It is fairly well known that I write my sermons well ahead of time. By “well ahead”, the sermon I am going to be working on this week won’t be delivered until the middle of September. The distance between my initial preparation and delivery varies a bit, depending on what else I’ve had on and what has eaten into my time. I have been known to operate about 6 months ahead, I have similarly been down to about a month between prep and delivery. Where I am now, around 3 months, is about average.
I am not of the view that everyone has to do what I do. As with most things, do whatever works best for you. Usually whenever I say this is what I do, people immediately rush to defend why they only do prep on the week of delivery. It’s like a reflex they have, as though I’m somehow judging them. I’m not. If that works for you, have at it. The Bible gives us total freedom on this. I just find this is the best way for me to work for a whole host of reasons.
Some of it is just my personality. I plan, I work ahead, it is just what I do. I don’t rest very well when there is stuff looking over me. I rest when stuff is off my plate. I used to do it with essays at university and I do it now. I used to think it is because I am ultra-productive and efficient – and I probably do have a fairly high output and a keenness for efficiency – but I have come to see it is probably as much a product of anxiety as anything. Being prepared so far ahead keeps me away from the anxiety of the deadline looming and being unprepared. So, there is definitely a just-the-way-I-am-built element about it all, for sure. And if you’re not built that way, it may not work for you, which is absolutely fine.
Nevertheless, I thought it might be worth outlining some of the reasons why I work this way. not just why I do, but some of the real advantages to doing so. Whilst I recognise if this doesn’t work for you there is no compulsion to do it, if I am asked honestly, I think there are things that would benefit everyone if they did it. So, in no particular order, here they are.
My tendency is to be in commentaries and books and wanting to get thoughts down on paper. But I have also come to see that, very often, the thoughts that make perfect sense to me as I’m in the commentaries and writing them down on paper very often make absolutely no sense, or at least lack clarity, when I revisit them 3 months later. If I was prepping nearer the point of delivery, I would almost certainly never pick these things up. They would be there, they would make sense to me and I’d deliver them as they are. But leaving 3 months between prep and delivery mean, when I pick the sermon back up after 3 months of not really thinking about it, I get a similar (though not quite the same) impact as someone who will be hearing it for the first time on Sunday morning. It is much easier for me to see what makes sense, what is unclear, what needs editing out altogether and what needs re-wording. I find the big gap between main prep and edit help me make my sermon far clearer than it might be otherwise.
I hardly know any pastors that aren’t really busy. Nor do I know any that don’t have stories about setting aside time for sermon preparation only to have pastoral issues pile on top of one another taking away any time. Most recognise you cannot ignore the bloke trying to top himself or the woman whose husband is threatening to leave her because you really need to crack on with your sermon. We are in it to serve the people God has given us to shepherd after all.
The thing is, these sorts of things happen all the time. They’re not just one-off weeks. They happen with regularity. But your sermon still needs writing. Pastoral matters may well pile up, but Sunday also always comes. You need to say something. How do you manage these things?
My answer comes in the form of a three month buffer. If I have a week with dozens of pastoral issues and out-of-the-blue meetings, it ultimately doesn’t matter that much. The sermon for Sunday is in a form that, if I had to, I could deliver as is. I would prefer to spend a couple of hours editing it and making it clearer (I almost always only take things out, very rarely add anything) but, if not, the essential sermon will be the same regardless and can be preached as is. More often than not though, in such busy weeks, I can still do that edit because I only need to carve out a couple of hours, rather than having to block out a whole day or three mornings or whatever. All that is to say, the buffer gives me wiggle room to pack much more in which plays to my obsessive fascist-tendencies to order, efficiency and productivity.
As many of you will know already, I suffer from depression. I am usually fine, generally operate normally and – on my medication – you wouldn’t know anything about it. But I still get periodic dips and downers. These days, they are not usually deep set, overly long lasting or particularly serious. But they have a major impact on my sleep, concentration and ability to accomplish much when they rear their head. Such dips would absolutely hammer my sermon preparation.
One of the reasons I work this far ahead is that, if I cannot concentrate on preparation and study, on a given week – even if my illness last for months on end – it doesn’t ultimately affect my sermon prep. Just as if I have loads of pastoral situations that mean I can’t prep much that week, if I suffer a downer that means the same, I operate on the same principle. It doesn’t matter so much. There is a sermon there, broadly ready to go, that means I don’t drop my responsibilities. If I prep nothing that week, it affects nothing that week. It, at worst, means my buffer goes down by a week. That is easily made up on a week where I feel better, I am not overrun with pastoral issues, and I get two sermons done instead.
Not only is this my means of coping with my illness, but it also stops me getting so anxious. I don’t get anxiety over lack of prep because I know, on any given week, it doesn’t matter so much. Sunday will come and if I’ve prepped nothing that week, I still have something reasonable to deliver. But it stops me getting into a cycle of spiralling anxiety for being ill, not being able to prep, worrying about Sunday, anxiety-levels raising which, in turn, makes my depression worse. A 3-month buffer takes all that concern away from me.
All that I’ve said so far depends, mainly, on my own preferences and personality. It is a means of working that works for me. But there is an important reason for prepping so far ahead that goes beyond me. Namely, others need my prep in order to do the ministry they are doing.
Most significantly, we use whole-church curriculum for our Sunday School. So, the children only go out for the sermon, but they study the same passage of scripture as we do. The rest of the service would make no sense to them otherwise because the prayers, songs, testimonies and every other element is really directed as a response to the Word in our service. But my wife, who writes the notes for Sunday School, ideally needs my sermon ahead of time so she can pull out key lessons and applications for the children. She can, of course, read the passage herself and come up with her own lesson based on the main idea. But it is much better if she can see a sermon ahead of time and ensure the adults and children are having the same things emphasised in order to aid conversations between parents and children at home.
On top of the Sunday School, we also translate our sermon into Farsi. Whilst it is not essential, it is helpful for our translator to have sight of the sermon ahead of time too. Rather than translating on the fly, he can think about which words need more or less explanation, what ideas require more thought, and can translate most helpfully. Having things available ahead of time serves him more helpfully.
Both these ministries can operate without sight of these things early. When we have visiting speakers, or other people from church preaching, they have to live with things being closer to the deadline. They must either prep matters themselves and accept the differences or get sight of translation at the point of delivery. But, it is evidently more helpful to them – and more beneficial for those engaging with those areas of ministry – to have it earlier. So, I make the effort to ensure things are available for them.
As I said at the top, if others work any other way, that’s absolutely fine. The Bible doesn’t insist everyone work like I do. if it isn’t helpful to you, don’t do it. But I find it is particularly helpful to me. It works for my personality, with my illness and I think works to make my sermons better than they might be otherwise. Most importantly, it helps others engage in their areas of ministry more helpfully too.