Sunday, January 15, 2017

Three Benefits of an Annual Sermon Plan

As a young pastor I had the incredible benefit of having a mentor who taught me the benefits of sermon planning. Until that point, I did what many pastors do: wait until Monday to think about what to preach on the next Sunday. Not only did that lead to tremendous stress every Monday, but it also resulted in my sense that the overall teaching plan of the church was disjointed. I began using an annual sermon plan 18 years ago and have found at least three practical benefits for me and to my congregation.

1. Relieves Stress
Alistair Begg once described preaching as akin to giving birth. His point was not to denigrate the real physical and emotional toll that women face in childbirth, but that the emotional (and sometimes physical) toll on a preacher is absolutely draining as he shares from God’s Word the truths that have come out of the study. It is hard to describe the process of returning to the study the day after preaching knowing that it all begins again. Now, frankly, there is nothing – nothing – that eliminates the stress of a pastor knowing he has to prepare a message from God’s Word for God’s people. Nothing. But, the lack of an annual sermon plan does add to that stress by the pastor not only having to prepare the message, but he also has to spend time in prayer and reflection to determine what to preach that week. Going through such a routine every week is emotionally and spiritually exhausting.

The simple truth is that God can lead us in planning several months in advance just as well as he can on a weekly basis. By planning in advance, however, the pastor can help alleviate a bit of the stress associated with preparing that week’s sermon.

2. Whole Team On Board
A second value of annual sermon planning is that it allows the pastor to bring his entire team on board. When I served in a small church, that “whole team” was my secretary and a music leader. Now, that team includes a few associate pastors, ministry directors and administrative assistants. The issue is not how many people the team involves, what does matter is that you are able to share with key ministry leadership the direction that the preaching will be taking. In my case, my annual sermon plan is in the form of a spreadsheet that includes date, series title, sermon title, passage, main idea of sermon, and any special notes (i.e. holiday weekend, etc). Once the whole staff has this info, they have a better idea of weekly themes and of sermon series themes that will be coming over the course of the year.

A quick note at this point: you may have noticed that “main idea of sermon” is included with the plan I use. Usually that means a pastor needs to take a day or two away to develop the annual sermon plan. In the early years, I took two days to work through a full 12 month plan. Because I have gotten in a “rhythm” of planning, I now spend time in the fall planning for January through June and in the spring planning July through December.

3. An Annual Preaching Record
The final benefit I have found to having an annual sermon plan is the ability to go back and review sermon themes from previous years. It also allows me to evaluate total number of Sundays I have been in the pulpit. In my case, I have found that I need to have one week out of the pulpit every quarter to clear my head a bit. Because I have kept an annual sermon plan for 18 years, I can point back to exactly how many Sundays I have been in the pulpit every year. For example, I know that in my earlier years, I was in the pulpit an average of 49 Sundays per year. Frankly, that is way too much. Over the past 10 years, I have averaged 44.5 Sundays per year. That number is much more manageable.

I’ve been fortunate that the two previous churches I have served have set 42 as the minimum and 46 as the maximum number of days that the pastor is expected to be in the pulpit. This is a very wise approach, especially because those churches did not offer a sabbatical. In those ministry settings, the church did not offer a sabbatical, so I made sure to utilize vacation time in the summer as a mini-sabbatical (2 to 3 Sundays in a row, including one holiday Sunday). Regardless of your setting, an annual sermon plan allows a pastor to know exactly how many Sundays he has been in the pulpit and to share that with church leadership.

After 18 years of using an annual sermon plan, I have found these three benefits to outweigh any extra work in the preparation of the annual sermon plan. If you use an annual sermon plan, what additional benefits have you found?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Few More Things I Wish I Had Known As a Young Pastor

In February 2013 I wrote a short article entitled “To the Young Pastor: Five Things I Wish I Had Known.” Four years later I think it may be time to add a few to the list. For, it seems, we never stop learning how to do this thing we call “pastoral ministry.” We never stop experiencing surprise at the way God uses us to impact the lives of people or the way in which we can be hurt by people. All of that to say, “Hey, young pastor, here are a few more things you need to know.”

1. You are Pastoring an Established Church.
When I was young(er) I used to think that I wanted to lead a hip, modern, contemporary church that was always thriving on innovation and change. Note: That church does not exist. The reality is, unless you are making major, foundational, fundamental changes to the church you lead every 12 to 18 months, you will lead an established church. (BTW, very few people can make those kinds of fundamental changes and not lose most of the congregation along the way.) Don’t let the fact that the church has a cool band or doesn’t ask that you wear a suit lead you to believe they are not “established.” They are. All churches are. All churches have systems, structures, traditions, and expectations. Learn them; and then leverage them to bring positive transformation. Once I embraced this reality, I have experienced far more joy and satisfaction in ministry and much better results in leading change.

2. You Cannot Lead People Well Until You Love Them Well.
A good friend of mine once told me, “I need to see your heart.” The comment came in the midst of a contentious conversation about leadership. He was pointing out come shortcomings and I was getting defensive. He rightly identified the problem: I was not loving people deeply. Somewhere I had picked up the notion that if you lead people well, that will result in a loving relationship. I’ve come to believe that you have to love people before you can lead them. And, not only love them, but love them visibly. They have to see your heart. Naturally, that comes with great risk that they can break your heart. But, the risk is worth the reward.

3. It’s the Body Shots that Will Do You In.
We have all heard the statistics about pastors leaving the ministry. Though many of these are inflated, the truth is that many pastors do leave the ministry. We tend to be most aware of the ones who do so via the “knockout punch” of a disqualifying moral failure. I’m convinced, however, that the vast majority of pastors leave the ministry due to a relentless number of “body blows.” There is an old adage in boxing, “kill the body and the head dies.” The idea is that you “soften” someone up for a knockout punch by pummeling their body. In ministry, that pummeling comes via unrealistic expectations, unfair criticism, and snide remarks. Even when serving in a church where everything seems to be going well, these body blows can take their toll on you, whether they occur during your ministry or after you leave. Be prepared for it and learn to not only “keep your left up” (protect against the knockout punch), but steel yourself for the body shots.

What other lessons might you add to help a young pastor in ministry?