When I was a seminary professor, I wrote Planning Your Preaching (Kregel Publications, 2002) as a guide for pastors planning a year’s sermon work. Honestly, at the time I wondered whether the ideas that seemed workable as I wrote in my professor’s study would really be of practical use to time-pressed preachers on the field. For more than a decade now, I’ve had the opportunity to put my theories to the test! Over the past 12-plus years, I’ve been back in the pulpit full-time as the pastor of two dynamic and demanding churches.
I’m more convinced than ever that sermon planning is one of the keys to excellence in the pulpit. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Planning will help you preach from a wider segment of God’s Word, allowing you to teach your congregation systematically and intentionally.
- It reduces stress, saving and protecting your time so that you can give more attention to actually preparing your message rather than trying to decide what you’re going to preach each week, or every several weeks.
- It also helps you and other leaders in your church work in advance to develop meaningful worship services where all the elements connect
Significantly, I’ve discovered that pulpit planning is advantageous for my overall leadership as a pastor. Like many pastors, I find that my strongest leadership venue is the preaching moment itself. That’s when I help our congregation see where we are going as God leads us into the future. Annual planning helps clarify the vision and direction that I’m taking the church each year.
So, where do you begin in planning your preaching? I would suggest the following basic steps:
- Schedule a prayer and planning retreat. Getting ready for a year’s worth of preaching will require a few uninterrupted days away from your church field to seek the Lord, think through your plan, and even begin some preliminary study. I often get away in late summer so that my plan will be ready to share with my staff in the early fall. My preaching plan usually goes from January through December.
- Establish your preaching strategy. Leading up to your planning retreat, consider prayerfully what God desires to accomplish through your preaching, specifically in the coming year. Your preaching strategy answers the questions: “What does God want to do in the life of my congregation next year? Where is He leading us? How can my preaching help take us where God wants us to go?” Based on your assessment of your church and your sense of the Lord’s leadership, write out a few objectives for your preaching strategy.
- Review sermons from previous years. As you plan, take a look at what you have preached in the past several years. Note the general themes, doctrines, and books of the Bible you have covered. This review may help you see areas you want to revisit, or it may identify biblical material or subjects that you have not addressed in the past. For example, one year I looked back on my past year’s preaching and saw that I hadn’t preached substantially on family issues in 12 months. I made sure there was a family series in the new preaching calendar.
- Determine series for the coming year’s preaching. In light of the objectives in your preaching strategy, develop sermon series. Because I have a strong conviction that preaching expository series through books of the Bible is the best way to teach my congregation, the majority of my series either go through entire Bible books or sections of books. Two of my favorite recent series have been messages on the Upper Room discourse in John and a series from selected Psalms that I called “Healing Your Hidden Hurts.” Additionally, you will want to include thematic series addressing doctrinal issues, moral and social concerns, and emotional and spiritual needs. During the planning retreat, my goal is to title each series, decide how many sermons each series will contain, list the biblical text for each sermon in the series, and give working titles to all the messages.
- Create the preaching calendar. After I have plotted my sermon series, I make a chart for each month of the year, coordinate the various calendars that might affect my plan (such as church, civic, denominational, and family calendars), and then start placing sermons into the schedule. I usually begin by scheduling messages for holidays and other fixed events such as the Lord’s Supper and emphasis days. Next, I calendar the series I have planned. Finally, I plug in some stand-alone sermons as needed. I also have learned to schedule one “flex” day every 12 weeks. On flex days, I don’t put anything on the preaching schedule. These days help me to adjust along the way without disrupting the plan.
- Share the plan with other church leaders. At our church staff retreat each fall, two of my goals are to share the strategy and vision God has given me for my preaching in the coming year and give the staff an overview of what I’ll be preaching. Since I often change my plan during the year, I show my leadership only the upcoming 12 weeks at any given time. However, I tell them all the Bible books and subjects I’ll be covering for the whole year and what I’m praying for God to accomplish. Knowing my big themes for the coming year helps my staff in their own planning. Sharing my plan also energizes my staff, because the preaching plan expresses my vision.
- Modify your plan as needed. In the course of the year, things will happen to mess up your plan. It may take you two weeks to do an exposition of a text that you thought would take only one week, you may go on vacation at a time you weren’t anticipating, or God may direct you to scrap a planned series and go in another direction. That’s why I schedule flex days and only share a portion of the yearly plan at a time. Don’t sweat changing the plan. As God leads and circumstances require, modify it. Remember, any plan you make should a servant, not a master.
Dr. Stephen Rummage is the Senior Pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Florida, a multi-campus church with over 9,000 members in the Tampa Bay area. He currently serves as the chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. Planning Your Preaching: A Step-by-Step Guide for Developing a One-Year Preaching Calendar (Kregel Publications, 2002) is used widely as a seminary and college textbook.