The Power of Planning in Preaching-
– Dr. Thomas Bartlett, Rockbridge Class of 2008 –
When it comes to preaching, planning, and laying out an annual or quarterly calendar of topics, scriptures, and series, I’ve seen two opposing views. On one end of the spectrum there are typically non-preachers and super-spiritual folk who think the message should be delivered by God personally to the pastor while he walks to the pulpit on Sunday. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that planning and preparation are important. I fall to the latter end and could not conceive of regular preaching without thorough prayer and planning. Now I have experienced delivering spontaneous messages without planning to preach, particularly when I am in various situations overseas. Still, my general rule is to plan all I can and prepare for the year in advance. In this short article I’ll cover why I do that, the way I do it, and the results I have seen.
A Preaching Calendar Brings Balance to Your Preaching
Why plan a preaching calendar in advance? First, it gives you a broad perspective of the ministry calendar for the year. When you take time to map out your preaching focal points in this way, you have time to align your messages more closely with the life of the church. This alignment can create stronger connections between the message and ministry. For example, if you are planning to have a ministry campaign of any kind, you can align your preaching with the focus of the campaign to create greater synergy and stronger outcomes. This is true whether it’s a capital campaign, or a campaign leading up to a revival or emphasis on renewal.
A preaching calendar also helps you balance out the purposes of the church in your preaching. I personally believe that every message should clearly fall under at least one of the purposes of the church: worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, or ministry. At our church we plan every preaching series with these five purposes in mind. The reason we do that is to create a balance in the purposes that results in the holistic development of the individual to encourage spiritual growth. Without forethought about balance, you might focus only on the areas that you are most passionate about to the neglect of the other purposes. Pastor Rick Warren has brought great light to the idea of balance in the purposes: his advice is, “Don’t worry about the growth of your church. Focus on the purposes of your church.” Good planning allows you to bring health by focusing evenly on each of the purposes.
Looking at the ministry calendar not only encourages synergy and balance, but the planning itself gives you an opportunity to be prepared to assess the series itself. For years our preaching team kept a bucket file for each series, so people could add their ideas about the series for use in the future. When it was time to start writing for that series, you already had articles, thoughts, illustrations, and other ideas to consider. I have also noticed that knowing my preaching calendar ahead of time keeps my brain always thinking about these series in some non-conscience way. As a result, it seems I find material everywhere that I can put away for future messages.
Now, I must say that not all preachers have agreed historically about planning sermon series. The famous English Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon was very much against creating them, although he loved to read the work of the Puritans who were very much for it. The Welsh Protestant minister, D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, approached planning a sermon series with a different perspective: “All I can say is that it seems to me to be quite wrong to be rigid on the matter…I cannot see why the Spirit should not guide a man to preach a series of sermons on a passage or a book of the Bible as well as lead him to one text only.”
Planning a Preaching Calendar is Better in a Group
My first experience in putting an annual preaching calendar together came when I accompanied several pastor friends of mine on a planning retreat. We spent those days praying, writing, and mapping out our calendars by ourselves. Then each evening we would share with each other what we were thinking, and to gather a collaboration of thoughts. These times of collaboration proved to be an excellent exercise. We also took this approach in planning the ministry calendar with our pastoral staff. Those times on retreat and collaboration helped us focus our efforts on God’s Word to enrich the ministries of the church throughout the year.
These days we use Google Docs to collaborate throughout the year. Many times, there are more ideas than we can use in the ministry calendar. Any idea that is not used but worthy of future consideration is kept in that ongoing document. Once we are at the retreat or in planning sessions, we talk though each idea in the document. The individual who posted the idea gets to share the reasoning behind it. For topical messages such as a series on finances, family, or a theological issue, we discuss how many weeks we think the series will need for an appropriate level of coverage. For a Bible Book series, we walk through the Book and look for natural groupings of principles and practices to frame the series. For longer books such as Acts or Romans, we break the Book down into smaller sections, creating a series of messages to cover each section. We then send this information to the creative team for titles and graphics.
In planning both the preaching and ministry calendars, we start with mapping seasonal series focused on Easter, Christmas, and our summer children and worship camps. Once we have these series mapped out and have an idea of how long each series needs on the calendar, we determine other preaching series for the year and prioritize them by number. Again, we often have more than we can accommodate in the schedule. After we have prioritized them, we start with the first and seek to schedule it at the best time in the year. We then schedule the next series in the prioritized list to fill out the rest of the preaching calendar. Sometimes we lengthen or shorten a series to make it fit in the year. We also make space for what we call, “Pastor’s Choice” messages that are free standing apart from any series. This approach helps us to have small breaks and readjust our calendar if need be.
We Should Not Be Surprised God Knows What People Need
To those who think the planning of preaching is less than spiritual, I would remind them that God Himself is a planner. He laid out the world and set its boundaries from the beginning, and He has also done so for our lives. My experience is that God directs the preaching according to the needs of the people long before we even come up with our ideas for preaching series. I cannot tell you how many times after a sermon people have asked me if someone talked to me about their specific life situation. When I ask why, they often say the message I preached felt personal to them, and it was exactly what they needed to hear. It is so cool to say that God knew beforehand what you needed to say on that day since we planned to share this message last year. It reminds me of the wonderful passage in Matthew Chapter 6 verse 8: “…Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (ESV).
While you should not be afraid to plan, you must also be prepared to plan. Much prayer before and during these planning sessions is needed. It’s not simply an exercise in planning, it’s a time of listening to God and focusing on the message He wants shared with His people.
 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1995, p. 394
 D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Preaching & Preachers, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1974, p. 189