A Method of Sermon Preperation

Disclaimer: What I am about to describe was not my idea, it was Patrick’s. (Lowthian, not the saint of Irish fame.) But he mentioned the idea to me, and I have adopted it and been using it for a while now.

Disclaimer #2: I use the Revised Common Lectionary for Sundays. This method does not hinge on that, but it does makes it easier. (Other lectionaries would work the same.) I don’t have to figure out what the texts are going to be for a Sunday. I just have to read them and decide if I am preaching on one of them, two of them, all of them, or what. As long as you plan your preaching out at least 4 weeks in advance, you can use this system to some extent.

I know that every three years, I’ll have a particular text before me, so I can build my resources. Even as lectionaries change, I can re-map collected resources to new positions if need be.

Here’s the gist of the method–you spend 4 weeks with the text for each Sunday. This requires some overlap (unless you only preach once a month). Each week is a different emphasis: read, study, pray, and write.

Read. This one doesn’t need much explanation. Read through the texts for the Sunday 4 weeks out. I maybe jot some notes if something sticks out readily, or there is a question raised by the text I want to chase later. The goal is merely reading the texts, every day. (This continues for the four weeks, so each day I am reading 4 weeks of sermon texts.)

Study. Read commentaries on the texts. Compare translations. Look at parallel passages. Discern key words. Look at how key themes are dealt with elsewhere in scripture. All those good exegetical things that we know we should do. Take copious notes. Read the things you may have put in the folder 6 months or 2 years ago. (Folders are explained below.) Usually this is the step where I get zeroed in on what text or texts will comprise my sermon.

Pray. Read through the texts looking only for application for me. Is there something this passage warns against that I need to be sure to avoid? Is there a virtue held up I should emulate? An attribute or gift of God that I should be thankful for? I have started jotting these insights/points down on a sheet that goes into the folder. Some instruction in lectio divina may be useful for this point. (Readers already familiar with lectio will notice that this whole method is patterned similarly to it.) This step helps guard against treating the scripture clinically, at arm’s length, and forgetting that we must first listen before we can preach.

Write. Read over the texts, the notes, the things prayed about, and start constructing the sermon/homily. I tend to do a fairly detailed outline most of the time, though I really prefer a good manuscript. This is where you take the information you have gleaned and prayerfully decide the best manner to communicate it to your parishioners. On my best weeks, I do a rough draft and edit it twice.

Some Logistical Tips

I started keeping a file folder for each Sunday in the lectionary—a real manila paper file folder. I’ve tried doing this digitally in different programs over the years and I have found, for me, having a physical place to put notes and such is easier and works better. It creates a gap between unbridled cut and pasting of links. If it is good enough to print out or copy, it makes it in.

I have an index of all the texts used in the lectionary that I consult when I discover something good/insightful/interesting about a particular text. I make a copy of it, or note where it is, find what Sunday that text is read, and put it in the folder. (I have also started some folders for those texts that don’t come up in the lectionary. I have a  dream that someday I’ll do a teaching series on those texts.)

Drawer full of file folders

Each folder has a “cover sheet” where I list what the Sunday is (e.g. Lent 1 Year A) and list the readings. Some notes get jotted on that sheet as well usually over time. I carry the 4 “active” weeks with me in my briefcase so they are handy to be able to pull out and work on. The rest of the weeks for the lectionary cycle stay in  file drawers in my desk.

I also use 1/2 sized index cards and note the Sunday and the readings on them. I created 4 little pockets in the front of my bible that these fit into. Each pocket is labeled–Ready, Study, Pray, Write. Each week, I move the cards over as needed. (From Read to Study to Pray to Preach) On these index cards I affix tape flags of one of 4 colors. Those colors correspond to the tape flags on my study bible which will have all 4 weeks of readings marked for easy access.

Tabs

 

So, the color of the tape flag on each Sunday’s readings, corresponds to the tape flags you can see on the top of my Bible where each passage is bookmarked. Each pocket is labeled with the primary task for those texts for the week. This is not critical, but it enables you to accomplish “read” without your file folders.

There is no real reason why all of this could not be done digitally. I am just biased toward paper, (as if you couldn’t tell—who else carries a briefcase?)  So that’s the way I do it. I spend less time figuring out how to and more time doing this way. It is not the technology used, but the rigor and discipline that have made this effective. If you want to use this method, use whatever technology doesn’t get in your way to do it.

Advantages of the System

Simmer Time. Having interacted with a text over four weeks gives it more time to ferment in my brain. More time for the Holy Spirit to call things to mind. More chances for me to rub them against other texts I am working on, or reading devotionally. I have actually found that working on 4 sermons at various states simultaneously helps me keep the bigger picture of the narratives in mind. Instead of interacting with texts for 6 days (ideally) I spend 24 days (ideally) with them. Even if it is smaller chunks of time, I find it more beneficial.

Cushion. We all know some weeks are busier than others. Some we can anticipate, some just happen that way. If I’ve already read, studied and prayed over a text, and  have “one of those weeks” and get to sermon writing on Saturday, I’m not in nearly as bad of a position as I would be if that was the first time I said, “So, what are the texts for this Sunday?” I may not have as eloquent of a message, but since I’ve done my homework already, it should at least be sound. If I don’t reach the “ideal” of interacting with each text each day, I’m still hitting them frequently.

Prepped. For a while, I was only doing the texts I knew I would be preaching on. (I don’t always preach every Sunday.) But I started doing the first three steps (Read-Study-Pray) for every Sunday for several reasons. (Now I’m trying to at least write a short homily each week as well.) First, I usually enjoy it. Second, I’m building my archive of material for next time this set of texts comes around. Third, I don’t always get 4 weeks notice of a chance to preach. If I’m doing all the build up, if I find out a week out I need to cover for somebody, I can accept knowing I’ve already been working on the message for three weeks before they even asked.

Final Disclaimer: This is a lot of work. It takes self discipline. I don’t always pull it off as well as I want to. But I believe faithfully proclaiming the word is a key part of my calling and ordination. I aspire to have “good” sermon prep weeks every week. I know if I don’t have a disciplined, deliberate system, that almost never happens. With a solid system, it happens more often.

Update: (January 2016) In order to answer questions how this actually looks in a week, here is my schedule.

Monday

Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

Reset bookmarks for new week

Outline +3

Draft +1

Study +3

Finalize +1

Review +1

Read all 4

Read all 4 Read all 4 Read all 4 Read all 4 Read all 4

Gather materials for +4

Study +3 Psalm

Pray +2 Pray +2

Update: (August 2016) with a change in positions, comes a change in schedule, so here is what it looks like know. There is no one right way to do this, I try to adapt to where I have the most time for study.

Monday

Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

Reset bookmarks for new week

Outline +3

Draft +1

Finalize +1

Review +1

Read all 4

Read all 4 Read all 4 Read all 4 Read all 4 Read all 4

Gather materials for +4

 Study +3
Pray +2  Pray +2

The numbers are shorthand for how many weeks away that particular group of lectionary texts is. +1 is this coming Sunday, +4 is 4 weeks out. This shows graphically that repeated reading of the texts is the heart of this method.

Depending on your weekly rhythm, this could obviously be adjusted. I find even if one day is overwhelmed with other things, it is useful having the distinct tasks for each week laid before me. I keep this chart on my desk as a reminder.

By “Outline” I mean more (and less) than trying to create an outline of the main themes and thoughts of each passage. That may happen some weeks, depending on the texts. Some weeks it is creating some sort of road map of how some (or all) of the readings for that week fit together in some way.

Study +3 Psalm is when I take the time to read through the Psalm again and typically read Augustine’s comments on it.

Study +3 is when I normally will read what the Church Fathers had to say about the text, normally Chrysostom and Augustine as well as the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture.

Draft, Finalize and Review are just that for my sermon.

On average, I would say this averages around two hours per day. Study and Draft are the days most prone to go longer, depending on how well the sermon juices are flowing and how much material I have gathered for a particular set of readings.

Update 2: (March 2016) Holy Week. If you are going to prepare for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday, you had better block out some more time on your calendar in the second half of Lent. The liturgy of the Passion on Palm Sunday alone will add significantly to your reading time. If you were going to add all the texts of the Easter Vigil, you might not get anything else done for four weeks. You will have to figure out how you are going to handle this already full time. This year I am simply sticking with the Sunday texts because I am not preaching at any additional services. I’ll update this in years to come when that changes, I’m sure.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Discipline, Hermeneutics, Liturgy, Preaching, Priesthood, Reading, Worship

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s