The preacher's weekly dilemma

How do you go about the important task of deciding what you will preach on? Last-minute decisions not only add to the stress you must carry, but also are likely to result in an unbalanced spiritual diet for your congregation. In this article) Lawrence Downing relates the various approaches he has tried and tells what works for him.

Lawrence G. Downing is pastor of the Green Lake Seventh-day Adventist church, Seattle, Washington.

 

What shall I preach next week?" The proverbial Monday morning blues have special significance for the preacher who must decide, week after week, what new sermonic offering will be laid before his expectant congregation. The question becomes more significant in direct proportion to the passing of the days. Other questions old friends by virtue of their frequent appearances reintroduce themselves as the Sabbath morning deadline approaches and nothing is yet on paper: "Why do I do this to myself?" "What's the point; does anyone listen anyway?" "Why am I unable to discipline myself and avoid this?" "Am I a failure?" By Friday, panic has firmly established itself if he still sits waiting for that one last blast of inspiration.

Like childbirth, sermon preparation involves both pain and satisfaction as the new creation is conceived, develops, and is eventually delivered. In each is a certain amount of passion as well as risk and uncertainty. Both are stressful situations. And when the whole process is completed, the result cannot be recalled whether or not one is pleased.

I have tried four solutions to the chronic "What shall I preach next week?" problem. Three have been rejected.

1. The Sudden Inspiration Method. Also known as the Adrenalin Crisis Method, this one has proved too traumatic for me. My system can stand only so many last-minute decisions. Besides, the sudden burst of fire from on high frequently turned into a sputtering fizzle in the pulpit.

2. The Monthly Sermon Plan. This was only partially successful in relieving my stress. I still had crises twelve times a year.

3. The Sermonic Quarter. This method improved on the previous one by reducing the stress points from twelve to four. But every quarter the crisis was reborn. I prefer even less anxiety.

4. The Sermonic Year. For the past eight years I have followed this method, as have many clergy past and present. Now I know not only what I will preach next Sabbath, but what I will be preaching twelve weeks or twelve months ahead!

My sermonic year begins the first Sabbath in October. In order to be ready for that date, I have the secretary prepare, during the first part of June, a chart for each month containing spaces for the following information: date, preaching text, Old and New Testament readings, sermon subject, ideas, and title. Camp meeting provides me a block of free time to fill in the blanks. During these nine days I develop the sermonic year schedule. Prior thought, of course, has been given to subjects I'd like to explore in the coming year. I also examine sermon lists from previous years to see what I have been using for texts and subjects, and I consult my lectionary readings. This last tool is not well known among Adventists, but I have found it helpful when putting together a sermonic year.

The lectionary I use is published jointly by several denominations who use it in common. There is an A, B and C series covering the church liturgical year. For each week, the lectionary lists at least three Scripture passages relating to the season of the church year. Using these in planning sermons makes me less apt to repeat pet subjects, brings me into contact with passages that I might not otherwise select, helps ensure that I will include the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, and reminds me that we are part of a wide Christian fellowship sharing similar concerns.

When I have selected the sermon topics and Scripture passages, I put them on a sheet of paper divided into weekly sections and transfer this information directly to the monthly preaching sheets. Special worship days such as Communion, holidays, church board retreats, hymn festivals, choir anthem service, family celebration Sabbath, Reformation Sabbath, et cetera, have already been placed on these monthly pages. The subjects for each week are fitted around these occasions. Old and New Testament readings are chosen for each topic so that a list for worship reading may be given to each elder and the music personnel.

After the church year calendar is complete, I schedule a meeting with the church organist and choir director. I give a copy of the schedule to each and present a brief summary of each week to aid them in music selection for the next year. At an elders' meeting, each elder receives a copy so he will know well in advance what the Scripture readings and sermon topics will be.

Are there drawbacks to planning sermons a year at a time? Yes. But they are relatively few and easily managed. The sermonic year obviously inhibits flexibility. Sometimes situations will necessitate schedule changes. An unusual circumstance may develop in the church dictating that the scheduled topic is not appropriate or that there is an urgent need for a sermon not currently scheduled. When this happens, I omit the subject for that week or exchange one week for another or prepare a sermon for the situation. It is stated on the schedule that the calendar is subject to revision, and 1 can easily change direction. I have had no complaints when substitutions have been made.

The benefits, I believe, far outweigh the disadvantages. Among the benefits I have found are these:

1. The sermonic year plan has enabled me to have an overview of what I am trying to accomplish for that year.

2. It is relatively easy to look back and review how well I have succeeded in accomplishing what I set out to do.

3. Chances for subject and text duplication are lessened. (As an interesting exercise sometime, list all the subjects you have preached during a two- or three-year period. Hobbyhorses come hobbling along with amazing frequency.)

4. Knowing a year at a time what 1 am planning to preach helps me keep an eye out for information pertinent to the sermon topics. When ideas or articles come to mind, I note them and file them by date for later retrieval.

5. That old panic feeling is absent. I know that all I have to do Monday morning is to open my top right drawer, and there rests the sermon subject and texts for next Sabbath.

6. Texts and sermon titles can easily be published in the church calendar, letting church members know that the pastor has at least one situation some what under control. Working from a sermonic year plan is personally satisfying. I feel on top of the situation, and approach each week with confidence about one area of my life at least: I know what I will preach about next week. Sometimes it seems that is the only thing I have that day to be confident about, and I give thanks for that one.

7. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, some sage once said. So it is in preparing the sermonic year. I believe that this approach enhances the worship service. The elders, the musicians, and the pastor know the themes that will be developed during the next year and can plan accordingly. The prayers, hymns, scripture, anthems, and sermon, when all is going well, relate to that theme. When this is repeatedly the pattern, the congregation begins to notice that, amazingly, the various parts of the service fit together, and that it is no accident! Indeed, one major purpose for the sermonic year is to develop intentionality in the preaching ministry.

For me, the sermonic year has answered the question: What shall I preach next week? I'm still losing my hair, but not from pulling it out on Friday night trying to come up with something for the saints on Sabbath morning!

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Lawrence G. Downing is pastor of the Green Lake Seventh-day Adventist church, Seattle, Washington.

October 1984

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