I love to preach, but sermon preparation has never come easy for me. Even though I had some great homiletical training in seminary, I quickly found I was unprepared for the reality of constructing and delivering a message every Sunday and sometimes several more during a typical week. To make matters worse, outside of the occasional comments I received from those in my congregation — “Good sermon, Preacher!” and “I really liked that story about…” — there was no one who could offer any kind of constructive feedback. Mondays were usually filled with nagging feelings of inadequacy.
Some time back I was talking on the phone with Lloyd, a long-time friend and a young pastor fresh out of seminary. I heard echoes of my early struggles in his questions: “What process do you go through in preparing sermons?” “How do you move from text to sermon?” “Where do you find good illustrations?”
I had one of those “Aha!” experiences. From my recent study of the pastoral epistles, I had noticed something different about the familiar passage of 2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me… entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” I realized this verse was not simply an exhortation to be involved in discipling others. Paul, a preacher, was charging two other preachers, Timothy and Titus, with the responsibility to prepare others to preach. I realized that equipping preachers for ministry is not just the job of seminaries and Bible colleges. It should be part of our job description as preachers.
I floated the idea to Lloyd to begin what I called a “sermon coaching” relationship. “I would have loved it if someone would have been available to serve as a sounding board and provide practical feedback on how to sharpen my preaching skills,” I explained. “So what about testing out a long-distance coaching program. Taped sermons could be sent to me; I will evaluate them, and then set up a phone appointment to discuss what was done well and what you might do to improve.”
Lloyd was eager to begin. In fact, he jumped right in and began peppering me with more questions about the process I go through in preparing a sermon. “When do you block out study time?” “What resources do you find yourself consistently using?” he asked. After we talked for awhile, he said, “What you just shared for the last 15 minutes is the kind of thing that could really shorten the learning curve for me. Count me in!”
I was not surprised by Lloyd’s response. Most professional Christian workers receive whatever training they have in communication during their Bible college or seminary years. Some are effective in their ministry because they have built on the principles they learned in the traditional classroom setting. Yet many seminary and Bible college graduates feel unprepared for their role as preachers.
While working on his graduate thesis, Randal Pelton investigated how pastors continue to struggle with weekly sermon preparation after their formal training. These seminary graduates, most of whom had now been in ministry six or more years, were often frustrated and desperate for input tailored to their specific needs. I found this to be true as well, both in my own life and in the lives of those I have been coaching. The most common areas being:
– Identifying the main idea of the text
– Moving from the textual idea to the preaching idea
– Outlining the sermon
– Illustrations — where to find them, how to use them with the greatest effectiveness
– Introductions that get attention, raise a need and orient the listener to the passage
– Relevant applications that stay true to the intent of the text
Regardless of the caliber of formal training, many young pastors desire more guidance with preparing and presenting relevant, biblical sermons. Young preachers need mentors. They need someone to come alongside them and give encouragement and feedback specific to their needs.
The Return of Mentoring and Coaching
Prior to the 19th century, mentoring in the form of informal apprenticeships and internships was a way of life between generations. Young boys and girls worked alongside a member of the family and / or community to learn life and work skills. With the advent of the industrial revolution, centralized education arose to meet the needs of the changing culture. With many people working in factories rather than farms, education had to occur another way. As a result, formal, classroom instruction has dominated since that time as the accepted form of education.
As Gordon Mac-Donald writes in a forward to The Fine Art of Mentoring (Engstrom, 1989): “Today, what passes for people development happens in a classroom, and the certification of a person is by diploma from an institution rather than a stamp of approval from an overseer, a mentor. The criteria for the judgment of people usually rests upon knowledge rather than wisdom, achievement rather than character, profit rather than creativity. And as long as that is true, mentoring will likely be a second class matter in our value system” (p. x).
However, within the last 25 years, non-formal training in the form of mentoring and coaching has returned to fill the need of keeping up with today’s fast changing culture. Robert Clinton, assistant professor of Leadership and Extension at the School of World Missions, Fuller Seminary argues that “mentoring, a personalized, need-centered training, will most likely dominate the informal training models” of the future.
Clinton has also observed that most people who make it in ministry can point to several persons who came alongside and personally helped them through crisis times in mentoring kinds of relationships. His research indicates that there is a substantial dropout rate in the first five years of ministry after formal training and again after 10 years. However, he went on to state that four out of five who make it through the first five years say they did so as the result of some important and timely mentoring help. One out of two who made it past ten years report that mentoring relationships made the difference. Clinton concludes that all leaders need mentors throughout their lives.
Long Distance Coaching
But what if a mentor is not available in a pastor’s immediate ministry context? Then distance mentoring and coaching can help meet the need. In fact, in secular circles a whole new mentoring career has opened up that primarily relies on using modern communication technology to coach people from a distance, in life and work skills.
Distance coaching (also known as executive, personal, professional, business, phone, career, life coaching) can help people set and reach goals as well as develop and refine skills. Distance coaches help their students in specific areas of desired improvement and provide the tools, support and structure needed to develop the skills they feel they need to succeed in their careers. Again, unlike classic mentoring / discipling relationships that require face-to-face interaction, distance coaching can occur phone- to-phone when the coach and learner are miles apart.
Good coaches do not tell their clients what to do; they help them analyze problems, find solutions, and develop skills through the use of insightful questions and reflective dialogue. They become partners who help their clients focus on what they passionately desire and how they can get it. Coaches may use personality instruments, assessment exercises, questionnaires and / or learning contracts to help discern the clients’ needs and goals. Only then is a course of action decided. Thus, coaching provides a guided learning experience in which there is structure and accountability. The initiative for learning remains with the client at all times. Research indicates that people stick with a coach for an average of about two years. Many people become coaches after being coached themselves.
How I Did It
In my long-distance coaching experiment, I actually worked with three pastors — Lloyd and his copastor Jeff, who were working together to plant a church, and Mark, who had been a pastor for only nine months. All three were eager to participate.
The first thing I asked of the men was that they read Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson. This text provided a common understanding and language to discuss expositional preaching. I instructed each of them to send me a cassette tape and full manuscript of each sermon. The manuscript was beneficial for discussion and also for developing the discipline of thinking on paper. I also asked them to listen to their own messages before our phone conversation.
After reviewing their material and listening to the cassette, we would talk on the phone. I guided them through various principles of preaching and applied those principles to their messages. Sometimes we discussed their upcoming sermons and how to present them. It was not uncommon to discuss other matters related to pastoral ministry. We would use e-mail to summarize our discussion and plan for the next coaching call.
In one of my early sessions with Jeff, he mentioned that he sometimes has a difficult time pulling his messages together. “I’ve got so many mini-messages floating in my head that I have a hard time landing on a few good principles that I need to drive home,” he said. He felt tempted to load all of his ideas into one message.
As a result, we spent the bulk of our time talking about “ideas.” We looked at Ephesians 6:18-20, the passage for that week’s sermon. “What was Paul’s original idea?” I asked. “How did he develop that idea in the passage?” “What is his flow of thought in the larger context?” “How can you communicate that idea to a modern audience, your specific congregation?”
These questions are governed by the principle that the central thrust of the passage becomes the central thrust of the sermon’s application. As Jeff developed his sermon on Ephesians 6:18-20, he noticed that the “big idea” began in verse 10 and that the apostle Paul’s main theme seemed to be, “How can we be strong in the Lord?” Paul answered the question in three parts: by putting on the armor of God (6:11-17), (which Lloyd had preached the previous week), through prayer (6:18) and by being prayed for (6:19-20).
Jeff s message would focus on the two points: our need to pray and to have others pray for us. We talked about how to give those points greater impact. I talked about putting ideas in “picture form” to make them easier for the congregation to understand: “Prayer is to a Christian like water is to the fish! Prayer is not an activity; it’s the atmosphere in which we live and breathe.” I also encouraged him to apply the text to his congregation as a whole and not just to individual believers — to say something like, “If you don’t pray for us as your pastors, we will be weaker for it. That’s what Paul was calling for here.”
As I worked with all three men, I discovered that the learning process takes time. I emphasized key principles over and over, and then saw the men improve as the weeks went by. But in many ways the coaching experiment went better than I expected. Each pastor took the initiative to send tapes and manuscripts. I never had to remind them. They became more diligent and creative in taking charge of their own learning process. When we finished our initial six-month commitment, each of them wanted to continue the relationship. So did I!
Lloyd said it helped to receive this type of feedback from a more experienced pastor who was still preaching himself “It’s great to have someone critique you and affirm you,” he said. “It builds confidence in your preaching.” Mark agreed: “It’s certainly better than listening to my own tapes and not knowing if I am on target or not. Talking with a coach about what I’m doing while I’m doing it is extremely beneficial.”
Why Become a Sermon Coach?
I can hear what you are probably thinking: “That’s sounds like a good thing for you to do, but I don’t need another responsibility. My days are busy enough as they are.” True, my days are busy as well. But it is a well documented fact that when mentoring is working well, the mentor benefits as much or more than the student. In fact, there are several benefits of this “iron sharpens iron” kind of relationship.
1) It is personally gratifying. Few joys equal investing yourself in another person who wants to learn and grow, especially passing on what you know to someone who shares your passion for preaching. As the weeks went by in my coaching experiment, I found myself looking forward to our phone sessions as highlights of my week. They were a welcomed break from the weekly routine. Sermons sometimes fall on deaf ears, but the input given to help someone preach more effectively rarely does.
2) It keeps me thinking and working on the fundamentals. I found that coaching is not the same as teaching, where you prepare a lesson plan and present material in a classroom setting. As a coach, you have to “think on your feet.” And that brings what you know to the surface and then packs it back deeper inside you. Plus, the questions I ask as a coach come back to haunt (help) me as I am preparing my upcoming message. Whatever you teach, you learn.
3) It stimulates creativity and fresh ideas. The reflective interaction with another pastor stimulates creative thinking in both mentor and protege. Talking about Scripture, applications and illustrations provides fresh ideas and insights. Plus, it’s a great two way networking opportunity.
4) It has a multiplied impact. Helping another preacher benefits the congregation to which he preaches. It’s a good thing to help one person; it’s a better thing to help a person who can help others. The time I invest in the one is multiplied in the many. After I helped Jeff with one of his sermons, he commented in an e-mail: “I preached that message on Sunday to 230 people. People you will never know, but who were face to face with God through His word because you were helping me as a communicator of that truth. This really is worth your while. An investment that will pay dividends to literally thousands of people over the course of the next twenty-five years.”
5) It’s a need I understand and can do something about. As a preacher, I am uniquely qualified to role-mentor others who have been where I’ve been and still am.
6) It’s something I can do on whatever scale I choose. I can mentor one, two, three people; once a week, every other week, once a month. I can decide how to best fit it into my schedule.
7) It’s part of the legacy I can leave. Certainly I want to leave a legacy in raising godly children. I invest time mentoring staff and discipling few men in the congregation. But there’s something in me that wants to pass on a part of what I know and do vocationally to the next generation.
In his national bestseller, The Seasons of a Man’s Life, Daniel Levinson states that “being a mentor with young adults is one of the most significant relationships available to a man in middle adulthood.” I have certainly seen the truth of this in my own sermon coaching experience. Not only am I helping other pastors, but I am growing myself. As Levinson goes on to say, “The mentor… is making productive use of his own knowledge and skill in middle age. He is learning in ways not otherwise possible.”
The commitment to preach carries with it a commitment to people. Not only a commitment to your congregation, but also a commitment to the next generation of Timothys. God does use effective preaching to change lives. God also changes lives through mentoring and coaching relationships — student and coach alike.

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