Time to Preach
“I just don’t have the time!” I’ve heard that exact phrase countless times through the years of working with pastors in denominational service and as a seminary professor. And in many years of local church ministry, I have said it often myself. Finding time to do everything required in ministry remains one of the primary problems for pastors. While some larger churches have staff ministers who can help carry the preaching load, most pastors preach around 150 times a year. Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night roll around all too regularly. Add funeral and wedding sermons and the occasional revival meeting and, before long, preachers can reach burnout if they do not learn how to manage their time. Too, it’s not like preaching is all they have to do. Pastoral care takes them to hospitals, funeral homes, counseling appointments, and home visits. Administration requires countless meetings with deacons, committees, staff, and other obligations. Conflict management adds another level of demand that affects not only a pastor’s time but drains his emotions. The following ten tips for gaining time for sermon preparation are not exhaustive by any means. We would need several books to study all the different ways to make the most of our time. Yet, perhaps these ideas will help you.
1. Decide what is important.
“God gives us enough time every day to do graciously all that He wants us to do.” I heard Dr. Adrian Rogers make that statement in a conference many years ago, but it continues to challenge me. A major part of our problem is we spend so much time in unnecessary activities. Do an inventory of a typical week. Can we honestly say we have sought God’s direction for choosing what we do each day? Have we been good stewards of what someone has called our “only non-renewable resource?” Time with God. Time with family. Time alone. Time with others. Time preparing to serve and time serving. As the writer of Ecclesiastes reminded us, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecc. 3:1) We need to order our lives according to God’s priorities. If our greatest priority is communion with the Lord (and it is), then schedule that time as an appointment with God. Be faithful to keep that appointment with the King of Kings. As you have a regular devotional time with God and His Word, you will find countless sermon ideas each day. Keep a notebook close by so you can jot down what God is saying to you. It may be that He is speaking just to you and it also may be that He’s speaking through you to His congregation. Dr. D. L. Lowrie once told me that he found most of his sermon ideas in his daily devotionals. In fact, he was getting so many messages that he had trouble finding a place to preach all of them. If we will establish God’s schedule and follow His direction in daily and long-range planning, we will find more time to go further into sermon development.
2. Pray Purposefully.
I think it was Martin Luther who said, “I have so much to do today I must spend two hours in prayer.” Much of our time missmanagement comes because we don’t make a priority of prayer. Whenever we rush off to work in the flesh, we inevitably do it wrong and spend twice as much time fixing a problem than if we had followed the Master’s instructions to start with. Pray just to spend time with the Lord. Communion with Him is the best time spent each day. When we come into His presence, we’ll find deeper spiritual strength and peace with which to approach our day. To, like Isaiah in the heavenly throne room, we’ll also come under conviction of our sin. A friend of mine was about to preach at the great Bellevue Baptist Church when the pastor at the time, Dr. Adrian Rogers, confronted him. “Don’t go into this pulpit with sin in your life. Make sure you have the anointing of God’s Spirit.” My friend found himself on his knees, confessing sin and asking God for the filling of His Spirit. Pray for your family. Early in my ministry I found myself so busy with ministry activities that I often failed to spend time with my family. They also need the greatest gift we can bestow – prayer. Intercede for your wife, children, and others. Many ministers have lost their ministries when they lost their families because they failed to pray for them. Pray for your people. As you imagine each person sitting in their typical pews, pray for them. You will, at the same time, begin thinking about their lives – not just at church, but at home with their families and at their workplace. You’ll become more. aware of various circumstances in their lives and that awareness will influence your sermon preparation. Pray for your sermon. I begin each sermon preparation with this prayer: “Lord, what do you want to say to your people?” As I yield to His direction, inevitably He will guide me to the text and the particular approach to that text for this specific sermon. Pray as you study the text and develop the message. Pray for God’s anointing as you prepare and as you preach; then, you can give it to God and rest.
3. Use the time between the times.
I’ve had ministers ask how I got so much done. I am a fulltime seminary professor, but also write many lessons and articles for LifeWay Christian Resources, Preaching magazine, and other publishers. In addition, I usually am serving as an interim pastor (15 churches over the years). I’ve also ministered on about 28 short term mission trips to 20 countries. As a father of two married girls, grandfather of seven, and husband of one, I’ve had to learn how to make the most of my time. Churches might put up with my preaching the same sermon over and over, but God won’t. He wants fresh meat on the table, not something microwaved out of the freezer of my sermon files. Sermon preparation remains a priority. So how do I do it all? In a seminar, I heard Stephen Covey remark that if we schedule our priorities first, then we can use the time in between these larger chunks of activities for lesser tasks. I’ve practiced that strategy and it works. By using the time in between the times, I can do many smaller tasks – such as answering email, returning calls, planning upcoming activities, and more – which in turn frees up larger blocks of time for the main goals, including sermon preparation.
4. Use the lost time.
All of us have some lost time each week. It may be spent in a doctor’s reception room, waiting for late appointments, or some other type of down time. Be honest. How do you use this time? Does your go-to default involve checking social media or playing games on your smart phone? What a time waster! If you have a smart phone, have some apps such as Logos Bible Software or other helps that you can use to turn lost time into sermon preparation time. Also check out those old magazines in the doctor’s office. If you look through them with your sermon illustration antenna up, you can find dozens of good stories, facts, and anecdotes that can perk up a future sermon. Always keep some note cards with you to make notes, or take a picture of the article or quote with your phone and print it out later. You may not need these illustrations for this coming Sunday, but if you will put them in a good sermon illustration filing system, you may find something this week that you’ll need six months from now. I use a system involving Microsoft Excel. Check out my article “The Curious Case of the Illusive Illustration” in the summer 2019 issue of Preaching magazine. It’s also in my book Pastoral Ministry for the Next Generation.
5. Master the mechanics.
Seasoned pastors are able to spend less time developing sermons because they understand the skills involved in hermeneutics and homiletics. Too, once you have studied a certain Bible book, you already have the background information needed to preach from that book many times in the future. However, until you master the techniques of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) and the skills of sermon preparation and delivery (homiletics), you may wander around for hours trying to figure it out. Read good books about preaching. Study articles in homiletical journals, such as Preaching or the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. Find some good models of contemporary, expository preachers and watch their sermons on streaming video through various websites. Be a lifelong student of preaching and it will become a little easier each year.
Yes, this tip is one you’ve heard before, but are you doing it? Our problem is we tend to want to do everything ourselves. Often the only things we delegate are those tasks we don’t like. We need to be honest about what our job really is. Someone said, “If you do what someone else can do, you won’t have time to do
what only you can do.” Use your deacons and committees to help with administrative functions. That’s why deacons were developed in Acts 6. Their job was not just to “wait on tables,” but to administer a large benevolent ministry so the pastors could focus more on preaching and prayer. Too many pastors want their deacons to do all of the pastoral ministry while the pastors spend their time on administration. We need to rediscover that we are not the head of the church. We’re just part of the body and we need to let the rest of the body help with what God has called each member to do.
Much time is wasted during sermon preparation because we become so easily distracted. Computers can be a great time-saver in biblical study, but it can also be a distraction because of the multiplied venues of interesting things on the internet. Turn off the TV and radio. Close the door. Discipline yourself not to check your phone every five minutes. Get into the Word and stay there. Shut out the world and let God speak to you so He can
speak through you. Having said that, remember that your people and your family are not distractions, they are the reason you’re in the ministry. Many books about preaching advise setting aside the morning hours for study, without allowing anything to interrupt that time. These books are usually written by pastors of large churches who have large ministerial staffs that can handle emergency calls from the hospital or funeral home. Most of us don’t have that luxury. If Mrs. Jones is on her way to have heart surgery, you need to be there to pray for her and encourage the family. You may have to rearrange your schedule so you can study later. Just be sure that whatever takes you away is a genuine emergency. If we let our people know when we are studying, they will generally accommodate us unless their need is truly serious. By the way, part of focusing is choosing what time of day works best for you. For some preachers, morning is best since their minds are fresher. For others, afternoon or evenings helps them focus more intensely. You have to discover what works best for you.
8. Study and Preach Systematically.
While the Lord may direct you to various parts of Scripture randomly, He may also help you to have a systematic approach to Bible study and sermon development. Such a habit can help you and your people. If we bounce around from text to text each week, we often waste much time deciding which passage to preach. Too, we tend to preach what we like and avoid the more difficult passages. Studying the Bible systematically and developing a regular approach to preaching helps with both problems. Some pastors like sermon series. Many preachers usually use shorter series of 6 to 8 sermons. Other expository pastors prefer to preach through books of the Bible, regardless of how much time is needed. They may point to Martin Lloyd Jones, who spent years preaching through Romans. Friends, you and I are not Martin Lloyd Jones. We may find it more difficult to hold an audience’s attention in one place for that long. Still, find the method that works best for you and your congregation as the Lord leads you.
9. Manage conflict well.
No one likes conflict – neither the pastor nor the people. Too, unchurched people don’t wake up on Sunday morning and say, “Let’s go down to Last Hope Church. I hear they have a good fight going on!” Conflict wears everyone slap dab out, as we say in Tennessee. Emotionally draining, spiritually challenging, and physically exhausting – conflict results in little motivation for sermon preparation or anything else. Learn to manage relationships and decision-making in such a way that minimizes conflict. Then, if it occurs, whether involving you or other people in the church, handle it with God’s grace and guidance. Space in this article does not allow for specific advice. I’ll refer you to my book, Managing Stress in the Christian Family, for in-depth help for conflict management and handling stress.
Everyone needs a Sabbath. You won’t get a day of rest on Sundays if you’re a preacher. That will be your most busy and stress-filled day. Still, Jesus said the Sabbath was made for human beings. He knew we need time to step away from the normal activities of the work-week to focus on worship and rest. If we will schedule some time each day, more time each week, and lengthy time each year for rest, we will find ourselves more capable physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. By the way, don’t use your vacation for doing your annual sermon plan. You need this time for yourself and your family. Yes, spend time with God during vacation – including going to church and worship as you hear someone else preach for once. Play. Relax. Sleep. Be lazy for a while. Let your spirit, mind, emotions, and body experience God’s renewal so you’ll be ready when it’s time to re-enter the battle. When I was a younger man, I rushed about trying to do so much stuff that I ended up missing out on many of the really important things of life. As I’ve put a few miles behind me, I move slower because I don’t want to miss a thing. Perhaps, together, we can discover ways to follow God’s direction each day so that we honor Him in everything we are and everything we do. In the end, we’ll find it’s for our good and His glory.