Many years ago my team did a time study of a pastor’s work week. The study group of pastors spent an average of 22 hours a week in sermon preparation. The study is dated but telling. The pastoral activity which requires the most time often goes unseen by most church members. Indeed, some members think pastors spend a lot of time enjoying coffee shops and listening to music through their ear buds.
To the contrary, most of these pastors are actually working on their sermons. The sound coming through the ear buds may be music or simply white noise. They are attempting to drown out the noisy distractions around them.
Is the coffee shop the most common place for pastors’ sermon preparations? In the now famous words of Rainer and Jonathan Howe, “It depends.” This past week, I asked pastors on social media for their feedback. Let’s look at seven insights into where pastors said they actually do their sermon preparation.
- The location is largely personality-driven. In our survey, two different personality types emerged among the pastors’ location preference. One group cannot work effectively unless people are around. They are actually distracted by inactivity. The other group of pastors expressed the opposite sentiment. They have to be in a place with no audible or people distractions. They want to be alone. Though I don’t know for certain, I suspect this factor may be related to extraversion or introversion. As an introvert, I definitely prefer to work in solitude.
- The church office is the least favorite location for sermon preparation. Pastors have learned that being in the church office means you are available at a whim to church members. Many pastors share stories of how, in the eyes of some church members, preparing a sermon in your office means you have time to chat for a few minutes . . . or an hour.
- The place of sermon preparation is a factor of routine for many pastors. They have become accustomed to a place conducive to study, so they stick with it. Similarly, many pastors try to create a routine schedule. For example, one pastor shared that he tries to get most of his sermon complete on Monday mornings and Tuesday mornings. He awakens at 5:00 am on Monday morning and works until noon. He then works on the sermon another five hours on Tuesday morning. Of course, pastors understand their schedules and routines are subject to emergencies and necessary interruptions.
- Coffee shops are popular sites, and seem to be growing in popularity. Many pastors have a specific coffee place they go. Others like to rotate coffee shops in the community just to be visible to others. Of course, these pastors are among those who strongly prefer to be around people when they work. I don’t like to be around people when I work. In fact, I usually don’t like to be around people at all.
- Home offices are a distant second for places to prepare sermons. While home offices are used by many pastors for sermon preparation, that location is a distant second to coffee shops. Some pastors have studies as a part of their bedrooms. Some have places set aside in their garages. A few are fortunate to have dedicated rooms in their homes for study, particularly for sermon preparation.
- Rarely is the place a silent place. Very few pastors work in total silence regardless of the location. Even if they are in a garage alone, they prefer some type of noise, such as background music or white noise. Total silence for most pastors is a major distraction wherever they prepare their sermons.
- One response was my favorite. Obviously, a single response is not usually worthy to note in a post on insights. I must, however, give a shout out to the pastor who said his favorite place of sermon preparation was the offertory right before the sermon. I laughed. He was either humorous or honest or both.
Thank you to all you pastors who participated in this social media survey. Please feel free to add your own comments and insights to this post.
Posted on July 22, 2019
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom
I am an airline pilot but occasionally fill in for my pastor. I find that most of my ideas come when I’m at 35,000 feet! Of course, I’m working the radios, talking with the other pilot, and monitoring the aircraft, but there is a good bit of time to just sit and think. That’s the idea time. The sausage making time is usually deep in the night when the house is quiet and I can focus on my notes, sources, and most importantly the Bible.
Sometimes being rural is a blessing. My office space is still seen as the Pastoral study. Folks, respectively knock if they come and are often come only for serious matters of the heart. I love it because I can work in silence for the most part and if I need to gather my thoughts I listen to podcasts. Insights from the podcasts give me ideas and fresh illustrations. Don’t worry Thom, I give you credit especially when it is a joke against Alabama (Jonathan I know you appreciate my tease here).
I have the good fortune to meet most Monday mornings with a group of area pastors. We meet in the front room of a local McDonalds to discuss a book that we’ve agreed to read and talk about together. Most weeks I take some time during that time to read through the Scripture for the upcoming week (I preach passage through a book right now). Typically I’m able to separate the points and even begin to develop the primary idea I plan to convey. Once I get back to the office I can then diagram the passage, check my original points and primary point, work on both introduction and conclusion.
“Pastors have learned that being in the church office means you are available at a whim to church members. Many pastors share stories of how, in the eyes of some church members, preparing a sermon in your office means you have time to chat for a few minutes . . . or an hour.”
This is just one more area where “virtual” office assistants fall short. An experienced person in your front office is able to protect the pastor during his study time. I know when the pastor is studying and NO ONE and NOTHING gets through unless it’s an emergency…and through communication with the pastor, I am able to make the determination of what constitutes an emergency that must be dealt with by the pastor and can’t be routed to another staff person.
I haven’t tried it in my ministry but in my past career – if my door was open I was fair game. If my door was shut there were three options (based on the sign on my door): knock and enter, knock and wait, knock only if the ship was sinking or on fire. It normally worked: open and I’m fair game, closed and no one knocks.
That would be a good way to function, but that also demands a compliant congregation.
Years ago I took the advice of Dr. W. A. Criswell and established a study at home. At first it was a designated room in a parsonage. Then kids came along and I used a separate room at the church other than my office. Eventually, as my kids grew (now we are empty-nesters) my study is at home. Another important part of my study is “when.” I study in the morning. Usually from around 5:30 to about 10:30 four days a week. From time to time I thank the congregation for understanding this schedule which reinforces the importance of preaching. Nothing of this sort is rigid in ministry. There are days and even weeks when I am pulled from my study due to emergencies, events, needs, situations, etc. The fact that my study time is scheduled and daily, keeps me ahead. At times, I take a whole day for study. One thing I have found helpful is do all that is involved in study of a text — get up and go walk or to the gym – come back and it seems to fall in place for writing the message. This method really works well with exposition through books – and gets you ahead.
I get a lot of my ideas in the gym. Training gets my mind clear and thoughts can get spiritually downloaded pretty clear. The transfers of those revelations to sermons notes takes place in my office. It’s sometimes busy with staff asking questions and calls coming in. I get most done when they all go home and I stay a little l8r to work in silence.
I write most of my sermons at a local coffee shop, but there’s a lead up to that that involves research and reflection in a few different locations. Some of my best insights come at the gym during the first workout I have following my first study session. Ideas related to the study will pop into my head and I’ll record them in the notes app on my iphone.
my favorite place to prepare sermons was a quiet corner of the library of the local community college. Members would stop in to my study at the church & would love to chat. I rather enjoyed the conversation however I realized in order to get the sermon prep done I had to go someplace else. It really worked well.
I have to be outside for sermon prep. I do some foundational research work on Mondays but then I need to take time each week to be out on a hike somewhere to be able to (in my words) pray it out and talk it out. I have had more than a few people look at me weird as they hear me talking to myself as they walk by. Nature is the best witness to me on a regular basis of the Creator who we worship so being in the midst of the glorious Creation is where I feel and hear the Spirit the most.
What’s interesting is the mix. I tend to spend much of my exegetical work alone, looking out the window of my office or sitting on a bench when weather permits (not in the summer in Virginia though). Reflective work tends to be alone but outside moving around. Illustrations tend to arise in group settings – either group runs or over coffee (or something). Final compilation tends to happen in a local coffee place. One of the benefits of being hard of hearing is I can always make it quiet enough.
I used to find it best to sit at my desk for exegesis but have found that there are too many distractions sitting at my desk. Standing at a podium at the window now separates me from my distractions by light-years (or at least 3 feet).