By Jeff Magruder, Associate Professor, Bible and Church Ministries, at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas.
While written from a heterodox perspective, (we Orthodox Christians certainly don’t celebrate Reformation Sunday) this article offers some real insight into the use and implementation of a Preaching Calendar, and the real value it can have for the parish preacher.
I recommend every Orthodox priest or preacher seriously consider using a preaching calendar to your benefit – not to create extra work for you, but to make your sermon planning effective throughout the year.
You Might Need a Preaching Calendar If…
• You find yourself desperately scrambling to put some thoughts together Friday or Saturday night so you will have something to say on Sunday.
• You are downloading other preachers’ sermons and trying to pass them off as your own.
• Your schedule does not allow you to do proper biblical exegesis.
• Your sermons suffer from a lack of creativity and diversity and have become boring and predictable.
• You have learned that leading a church in a new direction will require more than just one sermon.
• You want to make sure your preaching is providing a well-balanced and nourishing menu to help your people grow spiritually.
Should any of these descriptions fit you, then a preaching calendar is just what you need. The following steps demonstrate how anyone responsible for preaching each week can gain better control of his or her schedule, creating more time for planning, study and the development of effective biblical messages.
STEP ONE: Determine how many days you actually will be preaching
Let me use a four-month calendar as an example. There would be approximately 18 Sunday morning sermons. Step back and calculate exactly how many of those 18 sermons you are responsible for in that four-month period.
Look at your church calendar and ask yourself if you have any scheduled guest speakers; note dates you will be out of town, dates you will share the pulpit with another member the church staff and when special programs planned. The goal is to determine how many days you actually will preach.
STEP TWO: Determine what kind of impact holidays will have on your sermons
This will include national holidays (religious and secular), plus special days in the life of the church or in the life of the community. Include nationally recognized days such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Consider consulting the Christian calendar the church has been using for centuries to educate its people about the Christian story. For example, Advent (four Sundays before Christmas), Resurrection Sunday (Easter), Pentecost and Reformation Sunday are all important dates around which you can build sermons. Of course in some cases, these days will not directly affect the sermon; but they might receive attention somewhere else in the service.
The important thing to remember is that holidays and special days can provide opportunities to address issues that are on everyone’s mind. At Christmas for instance, you have an opportunity not only to preach about the real meaning of Christmas, but also about how many temptations exist that threaten to make us lose our focus on what the day is really about, such as the materialism, sentimentality and the cultural pressure to take Christ out of Christmas. Our culture might take Christ out of Christmas, but the church must never. These yearly events create a springboard that the wise preacher can start from and lead into the gospel.
STEP THREE: Decide which topics/programs will receive emphasis in your preaching
While I never would want to deny the ability of a single sermon to transform a person, chances are if you want a church to change its mind, behavior or simply encourage its members to get behind a new ministry, it will require you to preach about it on more than one occasion. This is also true about controversial or contemporary issues.
My denomination produces a calendar that contains days that are set aside for placing emphases on the departments of the church or subjects that are important to us, such as Mission Sunday and Racial Reconciliation Sunday.
Consulting this type of calendar is a good idea for two reasons. First, it helps to keep the ministries that your denomination offers in front of people. Second, they often will offer resources that will better help to promote these ministries. Again, not all of this may directly influence the sermon, but will impact what goes on in the service somehow. The goal is identify which topics and church programs will be preached about
STEP FOUR: Plan a series through a book of the Bible
Begin by prayerfully selecting a book of the Bible that really addresses where your congregation is or where needs to be. I suggest doing at least two or three such series a year, inter-mingling them with more topical series.
The benefits to doing a sermon series through a book of the Bible are numerous: It matures your people, ensures Gods blessing, helps everyone share the same focus and increases their knowledge of Scripture, to name a few.
STEP FIVE: Make time to plan, study and be creative
Hopefully by now you are seeing how much more wisely your time will be spent by calculating how many sermons you are responsible for and what kind of messages they are going to be. There is still the issue of how you are going to carve out the needed time to prepare messages. Here are some practical suggestions I have seen work in a variety of situations:
Take a Sabbatical. This is not a vacation, but time to step away from church work in order to pray, study and plan. You need to identify those times of the year when the demands of the church are slower, then assign special speakers or fellow staff members to handle the preaching. It is very important that you persuade the leadership of your church about the importance of doing this. If a sabbatical is not doable, then a long weekend could provide some time away to plan.
Use a Study Team. Gather together a knowledgeable group of people to help you study topical issues and Bible texts. Sometimes these will be experts. I know of some pastors who bring in a Bible scholar every year at a summer retreat, and all the participants work through a book of the Bible together in order to prepare their sermons for that upcoming year. You could take a similar approach utilizing other professionals, especially when dealing with issues that are outside your area of expertise. This team could be made up of church staff, interns or even a cross section of church members.
I once preached what I considered to be a pretty challenging message on divorce. The title was “Keeping Your Vows in a World that Breaks its Promises.” I figured if I was going to get up and talk about such a sensitive issue I wanted to be able to anticipate some of the objections, biases and competing priorities that my congregation might have. My goal not only was to preach boldly, but to be compassionate, as well. I pulled together a group of couples in their 20s and 30s. Some of them were on their first marriage; for some, it was their second marriage; others were about to be married.
I prepared a series of open-ended questions that pertained to the sermon subject, then I let the recorder run. I asked questions such as, “What should a sermon on keeping your marriage vows in a divorce culture say?” The feedback I received was invaluable. I had studied the relevant biblical texts, and they helped me to study my audience so I could speak about this topic with relevance.
Use a Creative Team. Once you know what texts, topics and ideas you will be preaching about, consider using a creative team to help you brand each series and creatively promote and execute it. Once the series has been given a name, it can be promoted using banners, bulletins, posters and on your church Website. The creative team also will help you with illustrations that utilize visual media, drama and any other methods that help you communicate effectively and clearly. Creativity takes time; but with the right people assisting, you will be able to maximize the visibility and effectiveness of your sermon series.
I meet with my staff once a quarter expressly for a Brainstorming Saturday. We pray, eat, laugh and plan our church calendar. Most important, I vision cast about the upcoming sermon series and the direction of the church. We come up with a series title and some images that will be used in the promotion of it.
Throughout the week, I meet with a group of church members who serve as my official creative team. They consist of a Bible college student, someone employed in advertising and a student filmmaker. I give them the quarterly preaching calendar, which includes the main idea of the text, main idea of my sermon and the specific objective I want the sermon to accomplish in the lives of my audience.
We spend the first half of the meeting reviewing the prior service (what went well and what could have been done better). The remainder of the time is spent planning the upcoming service. The more elaborate the illustrations, the more advanced planning is necessary. If we have done something really involved the week prior, the following sermon will be a little more stripped down and not utilize much in the way of visuals.
My goal is not to outdo myself Sunday after to Sunday, but to communicate effectively. The creativity then, is not an end in itself, but instead serves the series in order to make it as interesting and memorable as possible. This is also a time saver because it takes the load off the preacher to come up with and prepare all of the illustrations.
The Holy Spirit and Planning
Do not underestimate the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead you in the planning of your preaching calendar. We should not just depend on His presence during the preaching of the message as He certainly can give us wisdom as we schedule our preaching calendar.
We have to be reminded God has called us to love and serve Him with everything we are, and this includes our minds. It takes hard work to think about what a group needs and how best to communicate that to the group. It takes effort to prepare something in advance that you will preach about and make it worth showing up on a Sunday morning to hear.
Preaching plans, like all plans, are projections that are made on the best information you have at the time. Like all plans, if it needs to be revised because of unforeseen interruptions, then do so.