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I was told in seminary that I should spend one hour of sermon prep for every minute I will be preaching.  For many of us, that means we should spend 20-30 hours preparing sermons.  This approach poses some serious problems for me.  First of all, I have other pastoral responsibilities.  Second, I am bi-vocational so I barely even have that much time to give to everything I do.  For those two reasons alone, there is just no chance I am spending 30 hours a week prepping for a sermon on Sunday.

The challenge isn’t finding more hours to prepare sermons; the challenge is finding some kind of rhythm that allows me to spend less time studying in the classic sense while still engaging the text in a way that allows me to lead my community well in the study of the Biblical text.

My sermon prep is no longer about how many hours I “spend studying.”  With this approach, I genuinely believe that every hour of the week is sermon prep.  My pastoral care, my Web design work, my parenting, my friendship, my going to the store, my arguments, my anger, my frustrations, my celebrations: these are all sermon prep.

Here is my week: 

Monday: Ingest the Text (30 minutes)

On Monday, we sit with the text and let it seep into our lives.  If it’s short enough, try to memorize it. If it’s longer, get familiar with the contours of it, the themes, tone, etc.  Our goal here is to allow the text to live with us all week as we work, play, do pastoral care, etc.  Throughout the week, I try to answer the following questions:

  • How does this text preach the gospel to the people I interact with everyday?
  • How does this text encourage the people I interact with everyday?
  • How does this text equip us for witness in the world?
  • How does this text critique my basic assumptions about how the world works?
  • How does this text call me, critique me, challenge me, encourage me?

The main question I am asking all week: what is the one thing that God wants to say to our community through this text?

Tuesday: Sit w/the Text, Find Context (1 hour)

Tuesdays, I continue to sit with the text.  Pray through it.  I tend to read the text a few times throughout the day and continue to become familiar with it and let it seep into my heart, soul, and mind.  I also begin looking at the context surrounding the text and seek to understand what’s going on around it.

Wednesday: Ask Questions, Make Observations, Context (1 hour)

This is when I ask questions about the text and make general observations about things that stick out.  I ask the general “who, what, where, when, why, how” questions.  I look up words I don’t know and even do a word study or two on words that seem to have significance elsewhere in Scripture.  I do the same thing with the context.  Here I look deeper into the context to get a good sense of how it fits into the story of the book as well as the overarching narrative of Scripture.

Thursday: Research and Study (2-3 hours)

I do not do theology, biblical interpretation in a vacuum.  I greatly value the diversity of the witness of church history.  Today is the day where I seek the wisdom of fellow Christians and especially church history.  I spend a few hours with books, commentaries, etc. trying to see how Christians over the centuries have interpreted the text.  I also have a few “people commentaries.”  Meaning: people who are like live, walking commentaries to whom I go for their impressions, thoughts, and interpretations on this text.

Friday: Write/Outline (1-3 hours)

Today is the day when I sit down and start writing.  This often looks different depending on the week I’ve had and the text itself.  Sometimes, I just start writing, and the outline develops as I write.  Other times, I write an outline first and then write.  I used to manuscript my sermons, but I have done less and less of that.  But generally, what I try to do on Friday is take my week of living the text and get it out on a page to try to get my thoughts together somehow.

Saturday Night: Finalize Things (1 hour)

The better I do during the week in sitting with the text, studying it, and living with it, the less I have to do on Saturday nights after the kids and my wife go to bed.  In fact, in a perfect world, I’ll have nothing to do on Saturday nights other than look over things quickly and head to bed.  But generally on Saturday nights, I’m just making sure it all makes sense—at least in my own head.

Sunday Morning: Pray Through the Outline/Notes

Sunday mornings I get to the building early, or go to Starbucks so I’m not distracted, and pray through my notes and make any changes that come up.  Then, I preach.  Tim Keel gave me great advice one time (I don’t remember if it was in a book or in a conversation with him): He said to “preach from your gut.”  I love this advice because you just can’t do this unless you’ve spent the entire week digesting, chewing, and living the text you are preaching from.  Also, I can’t do this unless I have preached it to myself and let the text transform and shape me before I seek to proclaim it to my community.

That's my personal approach to finding a way to faithfully prepare to preach while holding down a few jobs, raising four kids, and taking care of the rest of what it means to lead and be part of a church community.  Of course, this isn’t how it is going to work for everyone, but I hope that it helps some of you figure out what works best for you.

Todd is the lead pastor at The Well in Bucks County, PA. He also runs a webdesign company called 343design, and is a partner at MyOhai, a consulting firm that works with companies and non-profits to define their mark, orient their culture and activate their mission to their world.

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Warren Tillman

commented on Nov 15, 2011

I can fully identify with this article. I have everything on his list, church, home and 40 hour week job! I also prepare for Prayer/Bible Study each week! I know that it is only through the Lord's help that I get everything done. The greatest thing for me is knowing I AM in the center of God's will and doing what He wants me to do!

Jonathan Filson

commented on Nov 15, 2011

I can totally identify with this article. Wish there more discussions/articles on here concerning bi-vocational pastors and everything we have to do. Reality is we are expected to do everything a fulltime pastor does with less resources.

Rob Wastman

commented on Nov 15, 2011

As a bi-vocational pastor I would be interested in a support group, blog, or facebook page where we could exchange ideas and support each others ministries. The full time pastors in my area all get together regularly durring the work week which of course leaves me out so I appreciate any support i can get

Bumble Ho

commented on Nov 15, 2011

Me too (wanting a support group). I would add that for the "Research and Study" step, I usually find "people who are like live, walking commentaries to whom I go for their impressions, thoughts, and interpretations on this text" by listen to their sermon's podcasts on the same text if they are alive, or read their sermons on Logos if they are dead. Don't forget that as bi-vocational pastor, we may need to trade money for time. So buy tools and resources to make you more effective with what little time you have. Another thing I found helpful is preparing a sermon series based on an Inductive Bible Study Guide. That way the small groups can discuss and apply the sermon in more depth without you have to prepare small group materials.

Jim Heckman

commented on Nov 15, 2011

Rob, I don't know about your area, but as President of our community ministerial alliance, I have scheduled quarterly meetings in the evening so our bi-vo brothers and sisters could attend...for over two years, not one has attended. I don't know what the answer is.

Rob Wastman

commented on Nov 15, 2011

James I understand how frustrating that could be, Up here in Seattle I do not know of any attempt to accomodate Bi-vocational ministers schedules. The answer could be a facebook page or website. Maybe the Lord is directing me to start one.

Anthony Clarke

commented on Nov 15, 2011

I am a bi-vocational Pastor, and have found that studying the Bible from a topical point of view has help in managering my time in sermon perparetion. Another thing I have notice is that teaching or preaching from a series point of view help with the "what to preach tody question."

Jim Wilburn

commented on Nov 15, 2011

Even as a full-time pastor I appreciate this article. Yet, I continue to be baffled of pastors of years ago who would prepare and preach a sermon for not only Sunday morning, but Sunday night and Wednesday night - HOW DID THEY DO IT?????

Rev. Wayne Claxton

commented on Nov 15, 2011

Why spend an enormous amount of time trying to convince the One percinct that you have put your hours in preparing your sermon? The ninety-nine percinct could care less, they just want to know if theres a Word from Heaven for them. I ascribe to this; KISS(keep it simple student).

Reverend Daniel Forster

commented on Nov 15, 2011

I thank you for taking the time to write this article and I thank God for leading you to do so. I agree with all my brothers in Christ here, that to organize a site for support, (PRAYER), tool's ect... is a wonderful idea. Being a bi-vocational pastor is very challenging, physicaly, and in our spiritual walks; yet praise God, it also keeps us on the front lines of our communities and with our neighbors, churched and unchurched. If anyone is interested in starting a group or if we can just exchange emails and numbers for support, and prayer...here is my email address dcforster1975@yahoo.com. Thank you and God Bless!!!

Rob Wastman

commented on Nov 16, 2011

I frequently use the expository method of teaching by using the S.O.A.P technique. Read the scripture, Observe the context in which it was written, Apply it to today's culture, Pray that the Lord would make it relevant to our lives. This does not take much preparation if your teaching scripture that you have written in your heart and have the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Beverly Birchfield

commented on Nov 18, 2011

I enjoyed and admired the author's discipline...each day scheduled, wow.. I usually try to prepare via way of prayer first because unless its a series, I find trying to know what Holy Spirit is wanting to say to the congregation is the hardest part ... I would be pleased to know if others have this problem.

Jon Ralph

commented on Nov 18, 2011

Beverly, I agree. I have the problem deciding what to preach, more than figuring out what to say once I have felt that leading from the Lord. I have been receiving these articles for two years and there hasn?t yet been a great article on that topic. Sometimes I do a series and that is easy and sometimes I have decided in advance but it is more of a problem when I haven't decided. Several thoughts on how to decide. First, no matter when I receive a leading for the Lord I go with what he is giving me to preach. I would never want to preach something when the Lord has something better for my congregation. Two, I believe that the Lord can use your plans to accomplish what he desires to say. Meaning I make a plan as best I can for the future, though it isn't a lot of sermons in advance, if I know a month in advance that is reasonably good. So sometimes I catch up with my plan, meaning nothing left in the plan. I work out that plan with series, I think me people need or I feel the Lord wants me to preach, some I use logic here too, because certain series are best at certain times of the year, also select topics based on what I know the people need, meaning you need to know our people. Three, I have a pull the ripcord plan. Let me explain. I pray and listen for the Lords leading for a the first two days of the week but when I don?t know what is coming next at the end of Tuesday, if I don't have a plan, I pull the ripcord and I use the lectionary passage for that week, meaning there is a plan when I don?t have something planned. Now that doesn?t mean that if the Lord gave me a passage on Wednesday I would ignore it, because these are in the order of precedence, so if I get a leading I switch topic, no matter when in the week. The second one also fits with the third. Because the Lord can work through a plan that is from the Church, like the lectionary. I don't know if that will help you or not but it is what I have felt the Lord has lead me to maybe parts of it will be useful to others.

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