Taking the Pressure Out of Sermon Prep
A longer preparation window reduces anxiety, fosters creativity, and makes us more attentive to the Holy Spirit.
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For as long as I can remember, I've had this recurring nightmare. I'm back at school, and facing an exam for which I am completely unprepared. (It is usually in Math or French.) Since I've become a pastor, I've had another similar nightmare. I'm in the church sanctuary, the offering is being taken, and I am about to get up and preach in a couple of minutes—but I have no idea what to say. I begin to frantically scratch out an outline on some scrap paper. I get up, move to the pulpit, glance down at my notes. Then to my horror, all I can see are these completely indecipherable symbols: #!%?3^R*^&.
We pastors feel great pressure to come up with something creative, coherent, and hopefully inspiring at least once a week. My brother worked as a national radio host for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). When he was still a reporter, he was only one of a couple of people employed by the CBC who was permitted to offer his personal opinion on news events in the form of editorial commentaries. But he once told me, "As I'm going to work and I pass construction workers on a job site, I envy them. I don't enjoy the pressure of coming up with an original take on the one news event that everyone is talking about."
10-day creative cycle
Through a series of serendipitous events, I am now in a place where I no longer feel the pressure of preparing a sermon—and no, I'm not on sabbatical, nor have I taken a monastic vow of silence! As I mentioned in my previous article, "Hitting Your Creative Peak," my former professor of preaching Haddon Robinson told me our creativity peaks somewhere in a ten-day cycle. So if we want to prepare our best sermons, we've got to begin our preparation at least ten days in advance.
Haddon's counsel revolutionized my approach to preaching. Up until that time, I had crammed all of my sermon prep time into a single day: the dreaded Thursday. It was the day I read the Bible text, did my exegetical work, prepared my outline, and wrote the sermon and the small group study guide. Thursdays were by far the most stressful day of my week. But based on my conversation with Haddon, I began preparing my messages two Thursdays in advance. I didn't end up necessarily putting more time (10-15 hours) into the sermon, but I staggered my preparation time, so that I ended up engaging in sermon work every two or three days. This longer runway took a huge amount of weight off my shoulders.
A longer runway helps us relax
As our church grew, we formed a "design team" for our Sunday services. Our Worship and Arts pastor wanted the summary of the sermon two weeks in advance, so I began preparing my sermons three Thursdays in advance.
Then a few years ago, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, our Worship and Arts minister thought that it would be a great idea to create a devotional guide based on the Advent sermons. The devotional writers were members of our own congregation, writing on a volunteer basis. These writers requested having a draft of my sermon three weeks ahead. And so I began preparing my sermons one month in advance. For example, if I was slated to preach on December 21, I would begin preparation on November 21 (when I hadn't even started thinking about Christmas shopping!). Again, I wasn't putting any more actual time into the sermon preparation, but I had a longer runway to prepare. The result? Much less pressure, and much more joy in the process.
Focus and creativity
What are some other benefits of this longer, more relaxed preparation runway? People also commented that my sermons are clearer and more focused. Back when I was cramming all of my preparation into one day, I felt an enormous amount of pressure to come up with something that "would preach." I was less interested in the hermeneutical idea (what the text actually meant in its original context), and more focussed on the homiletical idea (how it might be relevant to the audience). This, of course, can compromise the integrity of a sermon, as faithful preaching requires a valid hermeneutical and homiletical idea. Now with the longer sermon runway, I have time to ruminate upon the hermeneutical concepts while unexpected homiletical applications presented themselves while I am walking our dog or picking up groceries. What a joy it became to preach in a way that is both true to the text as well as meaningful for my church community in Vancouver, BC.
This more relaxed preparation runway also fosters more creative insights. Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioural neuroscience at McGill University, points out in his book The Organized Mind that when we are trying to solve an intellectual problem, we focus our attention on the problem and possible solutions with our left prefrontal cortex. However, this is merely a preparation phase, where our brain lines up our pre-existing knowledge. If our text, or how we might actually go about preaching it, is sufficiently complex, then what we already know will likely not be enough. We need to relax, let go of the problem, and let our God-given networks in the right hemisphere of our brain get to work.
According to Dr. Levitin, neurons in the right hemisphere are more broadly tuned with longer neural branches than in the left hemisphere. These longer neurons are able to collect information from a larger area of our brain. When our brain is searching for an insight, these neural branches in the right side of our brain are more likely to produce it. But for all this to work, we need to be relaxed. This is partly why some of our best insights occur while we are taking a warm shower, going for a walk or jog, or after we've had a good night's sleep.
Depending upon the sermon, and what is going on with the rest of my life, I typically take six to eight days to prepare a first draft. I am working on sermons every two to three days: on one day, I am working on the exegetical idea; on another day, the preaching idea; on a following day, the outline. I may take part of another day to revise the outline. And on another day, I am writing (or in my case, dictating into a recording device) the sermon. To be honest, during the early phases of sermon preparation, I often feel the sermon is weak and I am in a dark tunnel. With the longer runway, I relax, confident I'll eventually see the light (bad sermons are often the result of a panicky impulse to flee the dark tunnel too quickly).
I come back to the sermon the week before I actually preach it. I'll take part of a morning to edit, vet it past a group of pastor colleagues and laypeople as part of the "feedforward" process, and then do a final edit.
Peace and prayerfulness
So on any given week, I will be working on one to two messages (while a couple of others are percolating). It doesn't, however, feel overwhelming. Quite the contrary, this longer runway fosters creativity and a greater sense of peace. I can easily see how a particular sermon complements other messages within a series.
Being two weeks away from a particular sermon provides me with enough distance to come back to the sermon more as a "listener" than as a preacher. I am able to edit the sermon with more critical objectivity, as my ego no longer feels so personally invested. During the two weeks when I am not working on a particular sermon, I am also able to notice things that may happen naturally that can serve as fresh illustrations.
Working ahead, I am also more present to the people and the projects that are right in front of me. When I was in my "prepare-the-entire-sermon-Thursdays" cram session mode, I was always a little distracted by the looming sermon and by Sunday's fast approach.
Most importantly, I can now be in a prayerful, receptive state as I prepare to preach the sermon. When we are under a great deal of pressure, we have less bandwidth to pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our souls, in our everyday lives, and in the lives of other people—all of which are crucial to good preaching. A longer preparation window helps reduce our anxiety, foster our creativity, and bring us into prayerful attentiveness to the Holy Spirit. Not only will we experience more fruit, but we will also more fully embody the gospel of love, joy, and peace that we are proclaiming.
As pastors, of course, what we say is vitally important. But what we preach through our daily lives is ultimately more vivid, impactful, and enduring.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything