My Sermon Preparation Work Flow

Light at the end of the tunnel

I sometimes get asked how I prepare for a presentation or sermon. Frankly, sermon preparation often feels like a long dark tunnel with a glimpse of relief at the end. This is actually much more personal to me than just a list of various steps I follow.(I will list them at the end)  It’s personal because:

  • Speaking is the thing I’m most insecure about.
  • It creates tension for me because it’s also one of the primary things, when I’m in the moment, that gives me the most joy and satisfaction.
  • Preparing for a sermon/talk continues to be the single most difficult thing I have to do.  Both emotionally and from a time point of view. (It takes me forever)

The process is the same for me if its a sermon or some other speaking engagement. I used to get embarrassed, because I felt like I never had a process. It felt completely unorthodox. I for sure didn’t follow any process that I was taught in college or homiletics class. It’s taking me a long time, but I’m finally ok with how I do it. It’s probably because I’m “ok” with my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to public speaking. Before I list my workflow I think its important to give some context

A Few Thoughts Around Public Speaking

  • There are Two Primary Skills When it comes to Public Speaking. Content creation and communication. Most people aren’t naturally great at both. I think I literally stink at content creation. I wish I could create the cool phrases of Andy Stanley, or the awesome outlines of Rick Warren, or the plain old blunt creativity of Perry Noble.  Sometimes I get lucky and have a stroke of genius, but it’s definitely not natural for me. I’m finally ok with this. I wasn’t for a long time. I felt I had to live up to some imaginary standard.  I have learned so much from much smarter people than me and am proud to use their work, as allowed, in helping me deliver a strong presentation. I always try to er on the side of giving more attribution than less. I’m definitely not the most creative person in the room!
  • Find People You Trust to Give You Helpful Feedback.  Some people give feedback, even helpful feedback, but for whatever reason it’s difficult to “hear” it from them.  Feedback is never easy to hear, especially if its highlighting areas for improvement, but there is something to be said about finding the person that you can “hear” the feedback from.
  • Get Some Professional Coaching. For instance, I learned a ton, probably the most ever, from Hugh Phillips in a one on one training session. He listened to a live presentation of me preaching. He  made note of my word count, speed, pitch range, body movements, eye contact, etc, etc. You name it, we tracked it!. I learned so much
  •  Work With Your Personality In preparation.  I’m a planner by nature. I need to work by a schedule. It just makes me feel much more comfortable. Because of that I always prepare way in advance. Others of you will do your best work last-minute. This will likely drive some of your teams crazy, but it is how you excel. Either way you will need to create systems around you that support who you are.  Just be clear and declare your preparation style.
  • Primary or Secondary. This is another important question.  Do you feel called to be the primary communicator or secondary? Don’t confuse or equate primary communication with being the Sr. Pastor or senior leader of the organization.  I believe senior leaders MUST be the key vision communicators, but I don’t believe they need to be the primary communicators.  So, which one are you? I think I’m best in a secondary role. For me, I love casting vision, inspiring a response and calling people towards decision.  I’m definitely not the best person to be teaching Pauline theology. If the Lord ever granted me the responsibility of leading a church family, I would definitely hire a strong Bible teacher and team teach with them.
  • Ask The Right Questions. If you are looking for a job in ministry or a field that requires public speaking, make sure to ask questions around the above comments. Most organizations have very strong feelings and expectations around communication values. Unfortunately, I find  they are often unspoken and you don’t find out what they are until an expectation has been broken. Ask about content creation vs communication. Which one do they value more, what does it look like? What does it not look like? What does a feedback process look like? How about personal coaching? Expectations around preparation.  Clear expectations always help avert unmet expectations in the future. Ok, now to my workflow steps.

My Sermon Preparation Work Flow

Ok, so here is my unorthodox way of preparing for a presentation and/or sermon.

1. Find the Idea & Write It Down

  • When it comes to sermons, I’m definitely a topical preacher vs exegetical.  (I hate the comparison, but some of you will ask, so there it is)
  • I’m driven by ideas that evoke a strong emotion within me personally. If I hear a sermon, read a book, overhear a conversation, anything that capture my attention and motivates me, I write it down.  My journal currently has a page titled, “Sermons I Will Preach Someday”
  • I listen to sermons for fun! So, in some ways, I’m always in the idea finding mode. However, it’s something I enjoy. Not only does it teach me, but it gives me a framework to think through on many ideas that I may need to speak about at some point in the future.
  • Talks that really inspire get an asterisk beside them and I will try to communicate these sometime in the future. Sometimes this is only weeks in advance, and sometimes it will be years before I actually work on the idea.
  • I save virtually anything that I find interesting through Evernote. From podcasts, to articles, to news clippings that I take a picture of and email to myself. It all goes into Evernote.  You can find out more about my top productivity tools here.

2. Start To Research

  • Once a topic has been decided upon, I find as much about the topic as I can. I first listen to as many talks as I can on the topic. This is opposite to some who like to do their own written work first. I don’t. I try to listen to 5-10 talks on a topic as my first step. I mark down the various portions that impact me personally. 
  • The most important part for me is the closing. 99.9% of the time I will have some kind of call to action/response with al my sermons/talks. When I research I’m primarily looking for a clear ending, a way to motivate people to respond to the truth of the text. Again, often opposite of many who start with a nice outline first. More on that below.
  • If it’s a sermon I then next research the passage with Logos. This includes commentaries, word studies, etc.
  • I also love looking through old sermon databases of Spurgeon or Finney, etc. Mr. Spurgeon has had me so convicted on many occasions just by reading his sermons.

3. Begin Writing

  • I only write content that has impacted me personally. If it’s a good thought, but didn’t stir something within me, I leave it out. I find I communicate best from a place of personal experience and interaction with the content. Just the way I do it.
  • My writing goes through about 4 different draft phases. These include. First Research Draft, Cut down Draft, Really Cut Down Draft and Final Cut Down Draft. Literally, that’s what I title them.
  • Most of the work and creation actually happens once I begin talking it out. The first research draft is literally a massive compilation of all the research. I literally begin preaching it to myself. If something moves me, convicts me, I keep it. If it doesn’t, it gets deleted.

4. Preparation Timeline

  • 4-6 weeks out. Research Phase. Once I know I’m on to speak at an event or service I start researching over a month out.
  • 4 weeks out. I write the first draft of y sermon.  I share it with Naomi, look at it once per day and write out my cut down version.  I almost always have too much content. Once its written, I leave it alone and don’t work on it for the next couple of weeks.
  • 2 weeks out.  Once a day (sometimes twice) I start speaking out my sermon. Practicing my talk is actually where I find that most  of my ideas and content really gets solidified and added/deleted.  Within three days I have edited and re-written a “Really Cut Down Draft.
  • 1 week out. I now have a Final Cut Down Draft.  Its printed out, and I wont reprint it again. I now practice the talk twice a day (morning and afternoon) leading up to the event.  My pieces of paper are literally scribbled all over and not legible to most people.
  • Day of. If a sermon, and because our first service is on a Saturday, I practice my talk Saturday morning, and then again Saturday afternoon. Supper with the team and then service starts. I don’t rehearse it again for Sunday morning.

There you have it. That’s my workflow, from idea to final product.  Any thoughts? Does it sound kind of ridiculous? I kind of think so, but it’s what works for me.

A Few Closing Tips

  • I use a timer every single time I rehearse my talk. By the end I usually know within 1 minute how long I will be.
  • I rehearse all my opening welcome comments and closing comments. Often communicators don’t rehearse these and they become unexpectedly long or seem fragmented. (This is incredibly important in a multisite environment. If you don’t rehearse saying the right things, you will speak how you naturally do. ie You will say good evening to everyone on Saturday even though many people will hear you Sunday morning. So I rehearse with “How’s everyone doing today?” It works for both Saturday and Sunday, but I rehearse it.
  • I walk through every component of the talk with my tech teams, etc. I ensure they know exactly where I will be standing when (most of the time) so that they can be prepared with camera angles, audio levels, etc.  The last thing you want is a big distraction that detracts from the message. A jumpy camera operator or feedback at the wrong time can wreck the moment.

In the end it is the Holy Spirit who brings people to conviction. I am so thankful for this. It sure takes the pressure off. He is also our strength and the one who equips us for every good work. I am woefully inadequate to preach the Gospel, but so thankful He allows me to from time to time. The fact the He allows us to serve Him is a mystery I am thankful for every day. If I never speak another word or if He calls me to speak more often, it is only through Him and because of Him that I obey His call.  And thankfully, He allows me to prepare in the way I choose. I love who He has made me to be and above all am thankful to be called His son! He is the one I serve.

[Image via goingslo|]

Husband’s, How to Better Communicate With Your Wife

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Husbands,(or future husbands) this one is for you. Three sections to this post

  • background conversation
  • example questions to ask your wife
  • a challenge to start this week


Conversation in a nutshell:Continue Reading