Deep Work for Pastors: Six Keys for Better Sermon Preparation
Every pastor knows the constant weight of sermon preparation. Sunday is a standing, unmovable deadline. It is like living in final exam week, with a massive deadline before you every Lord’s Day. But the preacher’s test is a public one, for all to see. He will be judged by God’s people. And, more importantly, he will be judged by God himself.
To weekly stand before God’s people, open his Word, and be his spokesman is a daunting responsibility. I question the judgement—if not the calling—of those who take it lightly. That is why pastors spend so much time each week preparing sermons. To be a preacher is to be a sermon preparer.
Given the neediness of the church, the cultural pressures we face, and the general social upheaval of our times, how we preach has never been more important. That means our sermon preparation has never been more important either.
Recently, I enjoyed reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. It is one in a long line of new books detailing our challenged attention spans, social media’s deleterious effects on our ability to concentrate, and how the modern man bounces from one distraction to the next. Newport laments these challenges and offers helpful suggestions for correction. As I read his book, my mind continually raced to sermon preparation, and how pastors can strengthen their study time. Consider these six keys.
1. Realize the value of deep work. Deep work refers to “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” It is work that is most demanding mentally, most consequential in what it accomplishes. Sermon preparation is quintessentially deep work. Whether authors, composers, economists, politicians, or preachers, those who have accomplished much have—whether calling it or deep work or not—prioritized deep work.
2. Reserve blocks of time for deep work. Deep work, like sermon preparation, almost always requires blocks of time. Two, three or more hours of uninterrupted focus is needed for sustained focus. It is just impossible to exegete and outline a text in ten-minute bursts. Give yourself major chunks of time in which you can immerse yourself in God’s word. This is a recurring theme throughout the book, and rightly so. If you get nothing else from Newport’s book or this blogpost, make sure it is this point.
3. Batch process shallow activities. All of us have minutiae we must deal with which occupies time during our days. No matter who you are, you cannot avoid returning phone calls, responding to emails, reviewing the upcoming order of worship, etc. The key is to not sprinkle these throughout the day, but reserve a couple of blocks of time to batch process them all together. It is better to turn the administration faucet on and off intentionally than have a constant, slow drip which hinders your study.
4. Sever social media. John Piper famously observed that if it has no other use, Facebook will prove at the final judgement that we had time for prayer but we squandered it. I would like to add sermon preparation to that as well. Surfing social media is the great time-waster of our generation. When you study, turn off your social media, if not your email and internet access as well. This is an indispensable step for more productive sermon preparation.
5. Cultivate Routines. Routines are a way of preprogramming yourself to behave a certain way in advance. If, for instance, you have routinized awakening at 5:00 am and being in your study until 9:00 am, you are prepositioned to succeed. If you are inconsistent in your wake-up time and random in your study time, you will find it much more difficult to maintain adequate sermon preparation.
6. Remember, you have more time than you think. Newport suggests scheduling your day in detail. Like a budget, which tells your money how to be spent before you spend it. A schedule tells your time how to be used before you use it. As you schedule your time and manage it like the strategic resource it is, you will discover there is more time in your week than initially thought—and enough time for adequate sermon preparation.
Great preaching does not just happen. It usually occurs after a week of great preparation. Great preparation does not just happen either. It usually occurs after intentionally structuring your life for adequate study, and then maintaining the discipline to use it.
Preaching is too high of a calling not to give it our best preparation. And, sermon preparation is quintessentially deep work, therefore use these six keys to strengthen your game.
 Newport, Cal. Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world. London: Piatkus, 2016, 3.
 Ibid, 16-17.
 Ibid, 181.
 Ibid, 100.
 Ibid, 221.topicsPastoral Ministry, Sermon
March 23, 2017 at 3:23 am, Ramesh Mikkilineni said:
Dr. Allen, This is a good article with instruction and guidance. Thank you.