Visit our new site at

Thursday, September 20, 2007

When do you write your sermon?

Ask the Matriarchs!

A good question for this week- and one that, given the singular (and excellent) reply by our Matriarchs, a question most of us don't have a good answer for just yet.

Dear Matriarchs,
I hate spending all day every Saturday working on a sermon and liturgy for the next day, but I can't seem to find another sermon prep plan that works. Although I've been a minister for 10 years, I've only been a solo pastor for the past 2 years. As an Associate, I only preached once a month and had lots of time to prepare. Now, I start the week exhausted from the Saturday and Sunday before, can't get my head into the text much before Wednesday or Thursday, get the bulletin done by Friday noon, and spin my wheels all day Saturday. Non-Member Husband is getting resentful of our lost weekends, especially since this call is supposed to be 'part-time.'

Any suggestions? I'd even like to get ahead because I'm going to be doing some continuing ed on weekdays in October. But at this point, I can barely stay even.

From Karen:

I'm often doing sermon work on Saturday, so I'm not a good one to give advice on how to avoid this completely. However, I make it my goal to do enough sermon work during the week that Saturday is a matter of a few, (2-3) hours of finishing and tweaking rather than the whole thing. Then I try to tuck those hours into the early morning before everyone else is awake and/or after the kids' bedtime. (Not that this always works, mind you.) I'm also taking a good hard look at my own procrastination tendencies that prevent me from getting more of the sermon done before Saturday. When I'm completely honest with myself, I see that doing sermon stuff on Saturday is only about half due to urgent ministry tasks that took up my time on the weekdays--the other half is due to my own self-sabotaging choices. This may or may not apply to you.

That being said, the preaching schedule of a solo pastor can be exhausting. Even if you subtract the Sundays in four weeks of vacation and two weeks of study leave, you're looking at potentially 46 sermons a year. (And many small church pastors are tempted not to take all those Sundays off because of the difficulty finding and paying pulpit supply.) During my six and a half years as a solo, part-time pastor I employed various strategies to get breaks from weekly sermon prep even when I was not away on vacation or study leave.

1. Is there a retired or non-parish pastor anywhere near you who would preach for you a few times a year and see this as "service to the larger church" rather than as a paying gig? During my part-time, solo pastor years, a retired clergywoman offered to do this for me and it was a godsend. (Hint: if you are reading this and you are retired or non-parish clergy and you can afford occasionally to do pulpit supply without remuneration, PLEASE consider making this offer to a solo pastor near you!)

2. Offer to be a neutral pulpit for churches in your area who are interviewing candidates for pastoral positions. I think we only did this twice in the six years I was there, but still--it was a welcome break each time.

3. Preach someone else's sermons--with proper attribution, of course. Read one of MLK's sermons on MLK Sunday. Read excerpts from Luther/Calvin/Wesley's sermons on Reformation Sunday. Read a Revolutionary War era sermon on the Sunday closest to July 4. Etc. You don't want to make an every week habit of this, of course. But there are times when it is appropriate AND it gives you a break.

4. Have a once a year "Hymn Festival" Sunday where members submit favorite hymns in advance and the "sermon" part of worship is having several of these folks get up and say something about why a particular hymn means so much to them. Then sing the hymns! Likewise, on the Sunday closest to All Saint's Day, have the "sermon" be a few members sharing stories of departed saints of your church who were significant to their growth in faith.

5. Do a pulpit swap with a church nearby. (You can use one of your very best, already written sermons!) Employ a combination of these ideas to try to get a preaching break at least once a quarter in addition to your vacations/study leave. It gives you a breather that you can use to plan, read and work ahead so that every week isn't such a scramble. It also enables you to point to Saturdays on the calendar when your household could actually plan a day trip or other adventure.

What say you?


  1. I was an associate for three years and have been solo for the last six. Adjusting to every-week preaching was a big deal.

    But the ugly truth is that no one is going to solve this for you. You have to make yourself do it before Saturday; you have to find the energy (pray for it too) or it will never improve. My congregation sponsors a radio show on Sunday mornings, and I have to have the sermon taped and turned in to the station by Friday at 5pm. This is a great discipline for me. Over the years, that deadline has shaped my schedule: Monday off, Tuesday I start thinking about the sermon, work on it randomly during the week, and I reserve Friday to write it. No other appointments unless emergencies arise.

    If you want to get it done before Saturday, it's your responsibility to make that happen. I realize I sound harsh, but pastors can be their own worst enemies in this situation. There will always be excuses - valid ones - not to get it done. You have to make it a priority and rearrange other things around it. Which takes time. Best wishes.

  2. I don't preach every Sunday (yet) so can't help there. But as a suggestion, use people like me for a break now and then as well. (Seminarians/pre-seminarians) My priest has had me preach twice now. I love getting the practice and I think she quite enjoys the break.


  3. Like Tandaina, I'm not a full-time preacher, either. Between internships and general discernment, I've done about a dozen sermons. I find that if I read the text and do some background work during the week, my sermon gets written in about 2 1/2 hours (usually late Saturday night). For me, it really does have to percolate all week.

  4. I've been both solo pastor, preaching every week, sometimes twice, and now an associate, preaching once a week. This is what helped me:
    1) planning ahead, sometimes as much as a quarter at a time. As a lectionary preacher, this meant devoting one morning a quarter to reading and thinking about the texts. Then I came up with very preliminary texts and titles or themes.
    2) joining a preaching discussion group. There are great resources online, but my favorite group was myself, a UCC pastor, and an RC priest, with the occasional visit from a local Presbyterian. My group met Tuesdays for about an hour, and was time well spent in talking about preaching angles.
    3) Start with Monday (or Tuesday if Monday's off), researching and brainstorming, looking for a theme or concept that will shape the sermon. I usually take about an hour to look online (love and and then another hour to make notes.
    4) the rest of the week, frequently review your material, making notes. Don't assume you'll remember anything--write it down. Read the text at least once at the start of each session.
    5) Write on Friday. If you have great ideas beforehand, by all means start earlier, but plan at least 3 solid hours for writing. We have a standing date for Friday nights, so that puts positive pressure on me to finish, and forces me to take a break if I can't.
    6) If it gets done on Friday, great. Mine almost never does, even as an associate (just means I don't have any time set aside for sermon prep in my week!). If you have to write on Saturday, 3 hours ought to do it. I go into the office so that I'm not torturing myself in front of my husband, and so that he has a concrete expectation of where I am, what I'm doing, and when I'll be back. I usually sweeten the deal with something we can do together that's just us...go for a walk, get ice cream...I try to find a post-sermon reward rather than saying, when I get home I'll clean the bathroom.
    If you preach from notes rather than a manuscript, you might be able to reduce the schedule. I much prefer the manuscript, myself.
    Hope this helps!

  5. Excellent suggestions- thank you for your input!

  6. My sermon prep schedule differs slightly from RevAnne, though not by much. I echo her suggestions to get involved in a discussion group and to plan ahead if you're a lectionary preacher.

    I usually plan a month out, spending a morning or afternoon thinking about the lectionary. I keep a notebook just for sermon notes, so I'll write the date and my (preliminary) selected texts and themes.

    Monday is a day off, so Tuesday is just note-taking. I read the text a few times and see if certain words or ideas jump out at me, I read commentaries, I try to make connections to life events and illustrations. Wednesdays I'm still doing this, but maybe starting to write. Thursday I really try to bear down and finish. If I need to, I'll let it spill over to Saturday (Friday is my other day off), but hopefully I'm practicing it by then.

    I'm an outline preacher, so I don't spend as much time actually writing the sermon. That's how I'm usually able to finish by Thursday and then use Saturday to practice. For me, that minimizes the sermon from becoming an albatross AND it gets me to be more conversational/improvisational on Sunday morning.

  7. I would say, don't get down on yourself. Follow whatever rhythm is natural.

    When I first started, I used to panic over the sermon and freeze and freak out as I was preparing it.

    The biggest cure for me was one Sunday, after a year or so, when I didn't have a sermon at all prepared and I had to stand up and preach. So I just preached off the cuff about what was going on with me. When I realized I could do that, it took the pressure off.

    I often do many sermons like that now. I have a general idea and go with the flow.

    Other times I write them out word for word. Sometimes on Friday, sometimes on Saturday. My favorite time is getting up at 4 am on Sunday and doing it!

    Point: No rules. Go with you!


  8. I think it's important to prioritise family life over sermon writing -

    for the simple reason that we should get our priorities right

    God, spouse, kids, job and church. If 4 and 5 are the same then it's easier
    so often our families suffer and they shouldn't - not because it's only a job - but simply because jesus said He'd buildthe church but we promised to take careof our families

    all too often I've been in church and prayed for God to look after my family CRAZY role reversal .. and it doesn't honour God

    There's no bonus points in heaven for giving up every Saturday to church (sermon writing) ... there will be enough weddings and funerals and other church things to eat away at family time

    When I read the thread here on Saturdays - it's fun - but it also makes me a little sad

    Ladies - we can do better than this - our families deserve it - and so do we!

  9. At the risk of being scolded by Lorna,;-) I will say "My name is Cheesehead, and I am a Saturday sermon writer." My family is just fine.

    I tried and tried to be a Thursday writer, but the text needs to sit and stew all the way to Saturday. The past couple of weeks, I have gone back to my original noon-ish deadline,and have met it. There is plenty of Saturday still left to take care of my loved ones.

    As I write this, I am in the middle of a reading week, which means that I am not preaching this Sunday, but my parish associate, a retired biblical scholar worth this weight in gold, is preaching instead.

    I have planned or will have planned, every service for the rest of the calendar year by the time I go back to the office on Tuesday. If your schedule allows it, I heartily recommend taking a week or a few days a couple of times I year to do this.

    The Hymn Sing idea is a good one that I have used. So is neutral pulpit. Also, maybe do a laity Sunday or see if the judicatory leadership will give you a break by preaching once a year or so. (For me that's an Executive Presbyter)

    The best piece of advice is to not worry so much about when you write if it fits your life. If it doesn't, then see how you can make subtle adjustments the rest of the week. Maybe have a heart to heart with your husband about what is a realistic weekend schedule when one of the partners is clergy. Make another time during the week to be sure and spend together.

  10. One thing I do--similiar to some of the other suggestions here--is to have a substitute preacher just about every month. Just once, and not every month, unless I'm on vacation. I've asked our local MP's, the pastor of our host church congregation, the clergyperson between congregations, the seminary students, laity from the congregation... I've also used recorded (DVDs) of our denominational founder and sermons preached during General Conference.
    The pastor of our host congegation and I have agreed to share preaching responsibilities during Christmas and Holy Week.
    This is NOT "getting out of" writing the sermon. I have learned so much from watching others preach, it keeps things fresh for the congregation, and for some of those fill-in preachers, it gives them experience or practise or an opportunity to reach our members.

  11. In my case, Saturday is the best time to write. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing on Saturday. The question is whether it's a poor choice for particular individuals.

    In my case it works well. Whether or not the sermon is complete, I spend time on Saturday preparing for Sunday. When I tried not to, I found it hard to really take a day off during the week. Since I made a commitment to Friday as a Sabbath, working on Saturday has felt peaceful. I don't have to be in the office, and in my case the child who is at home is elsewhere on Saturdays. And since there are often other obligations to church on Saturdays, it's not a realistic day to mark as being purely for family or rest, at least for me.

    I heartily endorse participating in a group. I meet with four other preachers every Tuesday morning, and generally by the time I leave there I have some sense where I am going. Writing the bulletin on Wednesday (usually, occasionally Thursday) also helps form thoughts about my preaching destination. But like Cheesehead, I like to let it percolate. If I can do some writing during the week, great! More important to me is some note-taking and outlining. If I can do that, the sermon almost seems to "write itself" on Saturday. Yes, there are weeks where you hear me crying panic! But that is not typical.

    When I have a chance to outline a season or a series, it all comes more easily, so I agree with that thought from Cheesehead, as well.

    Lorna, I'm sorry you find the Preacher Party sad. It's my hope that participants find it supportive.

  12. Greetings,

    I have had times when sermon writing came easily for a few weeks and others where it felt like a chore. What I have recognized looking back at those times is that times when it was easy, or at least going along with the least amount of pain (suffering is a part of writing after all), two things were coinciding:

    1) My prayer life was in a good spot. Times when I have been less attentive to it sermon writing was harder. I know that seems like stating the obvious, but we all go through dry prayer spots.

    2) I was not spending all my time in the office. When I am out and about on church business and especially on non-church business interacting with other human beings it seemed to give God more opportunities to plant a sermon seed in my head. Though this may just be an excuse of mine to go to Starbucks.

    Thus is my two cents.

  13. hmm, I preach only every three weeks, but I second the other associate who said "that means I don't have scheduled sermon writing time!" My weeks filled with all the usual church stuff, plus planning lesson plans for confirmation (2 hours every sunday all school year), youth groups (ditto), children's times, prayers, and other worship duties. When there's a sermon to write as well, sadly the SP doesn't take one of those other things, nice though that would be!

    I don't know if this will be helpful at all, but I'll share anyway. We work here approximately 8 weeks ahead. We have a lectionary study group that looks at the text for 8 weeks away (this Tuesday we looked at November 4). Then the preacher for that day turns that discussion into a theme and some notes. The following Thursday (9 days later) the Worship Planning Group gets together to brainstorm how we can approach the text in worship. The following Tuesday the staff (me, SP, and musician) actually create the service outline. It's now six weeks until the text comes up.

    The week of, I copy the text out by hand onto a blank white paper (no lines) which I then carry around with me everywhere. I whip it out to read it over pretty much everywhere I go. Tuesday morning we finalize the service, Wednesday or Thursday we print the bulletin. I try SO HARD to write on Thursday afternoon by just locking my extrovert self away until I have something. Sometimes that's good, and sometimes it gives me a very bad product that gets reworked later anyway. Friday I'm off and Saturday I re-work or write from the beginning. Somewhere in there I've also planned confirmation, often on a totally different text, and begun work on the text for 8 weeks away and brainstormed the worship flow for 7 weeks away and outlined the worship for 6 weeks away. Yes, we are all going crazy, why do you ask? But somehow it's all working out. We are in a rhythm. Having said that, if I had to preach every week along with teaching confirmation every week, I wouldn't be here very long. By "here" I mean "on earth" because the last 9 months alone would have killed me.

    This is a really long comment that probably was in no way helpful, but the general gist is this I suppose: take the time to plan ahead. Though you might go insane at first, it will pay off eventually.

  14. First, Listing, I'm so sorry. I meant to respond to this and I didn't (does 3 sermons in a week count as an excuse?)

    Second, not everyone has a family.

    Third, not everyone has preaching as part of their job description, which means nights and weekends are part of the deal.

    Fourth, here's my technique for what it's worth:

    I select the text to be preached as early as possible. I then print it out from the internet about 10-15 times (different translations and fonts), and post it all over my house. I don't have an hour a day to work on a sermon (see above, preaching is not in my job description, it's an extra job), but I do usually have 5 minutes, 10 times a day. This goes on for as long before the sermon as possible.

    When I'm being on-task, I exegete and write the first draft on Thursday night, and then the 2nd draft on Friday night. On Saturday, I do final edits, and preach on Sunday. But since I'm not always on task, and sometimes I have other commitments on Thursday and Friday, sometimes I have to crank it out on Saturday, which I truly hate---not because I'm working on Saturday, but because I hate to not have time to think before the second draft.

    I found it MUCH easier to preach every week than to preach on and off. I suppose that's because it's what I did first, so it feels "normal" to me, and because I'm a person who does much better with a predictable schedule. I had times in my week that were sermon times, and even if I had a week off that week (for a guest or whatever), I took that time to prepare for future weeks, read the books about the whole gospel, etc. I am much more sane on that schedule! But it's not the schedule I have, so here's my 2 cents worth.

  15. Are you the one typing and copying the bulletin? or are you talking about choosing hymns, prayers, etc. for the bulletin?

    When I was in seminary with no secretary, I would take several days and type all of the bulletins for months in advance. I saved them by date (i.e. 091607). The only time I spent weekly preparing the bulletin was for announcements or tweaking what had already been done. Copying and folding could even be done early because the announcements were on an insert.

    I still spend intentional time choosing hymns, prayers, scripture, Affirmation of Faith, etc. for months in advance. I give those to the secretary and music/worship folks. Some changes are made along the way but they are usually minor.

    If you follow the Sat preacher's party, you'll know that not only am I a Sat. sermon writer, I am a late Sat. sermon writer. However, I'm not usually starting my sermon "from scratch" at that point. The scripture has been "carried with me" through the week. Very often, I look at the next Sunday's scripture on Sunday evening. There have been times when someone has complemented last Sunday's sermon late in the week and I have no idea what I preached because I've already been thinking about the next Sunday's sermon for days.

    One of my mentors would stay at home on Fridays to write his sermon. His own deadline meant that the sermon had to be done by 5:00 pm on Friday. He never answered the phone and he only checked messages after 5:00. Folks learned that he would call them back on Friday if it was urgent or an emergency, but other stuff waited until Sat or Sun.

  16. I started as a solo, went to associate life and now I am a supply preacher. The schedule when I was a solo was easiest. I was single and could ruminate all day on Saturday, wandering back and forth to the computer to write, rewrite, talk out loud, etc.

    When I became an associate I also became a wife. (Three months in between the two gigs.) At my last associate call I preached one third of the time but it was for four services. The quantity was the exhausting part. Plus I didn't have all day Saturday to ruminate. Church on Saturday night meant I had to be ready by 3:00 but I also had Saturday night for rewrites! ;-)

    Now I have weeks to prepare and I still write on Friday nights and Saturdays.

    So the only advice I really have is to do seasonal planning for worship. Get the bulletins done WAY in advance. That helps the process get started and you can do the bulletins a good week ahead. Then the pressure is only on the sermon writing.

  17. ok you may hate this... i preach every week and when i'm at my best the sermon is done on Tuesday. i do exegetical work on Monday; join a discussion group on Tues mornings. write Tues afternoons. i have saturday as my only day off so i try to guard it carefully.

    however... when i am a slacker and not as Jason said 1)praying as much as i ought or 2) getting out of the office as much as i ought...then my writing takes a nose dive and it's Fri nites/Sat mornings and believe you me i hate that, & the family hates that.

  18. Okay- Here's what I hear:

    1) There is no one right way, and thinking you SHOULD do it one way just leads down a dead end road

    2) That having been said, all ways of approaching the sermon take discipline. If you work best writing early, it takes discipline to carve out that time. If Saturday works best, you can't let you work spill over into Saturday. We all need some parameters.

    3) Grace is good. Nothing will work every time.

    4) As a wise friend of mine says, we should take the sermon seriously- worship is important.

    5) As another wise friend of mine says, we shouldn't sacrfice ourselves on the altar of the perfect sermon.

    6) It's Thursday night. I wish I had my sermon written.

    7) No one way works for everyone. Find the way that is best for you, the way that best honors your vocation(s).

  19. Lorna. Careful.

    Listing Straight - thanks, that was a great summary.

  20. I do my best writing under at least a bit of pressure so I do write on Saturday--and I have a service at 5 pm Saturday, too.

    My writing process is such that I need to mull the readings over in my mind for a while first, so I always begin reading and thinking early in the week. But the writing just won't come until later.

    At first I worried about this but now I just recognize that that is how I work and so I plan accordingly, leaving Saturday morning free for writing. And if I HAVE to be somewhere else, I can in a pinch do it on Friday instead.

    It seems to me that you need to figure out what process works for far ahead you need to begin preparing, how to carve out time earlier in the week.

    Once piece of advice that I've heard over and over is that pastors/ministers/priests should have a dedicated study time--a whole day even--but I've not yet figured out how to work that in. But if your call is part time, can you designate a day early in the week just for sermon prep and nothing eles?

  21. This discussion was so heartening! I'm also a Saturday sermon writer, and for such a long time I felt guilt about that and thought I was failing. It wasn't until I found RGBP that I realized that I wasn't the only one writing Saturday. My Saturday writing is mostly a rhythm thing - I also need time for things to percolate, but also a procrastination/time management issue. I appreciate so much the comments from other "percolators" who have shown me a way for me to better embrace my natural rhythm.

    this is a great book in which several great women preachers - BBT, Jana Childers, etc. have described their sermon writing process, and it includes sermons from them as well. It is yet another affirmation that there is no one right way to get there, it's a matter of what works for you and building on that.

  22. Thanks everyone-

    and Rev. Kim- that book looks wonderful! I've put it on my Amazon wish list (and I voted that the last review was inappropriate).

    See you next week! Same time. Same website.

  23. I clicked through to the book, too. The last comment was inappropriate and I voted that way too. The consolation for me was at least it was online and not f2f.

    However, I thought the "other recommended reading" books for home childbirth and easier delivery was funny.

  24. I didn't vote it unhelpful; I reported it. It's not a book review.

  25. Just wanted to add to the wisdom above -- I am a Saturday sermon writer and yes my family hates that I write sermons on Saturday. BUT, part of the reason I do is that Saturday is the only day that I can get a goodly chunk of undisturbed time, in large part because the flexibility of the pastorate means that I am available to drop off and pick up and be there for classroom programs, etc, for my family, on other days. Saturday is Dad's day to juggle that stuff. This rhythmn has worked for us through 10 years of ministry and raising kids. As the kids get older, I can see that as schedules change perhaps my practice will change to. But for now the best thing I've done is to just accept who I am, how I do things, and trust that God will provide the words for the gathered people!

  26. I may have written this here before, but Jana Childers was my preaching prof. She teaches a "tried and true" method in her classes.

    And yet when I am out in the real world, I do almost none of the things she taught me.

    Don't let that mean the book isn't good. What I like about the book is that a variety of voices are heard--from many different life situations. Jana's book is very good and helpful in that regard.

    Plus, its just cool to read the preacher's reflections about some sermons you actually heard in person!

  27. Great topic.

    I was stressed for months after becoming a solo that my sermon writing was happening more and more often on Saturdays. That seemed like procrastination and poor planning. But the longer I have been in the ministry and preaching week after week, two things have happened:
    1) I am less worried about WHEN the writing occurs and 2) the writing occurs earlier in the week.

    I have also noticed that some weeks, the sermon could not have been what it was had I completed it earlier in the week. There are often events or things that need to be inthe sermon or linked to the sermon that happen during the week. Having the sermon completed earlier made referencing these things impossible.

    On the otehr hand, the sermon just seems to come together some weeks on Monday or Tuesday and I love those weeks when I to get a saturday to myself - I'm single.

    Too long a post, but I do what is right for me and for the schedule I'm faced with on a given week. Loosen up and write when the Spirit moves! I wouldn't suggest just doing off the cuff as one mentioned. At least have an outline! That's my two cents!!

  28. As a nonparish clergywoman who loves to preach, does it well IMHO, and rarely gets a chance, I can't give any advice about the unknown challenge of doing it every week. But I can second the advice to get subs from those who are qualified to preach and rarely get the opportunity--it will give you a break, your congregation a different perspective, and the person you ask will be very grateful for the opportunity (in my case, so far, always on a volunteer basis).

  29. I'm a little late to the party, but I want to thank everyone for these great suggestions. I have just finished a pastoral internship and will start be searching for a call in the next few months--yet another ask the matriarchs that will get saved and referred to later. Thank you all.

  30. Late to the party (as usual) but I would like to add that I have found that the times I participate in a lectionary group, I get a real head start on the sermon thing. It's not an option available for everyone, but it has been one of the most useful resources for me EVER. Great group of people, great ideas.

    And having to LEAD the Tuesday morning group, looking at the text for a week and a half in advance really help put the pressure on.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.