are preaching around 40 times a year, take off the most non-mission-critical weekends and have someone else preach. In the States this would include the Sundays around Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day weekend, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.
Check your weekly attendance stats for the year to identify the weekends when the church is not at the high-water mark of mission. These are good opportunities to get time with your family. If you have someone else at your church who is able to preach effectively, then use them. If not, invite someone from outside your church as a guest. You must have someone you can trust; otherwise you’ll take the day off but find yourself very distracted about what the speaker might be teaching the church.
If you have young leaders who want to grow as preachers, do not start them on Sunday but find other outlets like the ones you had where they can grow in their gifts and get feedback and training before standing in front of the whole church.
2. Guard the Day Before You Preach
Do not have your hardest or most draining day be the one before you preach. I take Saturdays off to be with family, and I try and go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep.
3. Guard the Day That You Preach
Do not schedule meetings before you preach, except for what is necessary, such as perhaps a brief pre-service meeting to review the service order and such. Guard your energy.
If you have multiple services, be careful to get a bite to eat, drink some water, use the restroom and gather your thoughts between services rather than getting caught by complaints or counseling. You don’t have the time between services for extensive pastoral work, so have other leaders love and serve people in that way at that time.
Where you physically position yourself is important. If you want to say “hi” to lots of people, stand near the front door. If you want to meet the visitors, set up a place where they can meet you after service. Have other leaders on hand who can get newcomers’ contact information and follow up with them.
4. Eat Well All Week, Especially on Sunday
Your body needs good nutrition as fuel. When I’ve not heeded that bit of wise general revelation, I find my energy levels drop and I get sick.
5. Stay Hydrated
Lots of preachers get dry mouth as they are burning a lot of calories and fluids on the day they preach. I drink more water on Sunday than any other day of the week. Be careful of too much caffeine, as it actually dehydrates the body.
6. Plan Recovery Time
After you preach, if possible, don’t go into meetings or teaching a class right away. Sit down or take a nap to recover a bit before you go do anything else energy-depleting. If you have to focus on more than the sermon, you will be distracted and your energy divided.
7. Train Leaders
This will take time. As a leader, no matter how hard you work, because of your love for Jesus and his people, you cannot preach, lead, administrate and counsel any more than a baseball player can play pitcher, catcher, centerfield and second base at the same time.
You are human. You have God-given gifts and also God-given limitations. Those limitations are opportunities for other people to use their God-given gifts, which are different than yours. This is why Paul is so fond of the metaphor of the body in relation to the church and the need for all the parts to be working together.
Let the leaders you train know how much you need them and how much you appreciate them. Look for leaders who are different than you and complement you. Share with them your vision, as well as your strengths and weaknesses and the areas where you need their help. Invite them to work with you, following Jesus the Senior Pastor as he builds his church. This is the pattern in Acts 6:1–7. The preachers get so busy with administrative and counseling work that they don’t have time to pray or prepare to preach. So they choose godly leaders with complementary gifting and share the load.
This does not all happen overnight. There is no shortcut. And we never get it right the first time. So work hard and plan well, but give yourself some grace and do not get discouraged. The same Holy Spirit who chose you for this role will also help you do it well because he loves you, your church and the fame of Jesus.