Sermon preparation is hard work, but the word of God and the fruit God produces through the preaching of his word are worthy of that labor invested in it. Therefore, preachers must prioritize time for preparation, and guard quality time for that whenever that may be for each person.

But here is a warning: if you do more than one sermon a week of the kind I recommend (catching the thrust of the text, i.e., its pericopal theology, and preaching that with moves to relevance and specific application), it will lead to your rapid homiletical demise. It’s virtually impossible to have fresh material each time for these kinds of sermons, if you have to preach more than once a week (and the preparation for such, if done more than once a week is back-breaking). What I would strongly suggest is that preachers pick one occasion (likely the Sunday morning service) for the sermon. At other events, do something more lecture-like, more devotional-like.

Even the single sermon a week puts a lot of pressure upon preachers. How can they remain vibrant, and maintain freshness week after week? The answer to that, I believe, is long-term sermon preparation.

For that you need to make three best friends. They are: custom, habit, and routine. Develop and cultivate the customs, habits, and routines of long-term sermon preparation (and the short-term sermon preparation that goes alongside; see below), and I guarantee that half of all your sermonic problems will be solved, and your congregation will bless you! But it is not only you that your congregation will bless—actually they will bless me for helping you. And, you, yourself, will bless me,  because it will save you from burnout, flaming out, crashing out.

Sermon preparation is conveniently divided into long-term (what you do long before you preach) and short-term (what you do the week that you are preaching). You can find more details in my A Manual for Preaching (Baker, 2019) but here it is in simplified form.

I’m going to assume you are going to preach lectio continua, a continuous reading and preaching of the text, pericope by pericope, week by week. So let’s say you have decided to preach 1 Timothy in nine sermons. You have assembled your resources and are ready to start prepping.

Let’s look at long-term prep first …

Long-Term Prep [twelve hours/week]

If you are a full-time preacher in a church setting, it is fair to assume you have a number of things to do other than preach and prepare to preach. The demands of pastoral ministry are many and variegated and I hope you are giving adequate time for all that God calls you to do. Besides, there is family. And the cultivation of hobbies. And personal development. Etc. You obviously have many other things on your ministerial and professional calendars, with preaching only one of several plates you are juggling. Don’t drop any of these crockery items, please, and the way to keep them all successfully spinning in the air without hitting terra firma is this: Plan ahead in long-term preparation. Because, as they say, if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.

A rule of thumb: You will need one week of long-term preparation for every week of preaching. So, long-term preparation for nine sermons on 1 Timothy means nine weeks of long-term preparation before you commence preaching through the series. Here’s a method of long-term preparation, one that has worked for me.

Set aside twelve hours a week for long-term prep. That’s it—that’s all you need to do each week (but way before you begin the series—in this case nine weeks before). And it’s twelve hours a week for those weeks, no matter how many total weeks your next series will take. If it is a nine-part series on 1 Timothy, you start nine weeks prior to Week 1 of your preaching, and in each of those nine weeks, you should be devoting twelve hours a week to long-term preparation. (If it is a six -part series, you start six weeks prior @ twelve hours a week; if it is a twelve-part series, you start twelve weeks prior, doing 12 hours a week. You get the picture.)

And for the sake of discussion, let’s say you choose to spend Mondays 8:00 am–12:00 noon and 1:00 pm–5:00 pm and Tuesdays 8:00 am–12:00 noon (for a total of twelve hours) on long-term preparation. (This is just a suggestion: you can break up the twelve hours of each week however you please.)

So what do you do during those twelve hours you spend each week?

Let’s say you’re planning that nine-week/nine-part series on 1 Timothy. So you’re starting long-term preparation nine weeks ahead (at twelve hours/week). For this nine-week, nine-sermon preaching series, split up that nine-week long-term prep time into two parts: two-thirds and one-thirds. So your nine weeks are broken into six weeks + three weeks. (Of course, if you are doing a 24-part sermon series, you’ll start 24 weeks ahead, splitting that into sixteen weeks and eight weeks. Mutatis mutandis.) Let’s call them Weeks 1–6 and Weeks 7–9.

Weeks 1–6: Discern Pericopal Theology

This is arguably the most difficult part of your work with the text. Never, ever, give up, until the text has yielded its fruit!

And make notes as you go along. Begin writing things down right from the start. I usually create a text file for each pericope, adding in anything I want to remember from my reading, studying, and thinking.

Any insight, observation on the text, random but related thought, potential illustration—nothing is insignificant at this moment. Any questions arise in your reading? Note them. Things that look out of place? Jot it down. Look for repetitions of words, clauses, ideas (as necessary, check the Hebrew/Greek with your English translation of choice). Glancing at a good commentary is always helpful to figure out authorial saying.

But keep asking, as you read such works, whether you really need to know what those writers are telling you, in order to arrive at what the biblical author is doing. In most cases, you will not (I’ve tried, in the commentaries I have written, to be more discriminating).

At any rate, keep on writing. Making notes is an activity that ought to continue for as long as your prep is ongoing, for all of those nine weeks.

So at the end of those nine weeks you have spent 72 hours during Weeks 1–8 (twelve hours/week × six weeks), for your nine-part sermon series. Feel free to divide those 72 hours among your nine pericopes of 1 Timothy (or whatever you are preaching through) however you want, as you discern the theology. Some pericopes may take longer; other may be easier and take less time. Adjust as necessary

That is Weeks 1–8. Then ….

Weeks 7–9: Application, Maps, Moves

Now that you’ve discerned the theology of the text, in the final three weeks (i.e., Weeks 7–9), you are beginning to ponder over specific and concrete application, and how to create sermon maps and to flesh out the moves with moves to relevance for your particular audience. Remember, you’re still only doing twelve hours/week, for a total of 36 hours for the three weeks of Weeks 7–9. Again split up the 36 hours however you want to among the nine pericopes you are preaching in your nine-part series.

What you are trying to answer is: Based on this theology of the pericope, where am I (and where is my flock) deficient? How can we begin the process of moving towards fulfilling the call of the text?”

At the same time, you’ll also be tentatively thinking of sermon mapping and how to flesh out those moves, too. Keep writing.

Soon, those nine weeks are up. You’ve arrived at Week 0—the beginning week of your 9-part sermon series.

That’s the week you do Short-Term Prep for the sermon you are preaching that Sunday—in our example. the first sermon of 1 Timothy.

Short-Term Prep [eight hours/week]: Illustrations, Introductions and Conclusions, Manuscripts

Week 0 handles the short-term prep for finalizing the sermon you are going to preach at the end of this week. This is the week you’ll finalize Illustrations you might use, Introductions and Conclusions, and the writing of the Manuscript.

To do all this, we are allotting only eight hours for this one sermon to be preached this Sunday, spread through this final week however you please. I usually reserve a few hours on Wednesday, Friday, and a final read-through on Saturday for Short-Term Prep (total eight hours).

But, don’t forget, even in this final Week 0 for this pericope, you are continuing long-term prep for the future, for the next series of sermons, again giving yourself the same twelve hours on, say, Monday and Tuesday for the allotted number of weeks.

This means that there’s always short-term prep (for the current series you are preaching through on Sunday) operating concurrently with long-term prep (for the next series you plan to preach through). Any given week is therefore a Week 0 for the current sermon in the current series as well as a numbered Week in the long-term prep for an upcoming suite of sermons.

So here’s a day-by-day breakdown of a representative week, including both Long-Term Prep for the next series, and Short-Term Prep (i.e., Week 0) for the current week’s sermon—I’ll assume you are doing Monday–Tuesday for Long-Term Prep and Wednesday–Saturday for Short-Term Prep.

Monday–Tuesday [Long-Term Prep: twelve hours for the next series of sermons]

Wednesday–Friday [Short-Term Prep: six hours for the current sermon]

Saturday [Short-Term Prep: two hours for the current sermon]

So, when all is said and done, if you follow this scheme, you’ve spent about twenty hours/week on preaching prep, which is a bit more than average. But there are weeks when you aren’t preaching, even if you are full-time, like when you invite Southern Seminary profs to fill in, or when you do a pulpit exchange with another preacher in the community (for which you can recycle an old sermon), etc. As your expertise grows, you will, no doubt, get more things done in less than twenty hours/week.

All that to say: Plan ahead and work ahead, or … you’ll crash and burn in the pulpit! Please don’t!