I once heard a corporate leader state the following principle of the business world: “Your system is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re getting.” He elaborated by saying that if someone is manufacturing cars, and every third car rolls off the assembly line missing a right front fender, the system is perfectly designed to produce that result. If a company is consistently losing two thousand dollars in profits each month, then that system is perfectly designed to achieve that goal. Conversely, he said, successful results almost always can be attributed to a system that plans for those outcomes.
The same principle applies to your preaching ministry. Your pulpit work is producing the results that you have designed it to generate. For instance, a preacher who neglects to plan his preaching might create a condition for himself that Wayne McDill calls “the Saturday night panics.” McDill writes, “The symptoms include a knot in your stomach, a backache from bending over the desk, a tendency toward fervent prayer and muttering to yourself about how you will never again wait this late to prepare your Sunday morning sermon.”1 More than one preacher has experienced this frightening syndrome that comes from being unprepared to preach.
Failure to plan your preaching can produce many other unwanted results. A preacher who does not plan might notice that his preaching is marked by an abundance of lackluster messages because he has not allowed himself appropriate time to develop his sermon material. He might feel frustrated at work or at home because he cannot decide what to preach for the coming Sunday. He might even undergo the shocking experience of walking into the church auditorium only to discover the communion table prepared for the Lord’s Supper, an event for which he is totally unprepared.
More seriously, failure to plan can also result in sermons being limited to only a handful of biblical and theological themes. Over a period of time, preaching on limited subjects will hinder the spiritual growth of the church and the pastor. Bryan Chapell warns, “A ministry that only addresses the preacher’s personal concerns can become too limited in perspective for the needs of a congregation. The pastor may end up riding hobbyhorses or unconsciously concentrating on personal struggles, thereby neglecting other important truths needed for a fully informed and mature congregation.”2
That’s why it is important to think about the nuts and bolts of putting together a successful preaching plan. This plan will produce desirable results in your pulpit work. A good preaching plan should accomplish the following objectives in your ministry:
It should guide you in your weekly sermon preparation, informing you of the Scripture texts and general subject matter for every sermon that you will preach.
It should organize your preaching schedule so that you can anticipate and maximize holidays, church ordinances, and other congregational observances.
It should allow for you to preach extended series through Bible books or sections of books as well as thematic series on doctrinal, ethical, social, and personal issues.
It should give you sufficient freedom to alter the plan when necessary.
It should serve the overall strategy of your preaching ministry.
In approaching the mechanics of planning, we will break down the planning process into its various parts. Careful and effective planning for your pulpit ministry will require the following six basic steps.
1. Schedule a planning retreat.
2. Gather the materials you will need to create your plan.
3. Review your preaching from previous years.
4. Determine major series for the coming year’s preaching.
5. Create a preaching calendar.
6. Review and modify your plan occasionally in the course of the year.
We will now examine each of these elements of putting together a preaching plan.
Scheduling a Planning Retreat
Planning for effective preaching will require that you take some type of retreat. Winston Pearce described the planning retreat thus: “If a minister can find some relatively isolated spot – far enough from his church to keep his people from feeling that they can drive out to discuss matters with him, or that he can drive in for any celebration or difficulty that might arise – he has the makings of a good place to unpack the luggage of life and thought and get his planning done.”3
The term retreat can be defined in several ways. In military parlance, it refers to the signal to withdraw from battle. By extension of that primary definition, a retreat can also mean a period of withdrawal and seclusion for the purpose of spiritual contemplation. This type of solitude has long been recognized as a discipline that deepens and refreshes the spiritual life of the believer. Through periodic sabbaticals and times of solitude, the Christian takes the opportunity to reorient his life, to evaluate his objectives, and to set goals for the future. Authors on Christian spirituality such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster discuss solitude among other spiritual disciplines, including prayer and fasting. These authors recommend personal retreats for reflection and growth.4
Just as personal spiritual retreats are very fruitful in your growth as a Christian, a yearly professional retreat to schedule your pulpit work can help you to mature and develop as a preacher and a pastor. The planning retreat is unlike a personal spiritual retreat in that it has a more tangible agenda: to produce a completed preaching calendar for the coming year. However, as the preacher creates his plan, he will pray intently for discernment in formulating his preaching strategy and evaluating the needs of his parishioners.
Furthermore, he will seek the Holy Spirit’s direction concerning the themes and biblical books he will address in the preaching plan. The planning retreat will also include a considerable amount of Bible reading and theological reflection. So although the planning retreat is not purely devotional in its intent, it will yield spiritual benefits for the preacher.
As you think about scheduling a planning retreat, you should consider how far into the future you want your plan to extend. In most cases, the longest workable plan is the one-year plan. I know some preachers who plan precisely what they will be preaching for up to five years in advance. Gifted with strong organizational skills and self-discipline, these pastors are also able to stay on the schedule that they set for themselves. Although it is advantageous for a preacher to have a general idea of the themes and portions of Scripture that he will use in preaching over a two- or three-year period, detailed planning for longer than a year will prove impractical for most preachers. Many contingencies can change the plan and give cause for extensive revision. Once a plan is altered beyond recognition, it ceases to be helpful.
You can, however, forecast with some degree of accuracy what will happen in your church and community and what you will want to address from the pulpit in a year. The shortest plan that actually qualifies as a plan is the thirteen-week, or quarterly, plan. Although you could plan month by month, this type of scheduling is not long range enough to be called genuine advanced planning.
A quarterly plan does not give you the full advantages of planning. Even so, a quarterly plan may be advisable if you are pastoring and going to school at the same time, or if you are in a short-term position such as an interim pastorate. If you plan by quarters, you will want to schedule a time for planning at the beginning of the third month of each quarter. This practice will keep you from preaching beyond the time limits of your plan.
I would recommend planning for a year of pulpit work. I suggest this type of planning for several reasons. First, preprogramming a year’s pulpit work ensures thoroughness and completeness in terms of the subjects that you address. In the course of a year’s preaching, every church member should hear from the pulpit certain doctrines and themes. Another reason is that a year-long plan allows for extensive planning for series through books of the Bible. Although you could preach through a shorter biblical book or part of a longer book in thirteen weeks or less, most books of the Bible require several months to cover. A one-year plan permits you to give attention to the various holidays and seasons of the Christian year.
For these and other reasons, a year-long plan is advisable for most pastors. Pearce writes, “The twelve-month period gives enough time for a man to observe the content of his preaching objectively, yet is brief enough for a man to change his plan if he feels that it is not serving his people’s needs effectively nor bringing the greatest glory to his God.”5
To plan carefully and thoughtfully for a year’s worth of sermons, you should schedule a retreat that includes four to six days of concentrated review, prayer, contemplation, brainstorming, and sermonic spadework. Taking that much time to plan might seem impractical or impossible, but extended planning pays dividends of saved time later, so it is worth the trouble. Even if you should limit your planning to a quarter of a year at a time, you will need to schedule a “mini-retreat,” at least a half day, when you can concentrate on scheduling your preaching for the next three months. A six-month plan will require one or two days of intense planning and scheduling.
It would be unwise to try to do extensive planning while simultaneously doing your weekly work as a pastor. You will not have time to do meaningful planning if you are engaged in all of the activities that take up your work week. Furthermore, you do not need to have the pressures of planning for a year’s worth of preaching while also preparing for the coming Sunday’s sermons. In all likelihood, if you try to do your planning at the office during a normal week of pastoral work, the “tyranny of the urgent” will force you to neglect your planning to attend to more pressing concerns.
Without scheduling a real, away-from-the-office retreat, your planning will probably be frustrating and unfruitful. By leaving the church field for the planning retreat, you will think more creatively because you will be away from the pressures of administering the church, caring for church members, and preparing sermons. You also might find that you will see the needs of your people more clearly when you are away from the church field.
You could schedule your planning retreat for any time of the year, but the most common times for planning are the summer months or the weeks immediately after Christmas. Blackwood advocates the summer as the preferable time for planning. He writes, “The best time to plan is during the summer vacation, when the minister is far enough away from the parish to see it as a whole. He can review the last year’s pulpit work, and then think about what to do in the next twelve months.”6
In scheduling your planning retreat, select a time that tends to be a less hectic period in the church schedule. You might choose to plan your preaching in conjunction with your family vacation, or you might take special time away from your ministry field for the retreat. If you intend to combine your planning retreat with the family vacation, two weeks is a suitable amount of time. You can plan your preaching in the morning hours, then be available to enjoy recreation with your family in the afternoons and evenings. Otherwise, one week of intense prayer, study, and planning will get the job accomplished.
Determining the best time for planning depends on when your yearly cycle of preaching begins and ends. Your preaching calendar might have any one of several beginning places. The civil calendar year begins January first. In most congregations, the church program year begins somewhere around Labor Day, when vacations are over and children are going back to school. The classical Christian year goes from Advent to Advent, with the Advent season beginning on the Sunday nearest November thirtieth. Any of these three calendars could serve as your “preaching year.”
If you choose to use the Christian year in your plan, it most naturally will lead you to schedule your planning retreat during the summer months. You will be planning in the summertime for a program that will begin in November. One advantage of this practice is that the preacher is still in the last planned year while setting up the next. As you plan in the summer, you will be looking toward the year beginning with Advent Sunday. Your program from September through November will already be sketched out and planned. This will keep you from becoming frantic at the end of the summer over the empty spots on your calendar for the first Sundays of the fall program.
Let your congregation know what you are doing when you take your planning retreat. You may not want to tell your church members explicitly that you are planning every sermon for the next year. That revelation might invite unnecessary criticism from parishioners who mistakenly believe that planning ahead neglects the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Simply ask your church to pray for you as you take a week to study the Bible, to pray about God’s direction for Your preaching ministry, and to plan for upcoming sermons.
Gathering Your Planning Materials
When the time comes to take your planning retreat, you will need to assemble the resources that will help you in planning. Before you leave, ensure that the following items are packed in the trunk of your car.
1. Take your Bible.
Bring a copy of the Scripture in the version from which you normally preach. A study Bible of some type might be of special help because such Bibles usually break the Scripture into paragraphs that can be used as preaching portions. The study notes and book outlines can also be beneficial in determining how to preach series through biblical books.
2. Take your personal calendar.
Items such as your children’s birthdays, family vacations, and your wedding anniversary will affect some aspects of your preaching plan. You will need to have your personal schedule in front of you as you create your preaching calendar.
3. Take your church calendar.
This is a list of the yearly events in the life of your congregation. Included will be dates for communion services and baptisms, revival meetings, missions conferences, church-wide Bible studies, homecoming services, special services at Christmas and Easter, and other church programs that will have an effect on your preaching plan. To receive the greatest advantage from your planning, it will be helpful to meet with your ministerial staff or church council one or two months before you take your planning retreat. Doing this will provide you with a schedule for the upcoming events in your congregation.
4. Take your denominational calendar.
As you plan, you will want to know about denominational happenings such as world hunger day, missions days, evangelism days and other emphasis days. Although you will probably not observe every denominational emphasis, many of these special days can benefit the spiritual life of your congregation. Ensure that you take the calendars from your local association of churches as well as regional and national denominational calendars.
5. Take a civic and community calendar.
The civic calendar will list holidays and national or state-wide events. The community calendar will tell you when school begins and ends, the dates of the county fair, the nights of the big high school football games, and other similar local events. Knowing when these things will take place can be of great help to you in scheduling the events and programs at your church.
6. Take basic Bible study tools.
The purpose of the retreat is to plan your sermons, not to prepare them. Nevertheless, you will have opportunity to do some valuable preliminary work on the sermons that you will be preaching in the coming year, and you will need to take some books to help you do this. Books that will be most helpful to you in planning your preaching are reference works such as a Bible dictionary, an exhaustive concordance, a topical Bible, and a systematic theological textbook as well as commentaries on any books through which you intend to preach in the coming year.
7. Take a list of the previous year’s sermon subjects and texts.
Part of your planning process will include looking backward at the work you or your predecessor did in the pulpit the year before. You will need to compile as complete a list as possible of the subject and text for every sermon preached at your church in the previous year. After you have completed a year’s cycle of planned preaching, this list will be easy to generate. If it is your first time to plan your preaching year, or if you have begun a new pastorate, a collection of last year’s church bulletins will give you a picture of the themes that you or the previous pastor have addressed.
8. Take a Preaching Strategy Worksheet.
In my book Planning Your Preaching (Kregel), I discuss the development of a Preaching Strategy Worksheet. You might complete this before you go on the retreat, or you might choose to complete it while you are on the retreat. In either case, you will want to have a well-articulated preaching strategy in front of you as you plan your preaching. It will help remind you of your audience and their needs and will aid you in determining the subjects and themes for your preaching.
Once you have gathered these and other helpful materials, you are ready to leave for a week during which you will plan the preaching program for the coming year. A preacher going on a planning retreat would do well to pick a location that is conducive to extended prayer, study, and planning. Your work during the planning retreat itself will consist of reviewing the previous year’s preaching, planning biblical and thematic series, and creating your preaching calendar.
Janus, the mythological Roman god gifted with two faces, always looked both ways on the threshold of each new year. Near the beginning of your planning retreat, you will need to play the part of Janus, looking into the past so that you can decide your direction for the future. Retrospection can be helpful if you have the right motive for looking back and if you are looking for the correct things One of the keys to success in planning your preaching is ruthless self-evaluation. Keeping that in mind, review your preaching from the previous year.
With a copy of last year’s preaching schedule in front of you, ask yourself the following questions.
• What were some of the general themes on which you preached last year?
• How do those themes correspond to the overarching theological themes of the Bible?
• Did you give significant attention to preaching through biblical books last year?
• What types of sermonic material came from the biblical books through which you preached?
• Was your preaching balanced in its use of the Old and New Testaments?
• Did the pattern of last year’s sermons provide for variety without confusion and unity without repetition?
• Of the messages that you preached last year, did any elicit a strong enough response from the congregation to merit preaching more extensively on that or similar subjects in the future?
• What theological ideas from the Scripture did you fail to address last year?
• What aspects of last year’s plan fell short of exposing your people to the whole counsel of the Word of God?
Asking such questions as you look back over last year’s preaching will help you to identify “holes” in the themes and subjects that you have addressed. Additionally, looking back will help you to create a new plan that has continuity with the previous year. Reviewing your past year’s sermons will also make you aware of any theological hobbyhorses that you are prone to ride so that you can guard against preaching extensively on certain themes at the expense of others.
After you have reviewed your preaching calendar from the previous year and analyzed your audience, you need to articulate your goals and priorities for preaching in the coming year.
Planning Sermon Series
One great advantage of planning your preaching ahead of time is that it allows you to make careful preparation for extended series of sermons. Two types of series are available to the preacher: the book series and the thematic series.
Book series. A book series is a sequence of messages through a book of the Bible. When scheduling a year’s preaching, it is possible to plan for at least two book series, allowing for at least one series from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. To plan a book series, begin by considering the needs of your audience. Prayerfully determine which book of the Bible will speak best to those needs. After selecting the Bible book, read through the book several times to grasp the themes and emphases of the biblical writer. Choose an overall theme for the series that reflects the major theme of the book. Ideally, this theme should relate to a need you have identified in the congregation. Divide the book into passages that can serve as sermon text units, and then assign a working title to each preaching unit. In some cases, you might choose to preach a series from a section of a book or from selected portions within a book rather than preaching through an entire book of the Bible.
Thematic series. The thematic series is a succession of sermons dealing with a central theme or subject. These series might be shorter than book series because the number of sermons in the series is entirely dependent on the preacher’s choice. Subject series can cover doctrinal issues or ethical, moral, and social concerns; they can also address emotional and spiritual needs and problems.
To develop a thematic series, first choose a theme that meets a need in the congregation. Next, identify biblical passages that address different aspects of the theme. Read these passages thoroughly,and develop working titles for sermons on each preaching text’ Create a series title that encompasses all of the messages in the series. Thematic series have been preached with titles such as “The Bible’s Big Questions,” “Attitudes that Can Change Your Life,” “Seven Keys to Success,” “Learning to Love,” and “Secrets to Answered Prayer.”
Completing the Preaching Calendar
After you have plotted the sermon series that you will be preaching, you are ready to begin filling out your preaching calendar. This calendar will be your preaching plan for the coming year. Creating a preaching calendar involves the following steps.
1. Make a chart for each month of the year.
2. Coordinate the various calendars that will affect your preaching.
3. Schedule holidays and other special days.
4. Schedule the church ordinances.
5. Schedule book series and thematic series.
6. Scheduling other individual sermons.
Make a chart for each month of the year. This chart should have the name of the month printed at the top and a grid underneath with four columns: one column for dates and calendar events, one for the Sunday morning service, one for the Sunday evening service, and one for the midweek service. The chart should have a different row for each week of the month. Even incomplete weeks at the beginning and the end of the month should be represented by a whole row on the chart. With the increasing number of calendar software programs available, you might find using your computer preferable to creating a calendar on paper.
Each preaching service will have three entry fields: sermon title, sermon text, and notes. The sermon titles will all be working titles, not necessarily the final names that you will give your messages. The space for notes will allow you to record any special details that will help you in preparing your sermons or that will help other church leaders in planning the worship service.
Coordinate your calendars. You should take five calendars with you on the planning retreat: the civic calendar, the church calendar, the denominational calendar, the Christian calendar, and your personal calendar. Once you have prepared charts for each month, you can compile all of the pertinent dates in chronological order in the Calendar Events column.
You do not need to include every possible calendar event on your preaching plan. Instead, list only the elements that will have an impact on what you will preach or that will affect your preparation time. Some parts of the calendar are included because they are important in your role of leadership as pastor. Others will be personal items such as vacation dates that will affect your scheduling. Still other items will be helpful to note so that you can use timely illustrations or applications in the messages that you preach on or near those dates. After you have filled out the Calendar Events column for each month of the year, you are ready to begin scheduling the actual sermons for each service.
Following is a checklist of questions to ask as you fill in the Calendar Events column.
• Have you listed personal dates such as vacations, conference trips, or guest speaking engagements that will affect your preaching schedule?
• Have you noted national, community, or church events that will call for special messages?
• Have you included on the list meetings and appointment that will affect your preparation time?
• Have you noted special events in the life of your congregation such as revival meetings, missions conferences, Bible conferences, and musical programs?
• Have you listed the dates for baptism and Communion services?
• Have you included all major holidays?
Schedule sermons for holidays and other special days. The best practice is to plan sermons for special services and holidays first because they are usually fixed dates and cannot be changed easily.
A wise preacher will devote a considerable number of sermons to Christmas and Easter because these Christian occasions celebrate the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. Sermons addressing civil holidays such as Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Independence Day offer the preacher an opportunity to bring a biblical perspective to secular observances. Your church might also conduct special services such as Homecoming, Founder’s Day, or other observances that will merit an appropriate sermon from the pastor.
Schedule sermons for the ordinances. Much like other special days, baptism and Communion often are established dates on your church calendar and need to be included early in your plan. Because these observances communicate the central truths of the Christian faith, you would be well advised to preach on subjects and texts related to the doctrines that these ordinances symbolize. In later chapters, we will consider how to maximize holidays, the ordinances, and other special days.
Schedule sermon series on themes and Bible books. The largest part of your preaching plan will most likely be devoted to series, either through books of the Bible or dealing with various biblical themes. You will want to allocate these series evenly among the weekly worship services at your church. Generally, longer series will work better in the Sunday evening and midweek services. Sunday mornings tend to be interrupted frequently by holidays and special services.
Fill the gaps in your plan with individual sermons. After you have scheduled your series, you are likely to have on your calendar services for which you have planned no sermons. Examine your overall strategy to determine doctrinal themes, ethical and moral issues, and spiritual matters that you need to address to fill in these spaces. Although you will want to fill in as many gaps as possible, it is best to leave one Sunday morning and one Sunday evening service blank every three months. Unforeseen circumstances will inevitably arise that will force you to alter your plan. By leaving a service blank every twelve weeks or so, you can shift the schedule when necessary.
Reviewing and Modifying the Plan
Now that the preaching calendar is complete, look back over each month. Using the Preaching Strategy Worksheet as a guide, check to see if the plan fulfills your goals for the coming year’s pulpit work. Following are some questions to ask as you review the calendar.
• Is the plan complete in that it lists a subject and text for each preaching event in the coming year?
• Do the sermon subjects and texts cover the essential biblical teachings that members of your church should hear in a year’s time?
• Have you maximized holidays and ordinances by preaching sermons pertinent to those special days?
• Have you programmed some flexibility into the calendar?
• Is your preaching balanced in terms of both subject matter and the portions of the Bible from which you will preach?
• Have you included any creative approaches to preaching that differ from your normal sermonic patterns?
• When taken as a whole, does your preaching plan meet the objectives that you established in your preaching strategy?
In addition to this initial review, you will want to evaluate your preaching plan several times throughout the year. Monitor your progress on the plan monthly. Consider whether you are sticking to the plan or if parts of the schedule are proving unworkable. Check on the series you are preaching through books of the Bible to see if the preaching portions represent the best way to divide the book. Rethink the preaching objectives that you originally set for yourself in light of the changing climate of your congregation and community. If changes are necessary, don’t be reluctant to make them. The need for modification does not mean that your initial plan was not good. Remember, the plan is a servant, not a master. It is a guide that can be changed as your journey through a year of preaching unfolds.
Stephen Neslon Rummage is associate pastor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
1. Wayne McDill, The Twelve Essential Skills for Great Preaching (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 272.
2. Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 55.
3. J. Winston Pearce, Planning Your Preaching (Nashville: Broadmad, 1967), 5.
4. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 160-62. Richard Foster, A Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Franciso: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 96-109.
5. Pearce, Planning Your Preaching, 5.
6. Andrew Blackwood, Planning a Year’s Pulpit Work (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1942), 17.