A conversation I have with worship leaders when trying to explain the difficulty of regular sermon preparation goes like this: “Imagine that every week you must write a new song to release on Sunday. You can’t use any song that you have ever sung before, and everyone expects that this week’s new song will be a little bit better than last week’s song. The pressure that would bring you is the life every preacher lives!”
Sermon writing is a grind, and I think it’s an even more difficult task in 2023 than it was 50 years ago. Pastors are now asked to be more than ever before: capable counselors, amateur (if not expert) accountants, fundraising philanthropists, organizational behavior gurus, exemplary missionaries and also proficient communicators from the pulpit week after week. All these responsibilities add up until pastors have less time to do the one thing we have been commanded to never neglect: the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:2).
One solution: A sermon prep team
In my 25-year preaching ministry, one of my greatest delights was creating and cultivating a sermon preparation team. Let me describe what this team is and then give you six reasons you may want to start one of these teams at your church.
A sermon prep team is a group of biblically astute individuals who meet weekly at a designated time to brainstorm ideas to assist a preacher in developing sermons. For years, I gathered my team for 45 minutes every Tuesday morning, as Tuesdays were my protected sermon writing days. (Another recommendation I suggest you consider!)
Making sermon prep easier or faster is not a reason for to build this team. But here are six reasons you should consider a sermon prep team:
1. Infusion of great ideas
A preacher has a limited amount of time to dedicate to sermon research. I cannot tell you how many times I started down a road in my research, only to ditch the idea after an hour of study. If you have ever written a sermon, you likely have experienced the same deflating moment. To combat this, the assignment I gave every sermon prep team member was to bring to our weekly meeting one well-thought-out idea derived from the assigned text and based on strong hermeneutical principles. With a notebook in hand (you may choose to take notes digitally), I went around the table and asked everyone to give me their one idea. Then I would give them 5 minutes to advocate for their idea from the text. My team was made up of six participants, so after just 45 minutes I had six ideas I could investigate in my sermon prep time immediately after the meeting. Often the ideas my team contributed gave rise to even better ideas during the course of our discussion or later as I researched more.
2. Broaden your sermon impact
One thing I learned over my years of leading a sermon prep team was the more differentiation of team members the better. I sought to add a diversity of age, life experience and gender to my team. Let me first start with a note about gender. As tempted as you may be to stuff your sermon prep team with your best friends, staff members and other gentlemen in your congregation, please include some ladies! Here’s why: We are all tempted to give illustrations and applications that fit our interests. For me, that means an overload of sports analogies. When I added a few ladies to my team, they helped me connect with the larger part of my congregation: their fellow ladies. I distinctly remember one of the ladies on my team saying, “Pastor Will, do you want to know what all the ladies will be thinking when they read this text?” The perspective I got from the ladies on my team was pastoral gold. Having a diverse team helped me connect with the college student and the senior adult, the single mom and the married couple, the suburban businessman and the urban young adult.
3. Maximize theological accuracy
I love preaching through books of the Bible. As an expositor, it’s my favorite strategy. When I was preaching through a book, I would buy every one of my sermon prep team members a different, yet trusted, commentary for the book I was preaching through during that series. I asked all of them to read their commentary before presenting their ideas. A common occurrence would be one team member bringing up a controversy with the passage we were studying. These comments highlighted for me controversaries that I would want to spend extra time on, both in study and when preaching the passage.
4. Forces you to improve weak areas of communication
I included our other teaching preachers on my sermon prep team. It gave them exposure to my process and gave me the opportunity to learn from their strengths. One of my strengths is creating a strong sermon structure, but one of my biggest weaknesses is humor. One of my campus pastors was incredible at humor. He would often give me a great idea, one that I would have never come up with on my own, that helped lighten the load for the congregation. I also had a team member who was incredible at illustrations. She was on our children’s ministry team as a curriculum writer, and her ideas were always inspiring and heartfelt. Hearing her ideas helped me greatly in my pursuits to illustrate the text. Be humble enough to learn from your team.
5. Training of future preachers
I often invited residents, interns, new ministers and church planters to join this team. Obviously, all the men who preached regularly at our church were on the team, but the developing pastors also found this time to be critical in their formation as preachers. Nor were they there just to learn; they often brought incredible contributions to the conversation. I think every Christian is responsible for reproducing themselves and the preacher is no different. Having a sermon prep team that I could invite developing preachers to, if only temporarily, was one of my best ways of training the next generation of preachers in my care.
6. Forces you to stay ahead
My final reason to start this team at your church is the positive effect the team had on my own lead time. I found the best way to lead this team was to work ahead. If I could tell them where I was planning on going with a particular sermon (or better yet, a whole series!), the amount of time they could dedicate to their research improved their contributions in our meeting. After leading this team for a few years, I started giving them the upcoming week’s sermon outline a week early (at the end of the 45-minute meeting). Yes, this forced me to have done some work on the following week’s sermon, but having them studying in advance multiplied the helpfulness of what they would bring to the next meeting.
It is important to note that a sermon prep team can never function as an alternative to the Holy Spirit or putting in the hard work of sermon preparation. Rather, a sermon prep team can be a helpful starting point for you as a preacher to hear from the Holy Spirit and begin the hard work of sermon preparation with fresh, new insights.
Published April 10, 2023