Sermon Prep: a couple hours, half the work week, or more?

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It’s always interesting to hear about various pastor’s methods for sermon preparation. Two overarching themes present themselves when discussing this topic. On one end of the spectrum are the pastors whose primary role in the church is simply to speak. When this is the case, it seems that taking 20-30 hours is quite normative. On the other end of the spectrum we find pastors that are more relational in their focus wanting to be available for active ministry and mission. These sorts of pastors often de-emphasize sermon prep or have adapted in such a way as to be quite efficient with their time.

I came across an article this week that examined the habits of prominent conservative pastors. Although many of the preachers on this list are not in my “go to” for podcast and spiritual uplift, I think its interesting to observe their various practices (and yes, I know, this list is lacking female preachers… but there you go).

Excerpt of “Should You Take 2 Hours or 32 Hours for Sermon Prep?” by Eric McKiddie

Well-Known Preachers Spend Between 1 And 35 Hours On Sermon Prep.

Mark Driscoll – 1 to 2 hours. A couple of years ago, Driscoll caused a bit of a ruckus when he tweeted, “Prepping 2 sermons today. Thankfully, a sermon takes about as long to prep as preach.” Last week he tweeted something similar, “Time to put the sermon together for Sunday. 1-2 hours.” Obviously, a lot of pastors are surprised by those numbers. Driscoll explains:

By God’s grace my memory is very unusual. I can still remember a section of a book I read 20 years ago while preaching and roll with it. I’ve also never sat down to memorize a Bible verse. Yet many just stick, and I can pull them up from memory as I go. Lastly, I’m a verbal processor. I think out loud, which is what preaching is for me. A degree in speech and over 10,000 hours of preaching experience also helps. And most importantly and thankfully, the Holy Spirit always helps.

When I get up to preach, the jokes, illustrations, cross-references and closing happen extemporaneously. I never teach others how to preach, as my method is not exactly a replicable method—nor a suggested one. But it works for me.

Tim Keller (small rural church) – 6 to 8 hours. Keller shared this about his early days pastoring and preaching:

I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time [on sermon preparation], however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot and spend tons of time in people work—that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh-and-blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff, I put in 6–8 hours on a sermon.

Tim Keller (big Manhattan church) – 14 to 16 hours. When you have a staff of pastors doing ministry alongside you, that affords the lead pastor more time to put into his message. Check out this two-minute video to learn how Keller spends those 14 to 16 hours.

John Piper – All day Friday, half day Saturday. It’s hard to get an exact number from Piper’s explanation of how he prepares his sermons. When you read it (or watch it), it sounds something like 14 to 16 hours, though. Piper, like Driscoll, admits that his process is less than replicable:

It works for me. Most people who hear I do it that way say, “No way can I start on Friday.” Or, “No way can I take a manuscript into the pulpit and not have it be canned.” No problem. Wear your own armor, not mine.

Stephen Um – 24 hours (update: 15 to 16, see comments). Um broke down his entire week as it pertains to his sermon prep schedule in this TGC post. The uniqueness of his pattern, in comparison with the men already listed, is that he prepares throughout the week.

Matt Chandler – All day Tuesday, all day Thursday. It sounds safe to say 16-plus hours for Chandler. While walking through his preaching habits, he says he blocks these days off and takes care of the rest of his responsibilities on other days of the week:

Tuesdays and Thursdays are study days for me. I put together sermons and pray and study on those two days. The rest of the week I am meeting with people and trying to shepherd well the people God has asked me to lead.

Kent Hughes – 20 hours. I can’t remember if it was this Q and A panelthis conference message, or some other time I heard Hughes speak, but he said he spent 20 hours on a Sunday morning sermon, and 10 hours on a Sunday evening sermon.

John MacArthur – 32 hours. Another throughout-the-week guy, MacArthur takes 4 days at 8 hours per day to prepare to preach. Here’s the gist, but Colin Adams shows how each day breaks down.

Day One: Exegesis; Day Two: Meditation; Day Three: Rough draft of sermon; Day Four: Final draft, handwritten. 


What are your thoughts about preaching preparation? What do the various approaches offer us practically?

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  • Depends, a bit, on what you define as “sermon prep”… if you mean sitting down, reading books, looking up scriptures, cross referencing commentaries… that’s one thing…

    I’m not an “every week” preacher currently… so, when I do preach, I usually have a good long run up to it… something on the lines of a couple of weeks or more. So… I get the topic, sermon texts, etc., by the org requesting me (I do pulpit supply mainly), and then spend a good bit of my time over the next few weeks pondering, seeking, praying, meditating on the scriptures. Pulling them up regularly… re-reading them… asking folks what they think, reading books and commentaries… cross referencing multiple translations, etc… Sums up to something like 2-3 hours a day for 2 weeks straight… Then I spend about 4-6 hours two or three days before hand jotting down outline, notes, references, specific text I want read verbatim, etc… then it rests for a day on my PC without me looking at it… and then I open it up again sometime before I deliver the sermon and check to see if the stuff still works… and then I preach it.

    so… unusual, maybe… but certainly a LOT of prep time…

  • Since I still only preach irregularly, I usually have a lot of notice and can spend a lot of time on it. I usually am in the neighborhood of the 20-30 hours timeframe. When I was an interim for a period and preaching more regularly along with other duties, it was closer to the 4-6 hour mark for a week to a few days before (up to Friday), and then I’d spend another 4-6 hours on Friday-Saturday ironing it out and going over it, often speaking it to see how it flows, etc (so 8-12 hours). I’ve always liked to try to preach over my sermons by myself once or twice. I spend a lot more time on a 30-45 minute sermon than I do for my hourlong lectures (3 days a week). Those get 1 to 2 hours per hour of lecture. I think Tim Keller nails it with the distinction between a Bible Study (more abstract) and a Sermon. Incidentally, I find a good Sunday School lesson can often take a while to prep as well (at least 3-4 hours), and a children’s Sunday School lesson (a good one) even longer. I don’t know, maybe my students now are getting short-shrifted.

  • What concerns me the most about ‘low sermon prep -time’ is the possible danger of compressing the Text into our pet hobby horses and favourite doctrines. I think it takes serious work to invest time to ‘think outside ourselves’ and see new angles of the text. I know if I have limited prep time I will be more tempted to do a ‘fly by reading’ rather than deeply worshipful and engaging reading of the text.

    The last thing my congregation needs is another “you’ve got to get out of the boat’ sermon that they have heard a million times before. I had a mentor that always taught me, “when you skimp out on your study & prayer time, it’s not only you that suffers… your congregation will suffer too”.

  • Aaron Strietzel

    Great post and I found it very insightful. As you suggested It would seem to vary greatly on the number of staff. I have seen pastors plan everything on Fri. To me this seems insane as I would feel so much pressure to produce something in short time. Clearly it can work for some. While each one of us are individuals (and as you said most of these are not my “go to” for podcasts) it is helpful to learn from others who have been doing it for a long period of time and clearly have had great success (i.e. they know what they are doing and talking about).

    • Aaron Strietzel

      I would love to learn more from people like Rob Bell, Shane Hipps or Greg Boyd on this topic. They did do a great teaching a while back.

  • Aaron Strietzel

    as someone who is leading a new church plant I would love to hear your current experience and what you predict might happen in the future as far as how a church planter spends his time esp when he or she is bi-vocational…any thoughts?

    • Honestly… it is hard to do. Working and researching fight against each other, as you well know. My approach is evolving into what involves long periods of time studying a topic (for instance, learning all I can about a biblical book weeks/months before I preach on it) so that my sermon prep time can be more a time of recalling that information and figuring out how to present it well. I don’t imagine bi-vocational ministers having more than 5-8 hours of prep time (and often much less than that.

  • Half a day when I was all I was pastoring was all I could afford, but I really think what makes a difference is how much study you have done leading up to that point, whether formally or informally. The more you’ve done, the quicker you can pull it together. Now that I am itinerating, I take a couple of hours to write a sermon because they simmer below the surface for a long time. Then I get the luxury of refining them as I go as it is rare I only preach them once…

  • Back when I first started giving talks I spent 2-3 days on one. But once I got the hang of it I could prepare one in 5 minutes. This is because I did/do a lot pf studying anyway and I engaged in a lot of personal evangelism. I was talking to people in many different settings constantly on many different things. Therefore topical talks was not a problem. Now I no longer engage in talks in the traditional ‘pastoral’ setting so who knows how long it would take me.