For fourteen years it was pretty much the same story for me, When Monday dawned, 1 knew 1 had to find another two preaching texts for Sunday. It was amazing how many other things I found to do that kept me away from the search, but as Mondays evaporated into Tuesdays, a sense of desperation would set in. What was I going to preach on, and would 1 have the time and the creativity to write a good sermon, now that Tuesday was changing into Wednesday?
Invariably I would begin flipping through the pages of the Bible, looking for something that would strike me as "preachable," something that would grab hold of me. The deadline for submitting my information to the bulletin always seemed to come much too quickly. It is a tribute to amazing grace that when Sunday morning came, I always did have a sermon ready. I was happy, but I also knew Monday was just around the corner again.
I imagine the musicians and choir directors were not always that happy with my method, but they were gracious. Organists usually got wind of my sermon text and the songs on Friday afternoon. When the choir director, eager to get music resources together for choir members, once asked me in October what 1 was going to preach in Advent and Christmas, I looked at her strangely. How could she have such unreasonable expectations of me? How could 1 know what 1 was going to preach at Christmas time when I didn't even know what I was going to do next Sunday? "Oh, probably something to do with Christmas," I said. Yes, hindsight reveals to me how gracious these people really were.
A Better Way
In 1995 the Letter of Call I received from the church 1 presently serve included a commitment by the council to provide me with two weeks each year for planning sermons. This was a radical idea for me, and the first two years I did not use these two weeks. Why? Because 1 felt guilty about taking two weeks away from my pastoral work.
My wife and the chairperson of council provided me with wise counsel. They politely informed me I was wrong on two counts. First, time spent in sermon planning was not time away from my work. It was part of my work. Both the council and the congregation were seeing it that way, so why couldn't I? Second, using the two weeks for sermon planning was not an option that I could choose to use or not use. It was an expectation on par with the expectations that I preach on Sundays and visit" the sick and counsel the troubled.
For the past four years I have used the two weeks per year for their intended purpose. In early August I use one week to plan my sermons to the end of January. In early January I use the second week to plan to the end of August. Mondays are now much nicer days for me, because now I know what I'm going to preach on each Sunday. I even know what I'm going to do for Advent and Christmas!
Different Strategies, Same Purpose
I am encouraged to learn that there are more pastors engaged in intentional advanced sermon planning. John Schuurman, pastor of the Christian Reformed church in Wheaton, Illinois, prepares a six-month schedule in three-month increments, in early fall he schedules January through March. Near the end of December he sets aside a few days to plan a schedule for April to June. At a minimum, he always has three months planned in advance. John's goal is to identify the text for each Sunday, and he points out that the development of the schedule is "always a work in progress." This schedule is then distributed to all musicians, conductors, elders, and worship committee members.
Tony Maan and Johannes Schouten, pastors at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, work together to plan sermons three to four months in advance. Though they do not have a set block of time devoted exclusively to sermon planning, they do meet on a weekly basis to do some of this planning. They concentrate on preparing series of about six sermons, usually on a book of the Bible. After independently reading and reflecting on the book, they come together to identify themes in the book and discern congregational needs. Since they share preaching responsibilities, they also work at coordinating sermon themes to avoid duplication. Their goal is to develop a series outline that is published in the bulletin in advance of the series. The congregation is encouraged to read the text beforehand as a way of preparing for each Sunday's worship. The series outline is given to all musicians and worship leaders, who are also encouraged to study the text and select songs that will reflect and advance the theme.
I am fortunate to have The King's University College close by, and usually I am able to use one of the rooms in the residence during my sermon planning week. The college bookstore and library are available to me. I have easy access to my office at church, allowing me to consult commentaries as my planning progresses. Being away from my office gives me the concentrated time I need for the essential work of praying for the Holy Spirit's guidance and for meditating on Scripture texts. 1 need to get away from the pressing demands of pastoral and administrative work so that I can reflect on the needs of the congregation. I need focused time for reading, thinking, and dreaming.
When I leave for a planning week, I take with me a box full of resource materials:
- a record of what I have done for the past two years to avoid duplication of themes and texts as I plan a new schedule
- the Revised Common Leclionaiy
- my entile collection of Reformed Worship (of course) and the latest edition of the Reformed Worship Index
- key books that have given me ideas for sermons, and commentaries that I want to explore
- a calendar printout to help me plot the Sundays
- a schedule of Sundays when I will be away or guest preachers are scheduled. 1 sketch these onto the calendar, then I concentrate on "filling in the blanks."
My goal is to produce a sermon schedule that specifies date and special events (Lord's Supper, Thanksgiving, World Hunger Sunday, and so on), Scripture reading, sermon text, and sermon title. I also attempt to formulate a sermon theme, recognizing the possibility that this may change upon further exegetical study. Where possible, I try to note appropriate resources that might be helpful in the development of the sermon or in the planning of the worship service. This schedule is then reproduced and distributed liberally to everyone connected to planning and leading worship. On Wednesdays 1 meet with our music director to craft the orders of worship for the upcoming Sunday, and we consult with others who may be involved with leading worship.
What I need to guard against is allowing the schedule to preclude responding to special needs that arise suddenly in the life of the congregation—needs that may require a change In preaching text. Close contact with our music director and our elders helps me avoid this problem. 1 am convinced, however, that the benefits of planning ahead far outweigh this potential problem.
In order to improve this process, I want to do more consultation, especially with our music director, the worship committee, and the elders to identify themes and needs before I enter my sermon-planning week. Presently the choice of texts is up to my discretion and insights, and I know it would be far more beneficial to gain the insights of a broader group of people who can inform my planning.
The Right Attitude
I encourage elders to develop a sermon-planning policy in consultation with their pastors. This is one helpful way to discharge the responsibility to "provide true preaching and teaching" and to be "wise counselors who support and strengthen the pastor" (Christian Reformed Church Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons). For advance sermon planning to work well, I see at least two essentials.
First, the congregation and the council must be committed to intentionally providing their pastor with the time required to do sermon planning. More than simply "allowing" time for the pastor to do this work, council and congregation must encourage and expect their pastor to do this work. I have found it very helpful to be released from my other responsibilities during my sermon-planning week so that 1 can concentrate on planning.
Second, the pastor must be convinced that sermon planning is a / legitimate and important component of the overall ministry. Sermon planning time must not be labeled as "time off," for that conveys the mistaken notion that the work is really not part of ministry.
Inglewood's sermon-planning policy was initiated by one of its former pastors, Dr. Sidney de Waal, over ten years ago. Council has been diligent in keeping this policy alive, and, together with many others in our congregation today, I am the beneficiary. The rewards are numerous, but the one that stands out for me is this: Worship is now more of a communal effort where I can worship with the people rather than feel I am "in charge" of everything. I have learned from my experience over the past four years that by planning ahead, I do myself a great favor. I have learned that planning ahead contributes to enriched congregational worship. Beside this, now I like my Mondays, which is no small blessing in itself.
THE BENEFITS OF PLANNING AHEAD
- Planning ahead allows for more research and creativity, and moves me away from the feeling of being "driven" by deadlines to produce a sermon.
- Now when I read books, magazines, and newspapers, I find myself taking note of ideas, illustrations, and quotes that I think will be helpful in one of the sermons 1 know I'll be preaching. I don't read more, I read smarter.
- The choice of which books I read is informed by the themes my sermons will be treating.
- I know that I don't have to "say it all" in one sermon, because I know that subsequent sermons will give me the chance to say what needs to be said. I have a better overall picture of what will happen, so my sermons can be more focused.
- Our music director now has the information she needs to prepare choir music, vocalists, and instrumentalists well in advance so that each worship service can be thematically unified.
- Planning ahead respects the gifts, expertise, insights and preparation time of musicians as they plan their contributions in leading worship.
- Congregational members who serve by writing litanies, crafting prayers, designing banners, creating bulletin covers, and ordering parts of the liturgy are able to contribute In ways chit promote the unity of each service, thus enhancing the congregation's worship.
- We now have the time and the information that allows us to think of creative and meaningful ways to design worship services and involve more people. For instance, one year in October our worship committee gave my Advent sermon texts to our Sunday school coordinator, who then enlisted several children to draw pictures inspired by these texts. The pictures then became the bulletin covers for Advent, much to the delight of the children. Another year in the beginning of November we asked one of our resident photographers to produce slides of children's drawings that captured the sermon text for a Christmas candlelight service. These slides were then projected during the worship service while that particular Scripture passage was read to the congregation. Being able to see the passage through the eyes of children enriched our worship of God. Such coordination would not have been possible without planning ahead.
- More people can be involved in using their gifts to plan worship, and they can do so in a coherent fashion that is spiritually edifying for them.