In this post I will lay out a method that I have developed for planning and tracking your sermons over the course of a calendar year. At the end of the post I will recommend some books I have found helpful in this regard.
Planning doesn’t mean factoring the Holy Spirit out of the equation. (This assumption is based on a faulty view of the Holy Spirit’s role in preaching. Besides, can’t the Holy Spirit work in your study three weeks ahead of time as you prepare?) The preaching calendar is not etched in stone; it is a plan to work from. You will get further with a plan than you will simply flying by the seat of your pants.
Preparing your calendar
I use an excel spreadsheet with a row for each week and columns for the date, AM Text, AM Title (or subject) and PM Text and PM Title (or subject). I do not track Wednesday evening or special services (e.g., Christmas Eve services, etc.) on a spreadsheet. This is helpful to be able to go back and find what year you preached from a certain text.
I divide the calendar year into three segments:
(1) The beginning of the year to the Sunday before Memorial Day
(2) Summer is Memorial Day to Labor Day Weekend
(3) Sunday after Labor Day to the end of the year.
I’m certain to mark out certain important days both in culture (e.g., holidays) and in the life of our church (e.g., Lord’s Supper, Luncheon days, etc.).
This leaves me with three sections on the Calendar to fill in. Here’s the structured (but not completed) one for me for 2012:
The red markers indicate notes marking special days such as Palm Sunday, Easter, Christmas, etc. Notice that under the “PM Title” column I have already inserted fays for the Lord’s Supper and church luncheons (when we have no evening service). The grayed out weeks are when I plan to be on vacation. The “No.” Column is for numbering sermons in a series if they are broken up by other sermons or events. I don’t use it too often.
If your church follows the school year you could do that or you could adapt it to the Christian year or any other start and finish that works for you. Let this be a servant rather than a master.
Planning the Weekly Sermons
After prayerfully considering what texts you should preach, I generally preach consecutively through books of the Bible, one of the first steps will be working through the Bible book to determine the discourse segments and aligning them with the homiletical units you will preach. In other words, you must determine the sections you will preach from each week.
You then fill these in on the calendar in the open spots, leaving room for special services, etc.
My planning calendar for the first half of 2012 looks like this:
You can see how this is already changing as I work through the text. I had intended to preach two sermons from John 8 but decided to handle it all in one message because of the reduplication of themes in the text. I’m planning to do the same for John 9 which will alter the schedule somewhat. Three months from now the finished product will look different. That’s good because this will leave me some wiggle room which I usually like to include in my planning to address things that may arise.
What I mean by “addressing things that may arise” is this: While I don’t think your preaching should be reactive, there are times where the preacher must bring to Word of God to bear in things that occur in the culture or in the life of the church. When a 9/11 or a Hurricane Katrina happens, people want to hear what God’s Word says about such events. Sometimes events in the life of a church, the death of along-time member or one who suffered terribly or a tragedy in the church are examples of events that the preacher has to address from God’s Word.
Working the Plan
Once I have the plan in place, I work the plan each week. I try to work several weeks ahead. I do not complete each sermon several weeks ahead. I have done that before and that gives (to me at least) a “canned” feeling to each sermon, almost like I’m preaching someone else’s sermon.
I have for years used a method I got out of Bruce Mawhinney’s book Preaching for Freshness (pp. 34-49) which I first read over ten years ago, shortly after I got into ministry. (For someone who already knows the mechanics of preaching, this book is the number one book I recommend. It is most useful after you’ve spent at least five or so years in ministry but it would be useful for someone new in ministry to get them started off right.)
The method is this:
I will work on four sermons this week:
- On Monday, I will make any necessary changes to yesterday’s sermon so that they are there when next I need the manuscript. Any insights or connections or illustrations that came to me while preaching I will make a note of and change in the finished manuscript.
- I will do the exegesis for the sermon I will preach three Sundays from today. That is all I will do unless I have extra time or something comes to me while I’m doing the exegesis.
- I will do homiletical preparation for the sermon I will preach two Sundays from today. Develop the Big Idea or proposition, develops the movements of the sermon and develop the application.
- I will polish off the sermon I will preach this next Sunday. This involves writing the introduction and conclusion, and finding fresh and relevant illustrations that do not overpower the message of the text and the sermon. (Unlike my “kung fu sermon” in which the opening illustration was so memorable that no one remembered what the text was about.)
As I said in the beginning, this is a plan, it’s not written in concrete. As you study a passage you may divide and preach two sermons or you may combine two (or more) and preach them as one message. Then you simply adjust the calendar accordingly. At the end of the year you will have a completed tracker that records accurately what you did teach that calendar year.
Archiving your plan
I have a folder in the “Documents” portion titled “2012 Sunday Sermons” which contains subfolders for each book I’m working on with sermons, helps, etc. The file pictured above is titled “Sermon Tracker” and is in that folder. There is another file titled “Sermon Tracker-Completed.” This tracker contains only this spreadsheet shown above and any planning sheets I am using to map out a series or book. The sheet in that workbook shown above is labeled “2012 Sermon Tracker.” Toward the end of the year I will make a new one for next year by copying this one and then renaming it “2013 Sermon Tracker.” At the end of the year, I will move the completed 2012 sheet to the “Sermon Tracker-Completed” file after 2011. Later in the decade I will probably split them out into different files for each decade.
I generally don’t go back more than a couple years to reuse a sermon (and my experience is that reworking a sermon is often harder than preparing a fresh one from scratch) but I definitely want to be able to access my exegesis and other things I put together for background, etc. on the books I’ve preached through. I also want to be able to see what I’ve done and how I handled the text.
I think John Wesley was right; when asked why he burned his sermon every seven years he replied, “Because what a shame if I can’t preach a better sermon now than I did seven years ago.” But at least you can make us of the exegesis and other materials.
Some Helpful Books:
Some books I have found helpful in planning my preaching and working ahead are the following:
1. Bruce Mawhinney, Preaching with Freshness (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997).
This book is excellent for anyone who has been in ministry any length of time. While it has some helps for preparing sermons themselves, the bulk of the book deals with sermon preparation in the context of pastoral ministry. I read all or portions of this book every year. It is written like a novel but don’t let that fool you; it is full of truth and helpful advice. There is a detailed outline at the end and a detailed table of contents that will guide you and help you find what you’re looking for, But to start off, just read it from beginning to end.
2. Stephen Nelson Rummage, Planning Your Preaching (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002).
Rummage’s book gives an overview of preaching planning followed by several chapters that deal with specific types of preaching planning. The final chapter is a helpful chapter on preaching using the lectionary. While Rummage (a Southern Baptist) admits that in many circles this is “a dog that won’t hunt,” I have found it helpful to find texts for the Christmas and Easter seasons and for filling in gaps in the preaching calendar throughout the year.
3. Andrew W. Blackwood, Planning a Year’s Pulpit Work (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942).
This book is a little older but it’s not too out of date. He follows the Christian year (see Rummage’s chapter above about the lectionary) but what he says can be adapted for sequential book-by-book preaching also. The chart on p. 30 outlining the pan for a year is helpful in visualizing what a finished one-year plan might look like. The principles Blackwood gives would be very helpful in a church where small groups and Sunday School work together on a curriculum. One could adapt his plan to fit the curriculum and then coordinate the pulpit with the classroom and small groups or vice versa.