Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Tending a Sermon Garden

I want to share with you the way I've approached the weekly task of creating sermons, because I think for anyone in any sort of teaching/planning/presenting role, there are some things here that might be helpful.
To begin with, if you're going to be teaching with any regularity, you are always better off to have a plan. I have my sermon texts, titles, and general directions selected as far in advance as I can manage. I try to lay out entire series plans long before I'm in them. Right now I've been preaching through James. Here is a link to download the plan I worked out, then sent to my song leaders and secretaries:

I committed that I wanted sermon preparation to be enjoyable, and not a frantic task at the end of every week. Whether you're preaching or teaching, I recommend that you try starting a garden for your lessons. Here's how this works for me:

In my desk, I have four folders. They are labeled:
- This Week
- Next Week
- In Two Weeks
- In Three Weeks

In each folder, I have one large notepad that I have titled at the top for the lesson plans it will contain, and the date which I will present the particular lesson.

I have carved out a regular time that is only for sermon preparations. For me, it has worked well for that time to be Monday morning. The secretaries know that for me it is study time. I generally go in before anyone else arrives, and I forbid myself from checking e-mail, turning on the computer, or even looking at my phone.

For the next hour or two--however long you are able to set aside for serious study--I use a kitchen timer to set my parameters, and begin working on my next four lessons, one at a time. Functionally, what this does is ensure that on the week I preach a given lesson, I will have already been thinking about the passage for a month, with three weeks worth of ideas. Each week I am encountering four different texts at various stages of their sermon development.

It breaks down to something like this for each individual passage:

Week 1 - 20 minutes. Taking a clean notepad, I label the top for the date, text, and title I've selected for the lesson that is three weeks away. I then shift all the notepads up one folder. So the one that was for "Next Week" is now placed in the "This Week" folder. As I am beginning a new text, this one will end up in the "In Three Weeks" folder. I always begin with preparation for the lesson that is furthest away, moving up folder by folder until I get to this week's lesson prep.

I spend a few minutes in prayer, then read the passage several times in the Biblical text and jot down all my first impressions on the first page of the notepad. What questions do I have about the text? What ideas does it bring to my head? If I have time, I will branch into a popular level commentary to get a few direction ideas.

Week 2 - 15 minutes. I read the passage in the Biblical text. I do not look at any of my notes from the first week, and I brainstorm again for whatever pops into my head as I've done the reading. I write these down on pages behind the ones I had written last week, never comparing the two. I will spend the majority of my time studying some textual aids and commentaries to begin fleshing out some other people's ideas about the passage.

Week 3 - 15 minutes. I read the passage in the Biblical text. I will spend time with a more scholarly commentary/textual notes and flesh out more scholarly research on the passage, adding their insights to my notes. As I read, if ideas hit me about ways to preach the material, I'll jot those down. I am now in more of a research phase than a brainstorming phase.

Week 4 - 30 minutes. I read the passage, paying more attention than usual to its larger context. I then read back over all of my notes from the previous three weeks. Most of the time, at this point, it is time to try and select which bits are most useful in flowing together as a sermon. I mark all of these in my notes, then make a page behind the others where I briefly write all of the major chunks of thought that I believe can connect well in a sermon form. Over the rest of the week, I finish out any study I need to do, the sermon outline and slides, and begin practicing.

Each of these times is governed by a small egg timer, so that I don't get too caught up in one passage and neglect to get work done on other upcoming lessons. When the timer goes off, I stop, file the notepad, and move on to the next one.

The real strengths of this sort of method are:
- You shield yourself against the dangers of abnormally busy weeks with unexpected stressors. You aren't bound by a need to get all your study done this very week.
- You have allowed yourself time both with and away from the passage in between brainstorming. This gives you a wide variety of ideas to pull from.
- You have a better sense of where you are going in future weeks, and can make plans for any special ideas you have or visuals you want, related to lessons you want to give.
- You spend more time in reflection on Scripture every week. Because I do this first thing on Monday mornings, it has really helped me to set a tone for each week, and to make opportunities to pray before I get into the grind of e-mails, visits, and everything else.

I like to think of this method as tending a sermon garden. In four weeks' time, I always have many more ideas than it is possible to use for a single lesson. I am therefore able to selectively grab the best of what's there. When I preach this material, I have already been living with it for a month. I believe it goes a long way in helping to make my sermons smoother and better formed. Also, this method works just as well if you aren't speaking every week. Even if this is a monthly rotation for you, if you go ahead and always work on the next four lessons at a time, you'll be ahead of the game. When you tend a garden regularly, it really does yield better fruit.

For now, this has been working well for me. When you prepare lessons for teaching or preaching, what has worked well for you? How do you plan and prepare well?

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