Editor's note: As preachers develop their signature method of sermon preparation over the years, they often enhance their process by "cherry picking" from the sermon prep schedules and checklists of others. When someone preaches in a way that consistently intrigues and speaks to us, and we wonder how they do it, the answer may well be found in those schedules and checklists.
PreachingToday.com: Are there any key questions you normally answer, or paths of thought you typically take, as you study a text and write the sermon?
Lee Eclov: I'm not very structured in these things, but generally I invest the first two or three hours of preparation in simply pondering the passage. I usually have the text printed in a column on a blank page and use colored pens (or I do the same process in Microsoft OneNote).
I try to grasp the "lay" of the passage, the logic and flow. That seems to me to be more significant in clear understanding than word studies and other micro-scrutiny, which I also do, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes as a second step. I try to pester the passage, like a little kid with lots of questions. I really invest in trying to understand with crystal clarity why B follows A, why one thought leads to the next. I ask myself, "If I had verse A, would I have guessed right about what comes in verse B?" What is counterintuitive about this passage? How does this actually work out in my soul's experience? Why would the author put it this way and not that way? I'm very, very curious about what I think of as the interior life of a passage.
This observational process morphs toward more detailed study. I'm not skilled in Greek and have lost all my Hebrew knowledge, so I have to rely on good tools. I often work through the text using my Logos software. I don't look up everything, but the observational process has given me a sense about words, phrases, syntax, and such need extra attention. At this point I also read commentaries. I have a good library, so quite often I'll use three to six commentaries—some more textual, others more pastoral. I'm more dependent on these books with some texts than others.
The process up to this point takes about half of my 12-15 hours of preparation time. The balance goes to writing the sermon. That begins with a process of trying to see the most natural and helpful outline of the passage. Generally, the natural structure is the most helpful. But my first outline sometimes changes. Throughout the whole process, I'm toying with words and phrases, trying to find the simplest, but most memorable, way of expressing a point. For some reason, I find it easier to do this process with pen and paper than computer. Gradually I find the outline, with sub-points and illustration ideas. Then I turn to writing the sermon.
I always do a full manuscript, but in an outline structure. It's easier for me to follow when I'm preaching because I can see the structure at a glance. I also find that structure easier to edit. I have a special template set up in Word into which I type all my sermons. When I've finished a draft, I quit and go home. Then early on Sunday mornings, I give it one more going-over, and almost always make significant changes.
Writing a sermon, working with wording and structure, finding illustrations and thinking through strong metaphors, can take hours. I always overwrite and have to find ways to cut. My sermons are typically long (40 minutes is common), and I wish I could find ways to make them shorter, but that doesn't usually happen. (If I just read the manuscript, I would finish in a little over 30 minutes, but extemporizing adds at least 5 minutes, usually more.)
What schedule routine do you follow in sermon preparation?
Well, I wish I'd formed a better habit in this area when I was young and formative, because I don't have a pattern that others should probably emulate. I take Mondays off. Tuesdays almost never involve sermon prep. Sometimes I get rolling on prep on Wednesday, but more often I begin with one to three hours on Thursday. I block out Fridays for study, and though there are always other things to attend to, I do devote most of that day, and often work till 7 p.m. or later. Then I pick up again on Saturday and try to be done by noon. Saturday is also a day when I do counseling, so it is hard to squeeze everything in. I wish I could get a much earlier start so I have more gestation time.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.