There are times when a pastor leaves his pulpit on a Sabbath morning thoroughly ashamed of his failure in preaching the Word. The sheep looked up with eager expectancy to be fed, but all they received was chaff. He is keenly aware that he has failed, and the awareness often casts a shadow over his entire day.
Often this is due to inadequate preparation, which in turn is due to poor planning. The pressure of the week has crowded his sermon preparation to the edge of the Sabbath. It is then he decides on what he will preach, and attempts to assimilate hastily digested material. He preaches with discomfort and uneasiness, and the pew detects his unpreparedness.
Unfortunately this pattern often becomes habitual. The minister develops mediocrity, and the congregation continues to suffer in silence, hoping that there will be a change in pastors. Worse yet is the fact that the Lord is ashamed of that type of workmanship.
Consequently Paul cautions the minister in this language: "Concentrate on winning God's approval, on being workmen with nothing to be ashamed of, who know how to use the word of truth to the best advantage. 2 Tim. 2:15."—J. B. PHILLIPS, Letters to Young Churches. A workman that needs not to be ashamed is a workman who studies. A workman who studies is a workman who plans a program conducive to study.
Planning a sermon schedule as long as a year in advance gives direction to the pastor's study habits. Advance knowledge of the next week's sermon topic is conducive to early and adequate preparation. Pastors who are a power in the pulpit week after week are usually men who devote long and arduous toil to the task. They are men who plan their sermons months in advance. The noted contemporary Presbyterian minister, Clarence 1VIacartney, in his book Preaching Without Notes, page 90, makes this observation: "It is highly important that a preacher should plan his work well ahead."
Henry Sloan Coffin, who was chosen to give the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale a few years ago, followed the same pattern: "I mapped out, so far as one could, as much of the year's preaching as one might predict. . . . I made myself begin one of my sermons [he spoke twice on Sunday] on Tuesday morning. This was to prevent a huddle of work at the end of the week."—In Here Is My Method, McLeod, ed., pp. 53, 54.
When to Plan the Sermon Year
How shall a sermon year be planned? It might be pointed out, in passing, that a sermon year is best planned during the summer months. In most instances the lightest period of the year for a pastor is vacation time. If summer is a busy time, the pastor should choose the lightest season of the year for this planning, considering that period the beginning of his pastoral year.
The first step is to plot a work sheet. This may be done in one of two ways. Take a letter-size sheet and rule it vertically with five equal columns. Rule it horizontally with eleven equally spaced lines. This will result in 55 boxes, sufficient for the 52 Sabbaths of the year. In each box place the month and date of the Sabbath in the upper left corner. The rest of the space may be used for the sermon subject. The entire year's plan can be seen at a glance once the boxes have been filled with the sermon subjects.
The work sheet may also be prepared in the following way: The months of the first quarter may be typed in column fashion, with the date of each Sabbath listed under the respective months, triple spaced. There is room on a letter-size sheet for the first and second quarters of the year, in two columns. A second sheet may be prepared in the same way for the last two quarters. Opposite each date the subjects may be filled in as desired.
Let us now consider seven factors that may be helpful in planning a sermon year.
2. Secular calendar.—A calendar which indicates national holidays and events will also give suggestions for sermon topics. The Easter season, while not officially celebrated by us as a people, is a fine time to speak on the resurrection and kindred subjects. Mother's Day gives opportunity for a sermon on some phase of home relations. Thanksgiving is an occasion that should have sermonic recognition annually. Christmas gives opportunity for a sermon on the incarnation, or the like.
Another method of ascertaining special needs of the congregation is through a survey sheet. Periodically, perhaps annually, the pastor may have a survey sheet mimeographed, listing for checking suggested subjects he may feel to be of interest. He will encourage each member to place on the sheet the subject he personally feels should be presented by the pastor at a subsequent date.
A pastor who knows a year in advance where he is going sermonically has ample time to prepare these series. The themes for sermon series are endless. A biographical series may be given. Perhaps a series on the life of Christ, on Bible doctrines, on a book of the Bible, might be chosen.7. Spirit of prophecy suggestions.—Finally, as one systematically reads the Spirit of prophecy he will run across statements the servant of the Lord makes regarding subject matter that should be presented to our people. As an example, in Gospel Workers, pages 147-160, will be found a number of these references. I quote: "Some ministers think that it is not necessary to preach repentance and faith. . . . But many people are sadly ignorant in regard to the plan of salvation; they need more instruction upon this all-important subject than upon any other."—Page 158.
By following this plan a pastor need never wonder about what he will preach. From the suggestions listed above there are possibilities for forty-four sermons. Two more are cared for by the annual camp meeting. The pastor will be absent on two other Sabbaths for his vacation. This makes a total of forty-eight. There are guest speaker appointments in the course of the year that will take care of the remaining four, which give a total of fifty-two.
A planned program such as this may be projected into other phases of ministerial responsibility. The evangelistic endeavors may be carefully thought out along a similar pattern months in advance. Personal evangelism and lay activity, if outlined in this manner, will be less haphazard and more effective.
The results of this manner of planning will be most gratifying. From the pastoral viewpoint it encourages earlier and better preparation of sermons. It will enable the pastor to make of public worship an integral unit, with hymns, prayers, Scripture all fitting into the theme of the sermon. It will make possible advance publicity in the church bulletin and newspapers. It will help him to grow homiletically. It will lift him out of mediocrity.
The members of his congregation will be happier because they are better fed. It will be an additional inducement for them to attend on Sabbath. It will take away the nervous uncertainty that some members have regarding the pastor's coming sermon. They are never quite sure what kind of sermon will be preached, and therefore hesitate to bring friends not of our faith.
Room for the Spirit to Work
Some may feel that this plan leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to impress the minister as to his message on a given Sabbath. It is true that some event in pastoral experience or some significant world happening may arise necessitating a change in the sermon calendar. Therefore any sermon year, like a railroad timetable, should be "subject to change without notice.- With this allowable flexibility, ample provision will be made for guidance of the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is not limited to impressing one only in a time of crisis. He can influence a man in preparation for his flock's needs a year in advance as well as a week in advance.
There is a school of thought which teaches that no arduous preparation is ever needed, that the Holy Spirit will give a message in the same hour. This is true to a degree. A sermon must never be so carefully planned that the Holy Spirit cannot find entrance. Sermon planning must not circumscribe His work. However, if the Holy Spirit is present in the preparation of the sermon it is not likely that He will be absent in its delivery. He will create flashes of insight. He will develop spontaneity. He will add that mysterious something that drives the message home like an arrow to the heart.
Perhaps it can be best illustrated by a story which Martin Niemoller enjoys telling about Dr. Klaus Harms, the noted revivalist of northern Germany. Dr. Harms was visiting a conference of ministers. One younger member of the group said, "I personally never prepare my sermons, because I am totally sure of my Lord and Saviour, and of the Holy Spirit, and I know that the words will be given me according to the promise." To this Dr. Harms replied, "I am seventy-five years old and have preached for fifty years, but I must confess that all the time I stood in the pulpit not on one single occasion has the Holy Spirit spoken to me a single word. That is, except once. But he spoke to me often as I left the pulpit, and what he said was this, 'Klaus, you have been lazy.' "—The Pulpit Digest, December, 1952, p. 22.
A planned sermon year leaves sufficient room for inspiration of the Spirit while it makes arrangements for perspiration. Inspiration without perspiration is generally "without form, and void." Perspiration without inspiration is lifeless. Like the bodies of Ezekiel's dry-bone valley, there is no breath in it. But the two united produce a spiritual diet that will give life and vigor to any spiritual body. Perspiration provides the material. Inspiration sets it on fire.
The conclusion of the whole matter is this: Planning your sermon year will help you develop into a workman who wins God's approval, "a workman with nothing to be ashamed of, and who knows how to use the word of truth to the best advantage."