Posts Tagged ‘sermon preparation’

The office: a bastion of distractions!

Kevin DeYoung did a post, tongue in check I think, about what sermon preparation looks like. There is much truth in there as pastors deal with distractions, important interruptions and family issues as they prepare their sermons. Yes, our life is like yours. We don’t live in ivory towers untainted by the mundane matters of life.

Here is what my schedule looks like without the interruptions and lunch appointments (and times of prayer).

Monday am: Glad I don’t have the day off to turn the sermon over in my head all day. I hate how much of a perfectionist I can be. I work on the liturgy for the next worship service. I may work on SS lessons and some administrative stuff.

Monday pm: I have to head home to watch the kids. While they “rest” I read and study. Right now I’m finishing up a series on Revelation I will teach beginning in the Fall. I’ll prepare for community group or Men’s ministry as well.

Tuesday am: This school year, I spent the mornings teaching CavGirl. I can’t wait to have those mornings back!


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Sunday night I boarded a flight with my son. The flight would take us to LA despite the fact that his first name and our last name was misspelled (Cavellaro it isn’t). That trip would result in surgery.

Apparently I still can’t focus my iPhone

CavSon was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate in 2006. In 2007, while still in China, his lip was repaired. After we adopted him in 2008, we had his palate repair and then revised. He will need a bone graft after his baby teeth are gone and the adult teeth are in. In light of this, we applied to the Shriners’ Hospital cleft team. The surgeon took a quick peek and said “he needs some surgery.” He was originally slated for surgery in November, the first opening the surgeon had at Shriners’. A few weeks ago we got a call informing us that there was a cancellation.  Suddenly, he was scheduled for May 7th.

CavSon was understandably nervous. He wasn’t looking forward to being apart from his mom and sister. But none of us expected what happened. A 3 hour surgery took about 6 hours. There was more extensive work done than we expected. To do that, the surgeon met some unexpected issues. In addition to elongating his palate (so he can make more sounds for his speech), there was some revision to the hard palate, as well as his lip (yet again). It is hard, at times, to sort our what is necessary and important and what is a result of the surgeon’s perfectionism. I’m just a parent, a pastor etc. You just aren’t sure.

With the length and extent of the surgery, CavSon did not rebound as quickly as he did in 2008. He was just a mess. I know it was irrational, but I felt like I’d failed my son, miserably. It was heartbreaking to watch those tears slowly slide down those cheeks intermittently. It didn’t help that he looked like he’d lost a battle with a baseball bat. Swollen, sutured and scabbed he was.

I won’t bore you with the stories of the vomiting up blood, my endless search for sleep, how little food I was able to eat and the joy of holding his bedpan.


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Last week I began a new series in the Letter of James to examine the Community of Faith.  My plan is to move quickly through the letter.  As a result, I’ll be using larger chunks of text than I am used to for a letter.  I should have anticipated what followed, but didn’t.

I had 4 commentaries on my shelf (5 if you include Calvin).  I started with my new commentary by Doug Moo from the Pillar Commentary Series.  I also had Alec Motyer’s Bible Speaks Today volume The Message of James, as well as John Blanchard and Thomas Manton.  Since I was covering some of the introductory matters as well as the text, there was a whole lot of reading to be doing IF I was to use all 4 commentaries.

I had to remind myself why we read commentaries in the first place.  There is a fine line that needs to be walked by the pastor.  We can become too dependent on commentaries.  We can also begin to think we don’t need to use commentaries.  We should walk in the tension regarding commentaries.


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It doesn’t happen often.  But when it does, it is scary.  It is like I understand the parts but not the whole.  I intellectually grasp the bits and pieces, perhaps even how it fits into the larger context.  But I don’t grasp what to do with it.

If you are a pastor, you have probably experienced the same thing.  You can’t quite put words to it, but you’ve got your notes, outline or manuscript and you think it is utterly horrible.  You are afraid that if you preach THAT, you’ll soon be out of a job.

I recently had that experience, and people didn’t quite understand.  That’s the tough part, most people really can’t understand.  Sort of like how only infertile couples get how infertile couples feel every month.  It was only after it had happened, again, that I finally understood what it was.

In The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John Frame talks about cognitive rest, a godly sense of satisfaction.  He relates this to the sanctification of the mind (something that Grahame Goldsworthy tackles as well).  The Spirit is at work to sanctify our minds such that our thinking is brought more in line with God’s.  This is similar to progressive sanctification in which our behavior & character are increasingly brought in line with God’s.  Ethical sanctification interacts with the sanctification of our minds: something like the hermenuetical spiral.

“How many seminarians, I often wonder, have the spiritual maturity to warrant the theological  decisions they are asked to make in preparation for licensure and ordination?

Theological maturity is often hindered by spiritual maturity.  He notes that many doctrinal disputes are due to this kind of spiritual-ethical immaturity.  Spiritual immaturity prevents clear perception on the part of one or both of the people engaged in the dispute.

When we lack cognitive rest, we are not yet satisfied with a doctrinal formulation.  Or a sermonic formulation.  I put it together like this: if I am not yet persuaded by my sermon I can’t expect others to be persuaded.  So, when I think a sermon is horrible, lousy or whatever term you want to use, it is not persuading you of something important yet.  It is no less true, but it doesn’t seem important, significant.  The theological and spiritual import of the text is not yet clear.  It is not until that clarity comes that the sermon becomes persuasive.  Then the pastor enters the cognitive rest necessary for him to think (however foolishly) that it is a good sermon.  He finds it persuasive, not merely accurate.

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I can’t remember where I saw it.  It was a blog post on questions to ask a prospective pastor.  Many of them were good, convicting questions.  One of them was regarding sermon preparation (a standard question on many forms I filled out).  In answering the question, he made some good points for churches to consider.  But something was nagging at me.

His suggestion was 16-20 hours maximum for sermon preparation.  He made the very good point that a pastor can’t spend 40 hours on a sermon and fulfill his other responsibilities.

What I say now is not to refute anything he said, real or imagined ( this won’t be a John MacArthur-Darrin Patrick thing especially since I’m no one important and I don’t even remember who he was though they were more important than me).  It is to supplement.

Part of it is born of experience, including this week.  Sermon preparation is not a formula.  Certain tasks are required (working with the original languages and translations to exegete the text, reading a few trusted commentaries to make sure you exegeted it well, exegeting your congregation and community, thinking about the application and sermon structure).  Those tasks take time.  But they do not a sermon make.

The work of the Spirit to illumine the text is essential.  You can do all the “academic” prep work you want, but until the Spirit shines the light on what pulls it all together and points it toward Jesus- all you’ve got is the beginnings of a paper for seminary or Bible college.

Different Decade, Same Experience

This week I’ve been pounding my head on the table, wall and any other hard object I can find.  I did my analysis in Hebrew, looked at parallel passages, read 4 commentaries and a book about this portion of Scripture.  Yet, I left the office Wednesday without a “Big Idea” and therefore no sermon structure.  I was at an impasse.


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Tim Keller has begun blogging.  One of his first posts is on the balance between time preparing a sermon and other pastoral tasks.  His point is that in Reformed circles, we can often think that great preaching cures a multitude of ills.  But meaningful ministry is far more than that (not less though).

He brings up the pattern of John Calvin who taught and/or preached almost every day.  But he also spent Thursdays in the consistory counseling with people about their sins, temptations.  He spent the better part of a day each week shepherding the people.

It is then that Keller says something surprising:

I pastor a church with a large staff and so I give 15+ hours a week to preparing the sermon. I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time, however. When I was a pastor without a staff I put in 6-8 hours on a sermon.

I suppose I would expect Tim Keller to give 15 hours to sermon prep.  He has a lifetime of learning upon which to draw.  I probably spend about 15 hours on sermon preparation.  Much of that is sorting out how to communicate the text: structure, application, illustration.

I try not to spend too much time in commentaries.  They can become redundant and you have a law of diminishing returns (so choose wisely!).  You can also get too many good ideas and feel the burden of trying to say everything.

I wanted to spend more time in shepherding.  But in a small congregation there are only so many problems people can have.  Or is that people who have problems (and actually want to deal with them).

A younger pastor will probably need more time to prepare a sermon since he is still learning how.  He does not have a lifetime of learning upon which to draw.  He needs to put in a bit more time in study.  I’m not sure 6-8 hours are enough time for a young pastor to properly prepare a solid, applicable sermon.

This does not mean a young pastor shouldn’t spend time with people.  When I started, I had lunch most Sunday afternoons with congregants.  I would meet people for lunch, did some counseling etc.  A small church pastor can devote 10-15 hours to sermon preparation and have adequate time to spend shepherding and leading.

So, I agree with Keller that pastors much do more than study and preach or teach.  Shepherding and leadership need to be regular, significant parts of their week (administration as well).  I guess we just have different estimates of who much time a young man needs to adequately prepare a sermon

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