Response: Planning Messages (Part 1)

cup.jpgThis post is a response to a comment by Frank who asked me recently to elaborate on how I plan my preaching/teaching over the next year.  I decided to answer this in a post because it gives me the opportunity to think through this. 

Every July, I am gone.  I take two weeks of vacation and two weeks of study time.  (I am away during those two weeks — often out of town.)  When I came to this church, almost fourteen years ago, I was on empty.  I sensed that I needed a time each year during which I could recharge, take another look at my work, and then come back ready to move ahead.  This church graciously allowed me to be gone in July.  So, either before or after vacation, I take a couple of weeks to think, plan, and take a hard look at the coming year.  Let me quickly say that if you are a church leader/minister/pastor/etc. and you need to plan your preaching/teaching for the year, you don’t have to have two weeks away to do so.  I planned messages in advance for many years without having two weeks out of the office to do so.

What I am about to describe is not a formula.  This is simply what works for me.  

1.  I always anticipate spending some time (length will vary) in some book or several books of the Bible over the course of a year.  This year that book has been Mark.  I am not talking about a verse by verse study.  Rather, I want to immerse myself and the church in the message of a particular book.  For me, the greatest advantage of this is that I find myself speaking to the church what I know I would otherwise have not said if it were not in that text.  Right now, I am thinking about what those texts might be for next year.  (By the way, I plan by school year rather than calendar year.  It just works better for me.) 

2.  I pray that God will guide me and direct me through whatever I plan.  I pray that he will guide me in everything from the selection of texts to an overall emphasis for the year, etc.  I pray that I will say the things he really wants said to this group of people over the next year.

3.  I have with me a calendar of every Sunday that I am going to preach over the school year.  I make note of anticipated special occasions, etc.  When I am finished planning, I would like to have a rough title or subject matter for each week from August 2007 until the last week of June 2008.  This will have a few large series and several smaller series throughout the year.

4.  It is very helpful to look through the titles or subject matter of sermon messages of the previous four or five years.  So often, I will begin to see gaps.  (I remember thinking once, "Wow it has been a long time since I have said much from the Old Testament."  One year it occurred to me since I had even mentioned one or two major themes in the Bible.  I think about some of the "big" themes of Scripture: God, Jesus Christ, The Holy Spirit, Creation, Sin, Grace, Faith, the Church, etc.  How long has it been since I have addressed some of these? What about the larger story of what God has done?  Have I been attentive to the larger story line in Scripture?  Anyway, I am looking for gaps.

5.  As I plan the year, I try to keep in mind the importance of variation.  (Steak and fish are great for dinner but not every night of the week.)  If a short series is particularly heavy and thick, I will probably want to preach something that feels very different at the conclusion of that series.   Sometimes preachers get stuck in the swamp and every sermon begins to sound like every other sermon.  (Sort of like eating at a Chinese buffet where the food seems to all run together.  It all tastes the same.  Nothing really distinctive.)  Just as Mark sounds and feels very different from Romans, these messages need some variety as well.

More later… 

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12 thoughts on “Response: Planning Messages (Part 1)

  1. Great stuff – one question – what consideration do you give the Liturgical Christian Calendar (does it have sway in your planning)? Do you help folks observe any of the Liturgical observations beyond Christmas and Easter?

  2. Jim,
    At some point late last year I determined that I’d begin an extended series of sermons from Mark.  I printed the gospel out without chapter divisions or verse indicators.  I tried to read it with the flow of a story.  It was about 16 pages long (12 font, single spaced).  I carried it with me for months.  Often I’d read half in the morning and half in the evening.  I did that for a quite a while before actually preaching from the gospel beginning in January and it really helped me get the flow.  I didn’t plan out sermon topics in advance, just taking the passages as they came, etc.  Sunday I’ll speak from the first pericope in chapter 6.  Obviously, this is really slow.  However, I’ve never been so effected by the gospel as I have through this process (I pray that others are being encouraged too).  And it has everything to do with slowing down enough to actually hear the story and allow it to penetrate my heart and head.  The one thing I keep saying to myself is that "Jesus is driving me crazy!"  I started feeling that about midway through the 4th chapter.  The more I find myself thinking His thoughts and analyzing why He must have did what He did the more I realize how different He is from us, and how similar we (typical Chrisitans) are to fallen Israel.  To the extent we begin to look like Jesus, we (like Him) are going to seem a bit crazy (3.21).  There’s so much to the story and the particular way Mark chose to lay it out that time just doesn’t allow all to be said that could be said.  At any rate, I just write this to say that I’m excited about the way the Spirit is using Mark to effect me.  I’d be curious as to how the gospel effects you by the time you’re midway into the process (not the exegetical stuff, but the personal impact).   Sorry to ramble. 

  3. Doug,Re: the Christian year.  I have not worked with our church in honoring the Liturgical observations other than Easter and Christmas.  However, as I am planning, I will try to be at least conscious of any special days, etc. whether I mention these or not. 

  4. Ben,I like what you are doing with Mark.  I have been very gripped by this book.  Interesting–I have preached through this book before.  This time, however, I find myself very convicted and moved, in sort of a different way.  I suspect I hearing it afresh and God is working on me as I listen.  (Or, in some cases–not listen.)

  5. Thanks, Jim.  What you’re describing here is something that would benefit preachers and preaching and churches.  Joe Louis once said, "I’ve lived with money, and I’ve lived without it, and I can tell you, it’s better with."  Well, I’ve lived with a preaching plan, and I’ve lived without one, and I can tell you, it’s better with.  What churches and their elders must realize is that, to give a preacher something like a study sabbatical is not to be without the preacher.  Instead, it is an investment in the preacher’s future ministry of the Word.  Then again, it takes some discipline on the part of the preacher too.

  6. Reading your information reminded me of my first few years in Melbourne when I did an entire year’s preaching plan with specific topics, scriptures etc. I remember one of my wise elders commenting, “Steve, you might want to leave yourself a little room for flexibility,” by which he meant that situations almost always arise where you have to deviate from the plan. It was wise advise that I have kept in mind as I have developed series and done preaching plans through my 23 years here.


  7. Steve,You raise an important concern that I planned to talk about on either the next post or the final one.  Such planning ought to be a help to the one preaching, rather than something to be enslaved to.  You are exactly right.  It is important to leave some room to breath (and for the unexpected).  This is what I did NOT do the first few years that I did this. Now, it is a help which may be rearranged or adjusted when needed.Very helpful…thanks.  

  8. Thanks Frank,I have also lived with a plan and without a plan and I believe I will take a plan.  :)Thanks much,

  9. Jim,
    Thank you for this. I’ve really been thinking about this a lot as I prepare to start working with a new chruch (new to me, that is). Deciding what to do first can be maddening. Any suggestions?
    I typically try to alternate between book series and topical series (but not topical sermons). A series on the Fruit of the Spirit followed by Hebrews followed by the Ten Commandments followed by Luke. I just completed a six month series on Luke. I also try to cover diverse literary genres and alternate between longer series and shorter ones. From 2000 to 2002 I preached through the lectionary texts covering all three liturgical years just to see what it would be like.  

  10. Jim: Having spent 30 years preaching (though some might say I’m just now learning how to preach, and they may be right), and the planning that goes into it, I’m looking forward to this next chapter of my life where I sit and enjoy the fruit of another’s planning. The planning I’ll be doing for the next few years, Lord’s willing, is that of funerals. But that will be a ministry for my son, my wife, and myself as well. The state inspection for "England Family Mortuary" is tomorrow (Friday, May 25).