The day of rest.
The Lord’s day…
At least, that’s how it can feel amidst the hustle and bustle of a dedicated church staff working day-in-and-day-out to bring the Gospel to your congregation.
That’s how it feels when you’ve gone over your sermon for the 100th time, wording and re-wording each sentence in an effort to present the clear and compelling truth of God’s word to His people – that blessing of sacred pastoral responsibility.
“Just as gifted athletes take the field every Sunday in the fall, so to do you take the field on Sunday.”
Though pastors know that healthy faith does not rely on a “once-a-week” or “Sunday religion,” every pastor feels the burning desire to bring the force of their love for God’s children to bear in a real and tangible way each Sunday.
It’s the day when every pastor has a direct line to their congregation.
- What do you do when distractions arise during the week?
- What do you do when time set aside for planning your sermon seems to run away from you as quickly as Sunday approaches?
The bad news is if you wait until you’re in the thick of your preparation process, then it’s already too late.
“The key to managing your time is to know yourself.”
If you know yourself – the way you work and prepare – then you can put processes in place to protect and enhance the time you set aside for sermon planning.
Here are 4 things you can do this week to better manage your planning time:
- Pre-determine distraction coping techniques
- Begin with stream of consciousness
- Log your ideas
- Let it breathe
Let’s dig in!
Distraction Coping Techniques
In war, it’s generally best to sweep a minefield for mines BEFORE you navigate your way to the other side.
Sermon prep is no different – it’s a known minefield.
Every pastor has been through the drill enough times to know that distractions will inevitably arise throughout the week, threatening to break your focus and derail your planning efforts.
Some of them are predictable and often relate to your own habits, while others will be more spontaneous and require situational responses.
The key is to know yourself – your tendencies, procrastination triggers, etc.
The key is to lead yourself in your writing efforts. In other words, we need to take time to reflect on the variety of “triggers” or “temptations” that tend to pull us away from our task.
- Are you the person who tends to jump around on Facebook, Instagram, or news sites whenever you hit a bump in the road of preparing your message?
- What about music? Does it help you get “in-the-zone” or does it pull you out of your thoughts and suck you into its story, disrupting your line of thinking?
Whatever the nuance or quirk, we each must take the time to think through our own habits in order to identify the distractions that most often sabotage our planning efforts.
It’s only then that we can make a plan to cope with those distractions.
If a busy computer screen, with it’s various tabs and alluring Internet connection, is a pitfall for you, then consider working in “full screen mode” on your word processor. This will block off the rest of your desktop and screen (especially email!), leaving you with only the page on which to write.
There are also productivity apps that can cut off Internet connection for a designated period of time or restrict your usage to pre-appointed applications to ensure no extraneous temptations intrude on your prep time.
Or maybe you know that a solitary room and dead silence are the bane of your creative existence. So find a coffee house in your area or communal space within your church to settle down and get to work.
Whatever your temptation, the key is to identify your distraction triggers then establish a plan and institute a process for eliminating those distractions.
Whether an app, a location, or a designated work time, most of our greatest distractions can be planned for and countered if we approach our prep time with intentionality.
Let Ministry Pass help you immediately with the FREE Sermon Writing Toolkit!
Stream of Consciousness
A blinking cursor. A blank page. A whirring ceiling fan.
Every pastor – actually, every writer, speaker, or presenter – has faced the mocking sights and sounds of the phenomenon we call “writer’s block.”
Even the most Spirit-filled and passionate sermon can have trouble getting off the ground. That’s where the power of “stream of consciousness” can help.
Many pastors struggle to fully grasp and take hold of their topic because they try to write AND edit at the same time.
After all, as teachers of God’s word, we are called to a high standard when it comes to teaching and instructing others in Truth.
Sometimes the pressure of perfection and clarity actually clouds the preparation process.
As soon as a thought comes to mind, we often try to evaluate it, critique it, and edit it in an effort to both craft and polish the final version in one fell swoop.
But few people can operate with such spontaneous, unfiltered perfection when it comes to communication.
“Many pastors struggle to grasp a topic because they try to write AND edit at the same time.”
Unfortunately, the most common result of this tendency is to reduce the stream of ideas to a trickle, isolating each concept as it comes to mind and obscuring the underlying connections between each piece of the puzzle that is your message.
Stream of consciousness, however, is like word association. When beginning preparation for a topic it’s helpful to begin with a “brain dump” – to write down everything related to the topic that comes to mind. Passages, concepts, teachings, life examples, and quotes – all of it will help you mine out the depths of your knowledge and lay it on the table for your review.
Biologically speaking, we know that human recall is often dependent upon a multitude of mental associations and connections, one thought springing forth from another in a chain of connections. The last thought is rarely one we could have reached had we attempted to reach it from the beginning.
So the more thoughts we spill out onto the page, the more likely we are to uncover relevant connections that may not have come immediately to mind at the start.
Conversely, think of the sum of your knowledge on a particular subject as a scatter plot. Dump all of your data points – previous knowledge, experiences, scriptures, etc. – onto the table then step back and see where your cluster of knowledge seems to be heading. This will give you a sermon “trend line” of sorts that will help you identify and clarify your line of thinking – then you’re off to the races. After all, you can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page!
If “stream of consciousness” can help you overcome writer’s block, then establishing a system for logging your ideas can help you manage the flood when the dam breaks and your creativity runs wild with possibilities.
Some may chuckle at the thought, but too many ideas can be just as paralyzing as not enough. The challenge is to sift through all the possibilities to string together a unified, compelling message. And while some ideas may serve as springboards to better ones, ultimately, too many will obscure the path forward.
But it can be difficult to let those ideas go.
What if the direction you choose doesn’t pan out and you need to go back to the drawing board? What if you decide to incorporate some of your earlier ideas into the message later? What if you can’t quite remember that perfect phrase?
All of these are questions that might keep us from “trimming the fat,” so-to-speak, when formulating a sermon. This is where a system of record keeping will help put your mind at ease by keeping your ideas for future reference and use.
Maybe all that brainstorming stirred up a great line of thinking, but it doesn’t relate closely enough to your chosen topic. Organization and productivity apps like Evernote, Workflow, Google Drive, MindManager, or Quip can help you record those extraneous ideas and move on, safely storing them away to re-examine after your planning is done.
Organization apps and systems will also help you structure your relevant thoughts and build them into a focused sermon.
Ultimately, you have to find the right system for you. For example, some apps work on a highly visual structure, allowing you to create and arrange notecards into the successive flow of your sermon. Other apps, however, are more robust in terms of detailed functionality, but are less visually intuitive than others might prefer.
In the end, regardless of the system…
It’s essential to customize a process of record-keeping to help you control the creative chaos, organize your message, and off-load superfluous ideas.
Let It Breathe
Now, this last piece of advice may seem vague or counterintuitive, but it could very well make the biggest difference in your process. Various axioms come to mind, including:
- “Work smarter, not harder.’
- “The definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
But giving yourself – and your message – some time to breathe is the same as working smarter rather than harder and definitely better than beating your head against the wall of a solution that just won’t materialize.
I won’t get into all the studies that have confirmed the power of resting or taking breaks from work, but it’s overwhelming enough to declare with confidence that sometimes taking a break from your message is the fastest way to get it done.
Firstly, your brain is competitive. Ideas that seem to most powerfully relate to a thought often jump to the front of the line, but just as often there’s a little crucial nugget of insight that gets stuck in the back.
Due to the wiring in our brains, inhibited thoughts, those stuck in the back of the line, have an immensely difficult time making their way again to the front. But when we take a break – a “productive pause” some call it, we reset our minds. We reopen the competition and let our brains take a refreshed look at both old ideas and new learning, whether we realize it or not.
Secondly, there’s a theory out there that claims that the extent of our vocabulary determines the extent of our ability to conceive of and communicate our thoughts (Sapir-Wharf Hypothesis). After all, if we can’t describe something, we will usually have trouble defining what it is and how we relate to it, much less communicate it to others.
Well, whenever we approach a problem or a sermon, we think of our message, along with its obstacles and goals, in a certain way with certain vocabulary. This vocabulary then limits and defines the manner in which we view our task. Such a phenomenon is helpful for focusing on our objective, but often times ends up cutting us off from potentially helpful associations and lines of thinking.
So if we run into a wall in our prep and need to reset our thinking, the best way to do so is to just take a break.
Get out for a leisurely walk. Take a nap. Grab a snack. Talk to a friend. Or find an unrelated chore to tackle. Then come back to your message. See what new lines of reasoning or previously unconsidered points make their way to the front of your mind. You might just be surprised by the progress you’ll make with your sermon simply by letting it breathe.
The Wrap Up
These recommendations are simple, but then again, so are the best solutions.
- Start by identifying your distraction triggers and determine ways to negate them.
- Then ease into the writing process by making time for a stream-of-consciousness brain dump.
- Next, you’ll need to structure your thoughts – organizing the relevant ones into a coherent message and saving the less relevant for later consideration.
- Finally, plan some time for breaks, especially when you hit a wall.
Taken together, all of these practices will enhance your sermon preparations by mitigating distractions, stimulating ideation, controlling the chaos, and facilitating insight, all while minimizing the amount of frustrated head-banging.
I challenge you to invest in a resource that will lead to hundreds of hours given back to you for your family, staff, and congregation.
What are you waiting for?
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