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Friday morning, I logged into Twitter and discovered a controversy brewing among pastors. Can we go a whole day without a new one? Signs point to no.
The controversial topic du jour?
How long a pastor should spend in sermon preparation. At the Festival of Homiletics, Lauren Winner and Nadia Bolz-Weber talked about pastors being unafraid to ask for 15-20 hours a week for sermon preparation.
Though I did not attend or watch the festival this year, I have gathered from the conversations that followed that some pastors felt liberated by this suggestion, while others felt guilted or shamed.
First, this controversy is a result of the commodification of the spiritual life. In other words, we are trying to take the invisible movement of the Holy Spirit and a subjective topic like our spirituality and fit them into a 9-to-5 world. How do things like spiritual disciplines, prayer, Scripture reading, and discernment fit neatly on a timecard?
Can we count the hours when we are pulling weeds in the garden and suddenly the Parable of the Sower means something brand new to us?
What happens if one week the sermon is a struggle and takes 30 hours to write, but the next week the sermon materializes in five hours? Have we done something wrong?
Will the five-hour sermon be one-sixth as effective and transformational as the 30-hour sermon?
In many ways, this formulaic approach to sermon writing has a lot in common with the prosperity gospel: “If I just do x, then y will happen for me.” If I just put in more hours, my sermon will be that much better. But, is that true? What if the answer isn’t more hours, but something more organic?
I don’t consider myself an amazing preacher, but I hope I am a rooted one. I hope that when I preach, my congregation not only learns something new, but also hears the Word in a way that makes sense in their lives. I can spend five hours or 50 at my desk and produce a sermon that doesn’t connect with anyone if all I’m doing is researching and not investing in people’s lives.
A sermon isn’t a commodity that can be constructed by following a template and putting in the right amount of time. It’s a conversation between the preacher, the Scripture, the community, and God. It’s tough to decipher how many hours that conversation might take from week to week.
Second, the church should be leading the way on work-life balance rather than promoting the same overwork we see in other sectors of society. As I combed through the various tweets and comments about Winner and Bolz-Weber’s 15-20-hour suggestion, I saw pastor after pastor lamenting how busy they already are: “Where am I supposed to find 10 more hours for my sermon each week?” This breaks my heart. So many pastors are exhausted. They were exhausted before COVID necessitated them becoming tech engineers, and now they are just plain worn out. Burned out. Desperate for relief. Is piling more work and greater expectations on weary people really the best way?
I have been reading Walter Brueggemann’s little book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, and I am struck by the contrast he describes between life in Egypt and life as God’s free people. He writes it this way:
“The first commandment is a declaration that the God of the exodus is unlike all the gods the slaves have known heretofore…At the taproot of this divine commitment to relationships (covenant) rather than commodity (bricks) is the capacity and wiliness of God to rest. The Sabbath rest of God is the acknowledgment that God and God’s people in the world are not commodities to be dispatched for endless production…”
If this is true—that what sets God apart from the gods of Egypt is the capacity for rest—we have forsaken who we are as God’s called-out people when we submit ourselves to expectation of endless productivity.
To be fair, I know that neither Winner nor Bolz-Weber want pastors to spend 20 hours in sermon preparation if that means they are working an unhealthy amount. They would urge a reduction of other hours (like committee meetings) so that more time can be given to sermon preparation without sacrificing the pastor’s well-being. But, for many solo pastors, it may be a struggle to reduce the other workload. The answer for one pastor may not be the same as for another pastor, but in any case, the expectation cannot be working 70 hours a week to meet an arbitrary sermon preparation quota.
Finally, each pastor is different, has different gifts, and approaches sermon writing in a unique way. The how-to of sermon writing cannot be one-size-fits-all.
I have the luxury of preaching only every-other Sunday. Because of that, I can spread my sermon preparation over the course of two weeks. I read the selected Scripture passage multiple times a couple of weeks ahead of time, and then I let the text percolate in my mind. I read books (not always related to the text at hand). I spend time in my garden. I walk my dogs and hang out with my kids, all while the text is working on me.
As the Sunday I am preaching gets closer, I read commentaries. I read poetry. I pray all throughout the sermon preparation process. And then, I sit down to write. Sometimes the sermon writes itself and I have the whole thing written in an hour. Other times, every single word is a struggle. On Sunday morning, the sermon I wrote becomes something different when the sermon is preached. I change things, deviate from what I prepared as I feel inspired, and I watch as people in the congregation engage the sermon. The sermon each person hears is different from the words that I preached. (Thank you, Holy Spirit.)
How long should a pastor spend on a sermon? However long it takes, and however long the pastor is able to give it. What matters is faithfulness, and that may look from week to week. Instead of pushing for a one-size-fits-all strategy to sermon preparation, I would love it if pastors could encourage one another and listen to what each is going through.
What we need most is not a cookie cutter formula, but an embracing of the unique gifts and styles of the people God has called to preach.
Header photo by Tara Winstead
Great Words, April!
Thank you April. I started my ministry thinking that I needed to spend half my allotted 40 hours (as if) on sermon prep, and it became a rather daunting task, because it was a task. I’ve since thought of it more as a relationship between me, the Word and the Spirit. Some weeks the relationship is grand. Other weeks, not so much, but what I’ve gained from this perspective is that relationships can’t be commodified, so my sermons are not so much products, but a witness to what the Spirit is doing in me, in the Word, and in the community. If I’m honest, I probably spend even more time on sermons nowadays, but it’s not so much doing as simply being with. Of course, the writing needs to happen at some point (I create a manuscript), so some sort of product is created, but it feels different.
Once again, thanks for putting into words what I struggled with for so much time in my ministry.
Thanks, April: As someone who spends a lot of his time pondering preaching and trying to resource preachers, I resonate with this. Years ago Rob Bell was at our seminary to spend an afternoon and evening with our MDiv students. One student asked Bell the inevitable “How long does it take you to write a sermon?” question. Bell replied, “Two years.” He then went on to say that preachers are always thinking, pondering, observing. He said he had a system of “buckets” by which he meant his filing system and so was constantly filing stuff away on topics like Compassion, Baptism, Death, Envy. So when it came time to start writing a sermon that touched on a certain topic, he had 2 years’ worth of stuff to begin pondering. It’s a rolling process and you cannot actually tote it up. Then again, we all can tell when the preacher skimped or waited too long, which is why I often play a song by Sting for my students titled “Seven Days” the chorus of which says:
Monday, I could wait ’til Tuesday
If I make up my mind
Wednesday would be fine
Thursday’s on my mind
Friday’d give me time
Saturday could wait
Sunday’d be too late
Thank you April. Your words struck a chord with me as I was at the Festival of Homiletics you referred to and I attended the event led by Nadia and Lauren. As a result, I too was struggling with their comment about spending 20 hours a week on a sermon, feeling like I was probably not measuring up more often than not. Like you said, we Ministers can be pretty hard on ourselves and adding this to the already heavy burden of the times we are in can feel overwhelming. To be fair, however, Nadia did mention this included those times when she was thinking about the text while doing other things – taking a walk, talking with friends, taking a shower, eating a meal. Those things do add up and I can also appreciate how the text seems to possess you and becomes part of all that you do and see when you’re working on a sermon. It’s the lens through which you experience life and it cannot be easily turned off and on at any given moment. Thanks for writing this article. It was very helpful and thought provoking.
When asked how long it took him to write a poem William Stafford replied, “All my life.”