What Eugene Peterson taught me

IMG_6045cEugene H. Peterson died October 23, 2018, at age 85. While he is best known for The Message, he was also a prolific author on Christian spiritual formation and pastoral work. I have read 26 books by Peterson, and his writings have profoundly influenced my life and my vocation. Most of my deepest convictions about what it means to be a pastor come from him. Footnotes to the influence of Eugene H. Peterson on me appear in nearly every sermon, lecture or talk I have given, and his influence on me extends to all areas of my life as a follower of Christ.

As I’m reflecting on the life and legacy of “Pastor Pete,” here are four topics that have been particularly helpful to me from his writing.


Peterson returned again and again to the topic of Sabbath. He was emphatic that a “day off” and a day of Sabbath were not synonyms, learning from his own experience that a “day off” often has a utilitarian purpose. Sabbath, in his own words, is, “uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been doing and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week, we take ourselves far too seriously.”

Stay put

Peterson understood the impulse to move on to greener pastures and confessed his own restlessness in several of his writings, but the story of Gregory of Nyssa helped him to stay put. Gregory was appointed to serve as bishop of Nyssa by his older brother, Basil. Nyssa was a small insignificant town, and Gregory protested his appointment there, but Basil told Gregory not to gain notoriety from the place where he was appointed, but rather to distinguish the place by his being there. In his own words, “All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people.” It is a deceptively simple truth, but one that mattered deeply to Peterson.

Busyness and the power of a calendar

Busyness is epidemic in American culture, and Peterson suspected that at least one reason why pastors succumb to busyness is vanity, and the desire to appear significant since “the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself — and to all who will notice – that I am important.” Peterson unapologetically saw busyness as an enemy of the Christian life.

One of the most practical things I learned from Peterson in addressing busyness is the power of a calendar. Peterson found that if someone asked him to attend a meeting on a day he had planned to write his sermon, or to spend time with his wife, someone would answer, “Well, I’m sure you can find another time to do that.” Peterson found, though, that if he answered instead, “My appointment calendar will not permit it,” the conversation stopped without further explanation. He urged pastors, and all of us, to protect our time by scheduling times to do the most important work (prayer, preparing sermons, time with our families, etc.), and then appeal to the authority of your calendar: “My appointment calendar will not permit it.” He adds, “The trick, of course, is to get to the calendar before anyone else does.”

Lastly, a family meal every evening

Jan Peterson, Eugene’s wife of 60 years, was once asked what her advice would be to parents about raising their children, and she answered, “Have a family meal every evening.” It’s a disarmingly simple answer, but Eugene and Jan Peterson knew most families do not share an evening meal together and suffer as a result.

Peterson frequently highlighted how meals were not just a means to an end in Jesus’ life and ministry, but often the backdrop of some of the most significant conversations and gatherings of his ministry. He said sharing a meal with someone mixes “conversation and calories” in a way that makes them both better.

This advice about a family meal sums up what I gained time and again by reading Peterson: he showed me things about Jesus or Scripture that I had overlooked before and gave me ways to apply it to my life in a way that was profound and practical. My family, my ministry and my life are better for it.


  • Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
  • Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
  • Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
  • Eugene H. Peterson, Living the Resurrection. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006.
  • Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2011.

Originally written for Wesleyan.org


4 Healthy Habits for Vacationing Preachers

Preachers have a notoriously hard time listening to each other preach. I guess it’s only human nature. Mechanics will assess the work of other mechanics, a hairstylist will probably always have something to say about your haircut, a musician will usually notice a mistake that an untrained ear would miss, and pastors critique each others’ sermons.

In these summer months when most preachers find themselves taking a break from the pulpit for one reason or another, how can a preacher listen well? Two years ago I transitioned from being the lead pastor of a growing church to a ministry role at Houghton College. I went from preaching 46 weekends per year on average (plus special services, funerals, weddings, etc.) to a role at Houghton where I have over 55 opportunities every year to preach, teach, or lead worship at various events, but only find myself on a church platform to preach or lead worship around 30 weekends per year. As a result, I have to take a seat about 22 weekends per year. Here are four habits that have been vital for me, and maybe will help you take a seat this summer:

Come as a student, not a teacher

Students don’t use red pens. Teachers use red pens to grade their students’ work, but when you hear a sermon you are not there to give a grade: you are there to learn and grow.

I don’t think I’ve seen two pastors yet in my travels who preach the same way. Note-taking, manuscript preaching, note-less preaching, object lessons, putting images on a screen, or not – I’ve seen it all and then some. The mode of delivery can be a distraction especially for us pastors who preach all the time.

You can always learn something, though, in any sermon. Sometimes the learning comes easy. Sometimes I have to be very creative in my ability to learn, but you can always learn something. Maybe it’s a song you didn’t know before. Maybe it’s a theological, historical, or biblical point you didn’t know before (or had forgotten). Maybe it’s something about their delivery that you’ve never tried before. Maybe it didn’t even work for them, but you can try to utilize it in a more constructive way. You may not like the sermon. You may not want to hear it a second time. But you can probably still learn something, and if you go into it the service looking to learnsomething God will rarely let you come up empty.

When you are a preacher on vacation this summer, put away your red pen. Be a student, not a sermon critic.

Be an example of how to listen to a sermon

As a preacher, especially someone who serves as a guest speaker in a variety of settings, it is really helpful and encouraging to find a smiling, friendly face in the congregation. It is a gift to find someone who makes eye contact and stays engaged. Every once in a while I even find someone who laughs at my jokes.

When you take a seat, be aware of how you look from the pulpit. Do you appear engaged or indifferent? Are you expressing a warm demeanor, or detached? Are you just waiting for this to be over, or are you fully present? Actually, whether or not that sort of stuff helps other preachers the way it helps me, I know acting that way makes a big difference in my heart when it’s my turn to take a seat.

Think about how you’ll use your phone, too. Your phone is a gateway to a million distractions. Maybe you’re better off leaving your phone in your pocket.

When you get Sundays off this summer, do unto the preachers as you would have others do unto you when it’s your turn to preach.

Enjoy the weekend

I went 12 years without a weekend off. 12 years without a true, non–vacation, run-of-the-mill weekend off. I think lay people don’t realize how much of a sacrifice it is for pastors and their families to give up our weekends. I remember how strange it felt when I finally got my first true weekend off in 12 years. I remember saying to someone, “You mean this happens every week?” It made me realize that, while I faithfully took a day off in the pastorate, a day off is no match for a weekend.

A Sunday when you don’t have to preach might be the closest thing you get to a weekend off all year long. Guard your calendar. Stay up late on Saturday night. Make special plans. Seize the day.

When you get a Sunday off, make a weekend out of it.

Put An Arm Around Your Loved Ones

I will never forget the Sunday three summers ago I woke up to go to church. It was the first time in my adult life when I was not a church’s pastor on a Sunday morning. I was still an ordained pastor, still doing pastoral work, but no longer responsible for one specific congregation in the same way. I was usually to the church before my children were even awake on Sunday mornings, so going to church with my family was a foreign idea.

And I loved it. My favorite part? I got to sit with my family in church.

There are many Sundays when I am jealous of my friends who are pastors who get to perform baptisms, or preach to their own congregation, or lead communion. There are certain Sundays of the year when I really wish I had a church to whom I could preach. I console myself those mornings by putting my arm around my wife or one of my children during the sermon. It’s a simple pleasure that simply makes a big difference in my life.

Whatever else you do when you take some time off this summer, make sure you put your arm around someone you love.

Why It Matters

Like other professions, it is no secret preachers are opinionated about their craft. But unlike other professions, it is vital to your soul that you can hear the voice of God through other pastors. You have blind spots, I have blind spots, and it is not just for the sake of time off or as a professional courtesy that pastors must learn to take a seat. In the struggle for the preacher’s soul, this is an often overlooked battlefield.


© Steve Dunmire 2016
Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY), where he teaches classes for the Equipping for Ministry ministerial credentialing program, a program he oversees. Steve is an ordained Wesleyan pastor, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches for 12 years. Steve serves on the teaching/preaching team at Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church, a large church in suburban Buffalo, NY, and is also frequently invited to speak in churches throughout New York State. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire.

I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page. Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

10 Reasons I Hate Preaching (But Do It Anyway)

I hate preaching. There I said it. I really do. And right now someone reading this is saying, “I hate it when you’re preaching, too!” I have been preaching regularly now for 15 years, and it is almost always an agonizing experience for me. Here’s my attempt at explaining why.

  1. Illness and weather are no respecter of sermons

So much work and scheduling goes into preaching engagements, and yet headaches, stomach bugs, head colds, and bad weather are no respecter of sermons. I have a friend who just planted a church and, on the third Sunday, they had to cancel services because the pipes froze at the church they’re renting. Preaching is hard enough, but when you have to preach with a sore throat, a headache, or after being sick with a stomach bug, it can sure make you hate preaching if you’re not careful.

  1. Preaching is stress, and stress makes you lose IQ points

I get butterflies every time I preach. Even the most seasoned preachers I know admit that they experience a few butterflies right before speaking, too. The bad news is that stress, strong emotions, or anxiousness makes you lose temporarily IQ points. That stress can impair the functioning of the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for problem solving, emotional expression, and helps make decisions. So the stress of stage fright makes you lose IQ points, and yet in the very moment when I am trying to explain things, I cannot say things as clearly as I might want to because the stress that accompanies public speaking has impaired my ability to do so. Man, I hate that about preaching.

  1. Praise and criticism are hard to predict

I hate preaching because there is no one way to do it well. Preaching is an art, not a science. Some of the sermons that I have preached that are the most well-remembered and oft-quoted back to me are the same sermons that prompted the most angry emails or phone calls. I remember one week in particular when I was absolutely sure that I had preached a good sermon. It felt good as I was delivering it: hard truth mixed with pieces of cultural relevance and humor. It was a good sermon. The people in my church even loved it. They were talking about it on social media, and bringing it up in conversations with me throughout that week. It always feels so good to hit a home run like that once in a while. But then a man walked in to my office with a list of complaints about that very same sermon. He literally read his complaints off a piece of paper without looking up at me. He had been a friend, but now he wouldn’t even look at me. It was hard to believe that a sermon had done that. Especially such a “good sermon.” The very same sermon that had evoked such strong praise all week was now also drawing sharp criticism.

No matter how good a sermon is, there will be someone who doesn’t like it, and no matter how bad a sermon is, there will be someone who thinks it was great. Preaching is always dangerous that way. I hate that about preaching.

  1. The adrenaline crash afterward

I hate preaching because of how I usually feel afterward. The adrenaline drop, the exhaustion, remembering how I forgot to share that story, or the second-guessing that always happens between my own ears. Even when a Sunday has gone well, I go home exhausted. I hate how drained I feel after preaching (whether it went well or not). Preaching takes a lot out of me, and I hate that.

  1. Misspeaking

A pastor friend of mine posted recently about how embarrassed she was that, during their Ash Wednesday service, she had misspoken when trying to say the word “ash.”

Apparently her story struck a nerve, because several other pastors chimed in with their own stories about misspeaking. One pastor mentioned a Sunday when he was referring to the comic strip Peanuts but stumbled on the word “peanuts,” and said another word most pastors would probably try to keep out of their sermons. Another pastor shared about a youth reader in church who got quite a few chuckles when he repeatedly mispronounced the word “Gentiles”.

Misspeaking is every pastor’s nightmare, and yet something every pastor has experienced at some time or another! Anytime I hear a preacher or public speaker misspeak, or stumble over their words, especially when in an embarrassing way, it makes me ache, and it makes me hate preaching a little.

  1. Mishearing

I’ve received enough angry emails, letters, or phone calls over the years, but the most perplexing ones to respond to are the ones where people are angry about something I never actually said; or, things I said but not in the way the listener somehow heard. In fact, I’ve only ever had someone walk out in the middle of a sermon because of something I’ve said in a sermon (at least that I’m aware) and it was because this person completely misheard what I said.

That can get in your head if it happens to you enough times, and when I find myself wondering if someone might twist or mishear a statement I’ve made right in the middle of a sermon, it makes me hate preaching a little.

  1. All it takes is one angry person to take the joy away

You spend a week or more preparing a message, and 25-30 minutes talking, and yet when I think of all the times people have ever gotten angry at me for something I said while preaching, it was rarely something at the heart of the message. Usually they were angry about some non-essential point (and usually, in the final analysis, it wasn’t what I actually said, but what theythought they heard me say).

I think it’s easy to assume that most people are just being polite, but our critics are the ones being really honest with us, saying what everyone else is thinking. You can be complimented and praised by dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people. All it takes is one angry person to make you second-guess everything.

But every time a critic finds a way to rob me of all the joy of a Sunday’s worth of preaching with an angry word or email, I hate preaching a little.

  1. Preaching is risky

Preaching isn’t just risky because you open yourself up to the critics, though. Preaching is risky because it is a challenge to have something fresh, new, and true to say week after week. If you play it safe, you risk being boring. If you try to be creative, you risk saying something that no one else ever said before … because it isn’t true. Preaching every week is like white-water rafting: it’s exhilarating, it’s exciting, but even veterans respect how easy it is to get swallowed up by the current.

  1. Celebrity preachers

I’m just going to leave this here.

  1. There are no shortcuts to good preaching.

Whenever someone asks me when I finish working on my sermon I answer, “After I am done preaching it.” When I am preparing to preach, I live with the sermon throughout the process. I think about it in the shower, I think about it when I’m driving, and it can even disrupts my ability to focus on other areas of my life. The intensity of the preparation process doesn’t drop off for me until after I am done preaching. I have refined my preparation process, but I am yet to find any shortcuts. My process may be more “fuel efficient” than it was when I first started, but it’s no shorter.

Thomas Mann once said of writers, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” It seems to me that’s true of preachers, too. I know that I’m better at preaching than I was when I first started, and my listeners tell me I’m even a lot better than I was at it 2-3 years ago. But while the end result is getting better, the process isn’t getting any less arduous for me. Boy, do I ever hate that.

Why I preach anyway.

So why do preach anyway? I do not preach because I feel like must be heard. I preach because I’m convinced the Gospel needs to be heard, and that it is my duty to teach the scriptures. When I preach I do so as a living sacrifice to honor my King. I hate preaching but I do it anyway because I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is the power of God (Romans 1:16).

Actually, my relationship with preaching is really a love-hate relationship, so my follow-up article will express ten of the reasons why I really do love to preach.

© Steve Dunmire 2016

Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY), where he teaches classes for the Equipping for Ministry ministerial credentialing program, a program he oversees. Steve is an ordained Wesleyan pastor, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches for 12 years. Steve serves on the teaching/preaching team at Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church, a large church in suburban Buffalo, NY, and is also frequently invited to speak in churches throughout New York State. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire.

 I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page. Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

5 Convictions About Preaching Christ

What should I say? Every pastor asks him or herself that question one way or another when preparing an individual sermon, or planning a preaching calendar. Through my years of preaching I’ve also developed habits for long-range sermon planning, but I’ve also developed a conviction about the content of my preaching. I am convinced that my task as a preacher, first and foremost, is to preach Christ, and it can be summed up in these five convictions.

Conviction #1: A mini-Christ leads to mini-Christians

J.I. Packer said we have “pygmy Christians” because we have looked at God as if through the wrong end of a telescope, reducing him to “pygmy proportions.” John R.W. Stott (his friend) took it a step further saying, “we are pygmy Christians because we have a pygmy Christ,” and Stott said the most essential ingredient for the development of mature Christian discipleship is a genuine “vision of the authentic Jesus.” Stott’s writing on this convicted me of the central focus our preaching should be Jesus’ life, teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection.


Conviction #2: The name of Jesus.

I made a decision a few years ago to make sure I spoke the name of Jesus in every sermon. It might not necessarily be a sermon focused on Christ, but I intentionally make sure I find a way to talk about Jesus in some way shape or form even if Christ is not the focus of the sermon. Of course there is a difference between preaching that uses the Lord’s name in vain, and preaching that lovingly, and faithfully evokes the name of Christ. So far this has never felt forced, unnecessary, or awkward. Instead, when I have prepared a sermon where it feels forced to inject the name of Jesus, the problem is always with the sermon. What is more awkward than Christian preaching seemingly completely disconnected from the person and life of Jesus Christ?


Conviction #3: My task is to teach what Jesus taught.

An overlooked part of the Great Commission was Jesus’ instructions that we are to be “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” When I teach on discipleship with pastors, students, or lay people I often point out this part of the Great Commission, and then ask, “If I came to your church this Sunday and gave you a pop quiz now on ‘everything Jesus commanded,’ how do you think most of the people in your church would do? More importantly, how would you do?” Rarely are people in the room exceedingly confident.


Conviction #4: Christ is risen every day, not just Easter Sunday.

I was grading a paper earlier this year where an adult ministry student mentioned casually how it is harder for us today to follow Jesus because, she said, “He has been dead for almost 2,000 years.” I immediately wrote in the margin of her paper, “Christ is risen! And we serve a risen Savior who has been RISEN for 2,000 years!”


Now, I know this student, and I know she believes Christ is risen, and when I pointed out this statement to her she was mortified, but immediately I wondered how many sermons act as if Christ has been dead for 2,000 years rather than risen, and seated at the right hand of the Father?


It’s important for preachers to ask themselves from time to time, “Are there any subtle or not-so-subtle ways in which I am giving the impression that Christ was a martyr rather than a risen savior?”


Conviction #5: Jesus is not our mascot.

As David Bryant observed, in some American churches Jesus is not so much treated as our Lord but as our mascot. Houghton College, where I work and live, recently got a mascot for the first time. We are the Houghton Highlanders, and our mascot is a purple & gold lion in a Scottish kilt. Our mascot cheers at our games, inspires enthusiasm in the crowds, and makes other appearances at campus events, generally helping to foster school spirit. The mascot does not compete on the field of play, or take part in campus life, but is merely there to inspire and make people cheer.


Not so with Christ. Jesus may inspire us, but He does not do it as our cheerleader. He is Savior, He is Lord, and He ought not to be relegated to the sidelines when we have to make important decisions, or to do important work. Jesus is not our mascot.


What should you preach? You should preach Christ. Not a caricature of Christ, not a dumbed-down version of Christ, but Christ in full dimensions. You cannot do better than to make every sermon an opportunity to teach everything Jesus commanded, taught, prayed, or lived. For further reading, I recommend Dr. Stephen Seamands’ book “Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return.”


© Steve Dunmire 2016
Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY), where he teaches classes for the Equipping for Ministry ministerial credentialing program, a program he oversees. Steve is an ordained Wesleyan pastor, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches for 12 years. Steve serves on the teaching/preaching team at Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church, a large church in suburban Buffalo, NY, and is also frequently invited to speak in churches throughout New York State. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire.

I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page. Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

When A Sermon Flops: 10 Ways To Diagnose a Dud

“Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy,” said Pat Riley, the former NBA coach. Likewise, preaching a great sermon never feels as good as preaching a bad sermon feels lousy. My worst attempts at preaching have given me far more pain than my successes have brought me joy, and here are some of the factors that contribute to a homiletical flop.

  1. Why does a flop hurt so much?

One study found that experiencing failure (compared to success) makes people experience unrelated physical pain more intensely, and that failure even reduces your ability to tolerate physical pain.[1] Other research found that emotional pain sticks with us longer than physical pain, meaning that you have an easier time replaying emotional pain that remembering physical pain.[2]

Failure hurts. Even the most thick-skinned, self-confident pastor can be rattled by delivering a lemon in the pulpit.

  1. Did they heckle you?

In the first church I served as lead pastor I had people in the congregation who heckled me while I preached (next time you have a bad Sunday just tell yourself, “At least they didn’t heckle me”). Jesus said, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17, NIV), and sometimes no matter how great the sermon is, a congregation just will not respond appropriately.

Preachers ought to examine themselves first, but there are times when this is the case. If they heckled you, or if their hearts were hard, then maybe it’s a good Sunday to kick the dust off your feet, have lunch, and find your favorite couch for taking a well-deserved nap. 

  1. Did you get a different response in a different service?

Once this year I was speaking in a church with three services (one service on Saturday night, and two on Sunday morning). When I got in my car after the Saturday night service, I turned to my wife and said, “Well, obviously I need to totally overhaul this message overnight, or figure out something else overnight altogether.” She completely disagreed and said the sermon was great, but the group of people gathered that evening were just not responsive. Eventually she conceded one or two minor tweaks for the morning services, but said, “Don’t you dare change anything else. Watch and see – it will be different tomorrow,” so I reluctantly conceded to my wife because of her persistence. The next morning the response was entirely different, so much different that a man walked up to me after the first service and said, “I’m 50 years old and that’s the first time in my life church has made any sense. Thank you.” I have known many other pastors who have had the same experience. My wife was right (as per usual).

Maybe you don’t get to preach the same sermon in multiple services or multiple locations and therefore don’t get to write off a lackluster response in one service because the next service was more positive, but sometimes a sermon that flops is just a matter of different strokes for different folks.

  1. Were you prepared to preach?

I put hard work and long hours into sermon preparation because I want people to understand scripture in a clear and life-changing way. I also put so much time into preparation because it bothers me so much to preach a sermon that flops. A well-prepared sermon can still bomb, but it is a blessing to both pastor and church when a preacher is adequately prepared. If you did not feel as prepared as you could have been, maybe you could set aside more time to prepare this week, or block out an extra afternoon to prepare this week, and see if a little more preparation makes a difference.

  1. Did you fumble the delivery?

You can have a great sermon prepared, but stumbling in the delivery can overshadow your content. There are many professional athletes who possess extraordinary skill, but struggle to perform in a critical moment of a game. Likewise, having something worth while to share is a key to good preaching, but the ability to actually say it is equally critical. If your flop was a problem of delivery, you might find it helpful to spend some time rehearsing your delivery, including your gestures (or lack thereof). Maintaining good volume, while also varying your volume and pitch at appropriate times can go a long way in improving your preaching.

  1. Were you sick, distracted, or otherwise not at your best?

It happens to all of us. You have done everything in your control to be ready to preach well, but something happens beyond your control. Did you:
…wake up with a headache?
…experience technical difficulties?
…have an emergency or other disruption interrupt the service?
…get blindsided by one of those “Pastor, I just need to let you know how much I was hurt by…” conversations right before you had to preach?

If it was beyond your control, then it’s good to be able to adjust and fight through a less-than-ideal situation, but cut yourself some slack.

  1. Did you take a chance on something but it turned out to be a mistake?

Terry Pegula owns my beloved Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres with his wife Kim, and in a 2013 interview he said he told the hockey department, “Make mistakes. I love mistakes. I want to see you make mistakes because the day you’re afraid to make a mistake is the day you stop taking chances.”

I think that’s true for preachers, too. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and it might just improve your preaching. Sometimes a creative idea or an illustration goes better than you even hoped. Other times, not so much. It’s the preacher’s responsibility to make every effort to separate the good ideas from the bad ahead of time, of course, but if the problem with your sermon was an idea that didn’t pay off, then this is an easy fix. You learned a valuable lesson: don’t waste it (but don’t repeat it, either). As Tim Fargo said, “Analyze your mistakes. You’ve already paid the tuition, you might as well get the lesson.”

  1. Were you clear?

One friend told me recently on a Sunday morning, “I know I’m on the board, but I’m not sure if I’m hitting the nail.” I picked up the habit a few years ago of summarizing my whole sermon in one sentence when I think I’m done working on it. If I can’t preach it in one sentence, I know I’m not ready to say it with 20-30 minutes. If you aren’t sure whether your hitting the nail or not, chances are your congregation won’t even know which nail you’re aiming for in your sermon.

  1. Are you sure it flopped?

A small church near our college campus was without a pastor two years ago, so I went to preach for a Sunday, but it did not seem to go well. They could not have been more disengaged while I spoke, and when the service was over the congregation was cold and aloof. I kept thinking, “Was I really that bad? Guess I won’t be going back there!” A lay leader from that church called the college a few weeks later to see if more people from Houghton could speak at their church, and much to my surprise he asked for me by name, hoping I was available to preach there every Sunday. Go figure. I thought the message had flopped, but apparently I had totally misread the response of the congregation.

Maybe it was fine, or maybe it was neither your best nor your worst. You can’t throw a touchdown on every throw, and some sermons will just be satisfactory, but not particularly memorable. Perhaps, it went even better than you think, though.

  1. Can the Holy Spirit still use a flop?

Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was an ordained minister, and when he was a seminary student he attended a different church each Sunday so that he could hear an assortment of preachers. On one of those Sundays, he heard what he described as the worst sermon he had ever heard in his life. When he looked to his friend that day, however, she was in tears. She told him the sermon had been was exactly what she needed to hear that day. “That’s when I realized,” Rogers said, “that the space between someone doing the best he or she can and someone in need is holy ground. The Holy Spirit had transformed that feeble sermon for her—and as it turned out, for me too.”

Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy, but we who preach would do well to leave the wins & losses to the Lord. The Holy Spirit can transform a feeble sermon into a timely message for someone.
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Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is an ordained pastor in the Wesleyan Church, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches of New York State for 12 years. Steve also serves as director and primary instructor for Houghton College’s Equipping for Ministry program, which provides non-traditional classes for adults seeking ordination and personal enrichment. Steve is married to Tammy, and they have four children. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire

© Steve Dunmire 2015

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I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page.  Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

Seedbed Preaching Collective
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[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/11124005/?i=2&from=/8233549/related

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201307/10-surprising-facts-about-rejection

5 Ways to Make the Most of Your Sermon Preparation.

How can a pastor make the most of limited sermon preparation time? There is no one right amount of time to spend in working on a message, but whether they are able to spend a lot of time or not, every pastor wants to maximize the impact of their sermon preparation time.

When analyzing the results of a recent non-scientific poll I conducted among 26 pastors, I realized that there were three distinct groups of pastors in regard to the amount of time they spend in sermon preparation. The differences became even more stark when I split them up into three tiers, the lowest 8 pastors in terms of reported time, the cluster of 9 pastors in the middle of the pack, and the 8 pastors who reported the most sermon preparation time:

Tier 1: 6 hours, 18 minutes
Tier 2: 10 hours, 36 minutes
Tier 3: 18 hours, 7 minutes

What was most interesting to me about these results was that those who spend the most time prepare their the most are spending their time differently. Compared to the Tier 1 group of pastors, the Tier 3 pastors spend:

74% more time studying
169% more time writing/outlining
657% more time editing
357% more time rehearsing
361% more time in long-range planning

So what does that mean? Yes, they spend more total time studying and writing their sermons (10.5 hours compared to less than 5 hours), but there are five things pastors can learn to make the most of their sermon preparation time based on this data.

  1. Edit Your Sermon

The Tier 3 pastors in the study said they spend 657% more time revising their sermons than Tier 1 pastors (almost 4 hours compared to 30 minutes). As one of my seminary professors used to tell us when he would return our papers, “There is no good writing; only good rewriting.” I might say, “There are no good sermons; only good revised sermons.”

Of course by “edit” we don’t mean you have to worry about punctuation or spelling errors because you’re not submitting your sermon for a grade (unless, of course, those hinder your ability to effectively deliver the message). Instead you would want to watch for things like (1) Does this flow? (2) Are any sections too long? (3) Do I spend adequate time introducing the sermon? (4) Do I spend adequate time concluding the sermon? (5) Am I saying what I am really trying to say? (6) Can I effectively summarize this sermon in 1-2 sentences? (7) Where do I need to inject humor? (8) Do my illustrations distract from the message, or help it? (9) Is everything in my sermon where it belongs, or do I need to move this story to the beginning, or this quote to the end? (10) Do I have enough for this sermon, not enough, or too much?

One pastor commented, “I can preach a 27 minute sermon on 25 minutes of prep for a run of the mill sermon,” but this participant pointed out that the bulk of sermon preparation consists of finding the right way to say something, not just saying it. Another pastor confessed that more preparation time actually results in shorter sermons, not longer, “since it takes longer to figure out what not to say than what to say.”

Rewriting and editing may be the single most important factor in making the most of your time in sermon preparation. It is not the most fun part of sermon preparation, but it might just have the greatest payoff.

  1. Read & Plan Ahead

The second biggest difference was that the Tier 3 pastors spend 361% more time on long-range planning (102 minutes compared to 24 minutes per week). Some have one time when they plan for the whole year, some spend time in long-range planning every 2-3 months, while others still spend a little bit of time every week.

One of the biggest benefits of long-range planning is it allows you prepare to preach even when you are doing something else. The reticular activating system is a cluster of cells in your brain stem and their primary function is to decide what you notice, and what you do not notice. Mark Batterson writes, “That is why goal setting is so important. It creates a category in your reticular activating system, and you start noticing anything and everything that will help you accomplish the goal.” So once you make a preaching plan for the coming year, your brain – all on its own – will help you start to notice stories, quotes, and insights in the course of your daily activities. Then all you have to do is gather them.

Similarly, many of the pastors reported how reading is essential part of being ready to preach, even if not a part of their preaching preparation for that week. “Reading will deepen the well from which the preacher can drink,” says my colleague at Houghton College, Dr. Rich Eckley, “Pumping the well dry, conversely, churns up the same tired clichés.”

One of the best ways you can maximize your sermon preparation time is by planning ahead, and reading. Planning and reading will populate your sermons with rich content, even if you do not realize it is happening at the very moment.

  1. Rehearse: Practice What You Will Preach

The final major difference was that Tier 3 pastors spend 357% more time rehearsing their sermons than the Tier 1 pastors (over 2 hours compared to less than 30 minutes). Particularly surprising to me was that those who said they rehearse their sermon delivery reported spending on average 35% more time in total sermon preparation than the rest of the group, but less than half of that additional sermon prep time is being spend on rehearsal. On average these pastors reported spending 1.5 hours in sermon preparation. Therefore, those who rehearse spend 19% more time in total sermon prep than their counterparts before their time rehearsing their sermon.

In response to this survey, 60% of participating pastors reported that they rehearse delivering their sermons. Some of the other pastors offered a variety of explanations for why they do not rehearse their sermon, like one pastor who said, “I cannot preach to an empty room. I stumble over every sentence.”

Dr. Lenny Luchetti, Professor of Proclamation & Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary, urges pastors to spend time in rehearsal: “Preachers should spend adequate time between the completion of the sermon and the actual preaching event reflecting on how they will say what God has called them to say to their congregations. In other words, preachers will want to practice what they preach.”

It may be uncomfortable at first, but one of the best ways to improve your preaching, and make the most of your preparation time, might be to practice preaching your sermon. In my case, this is when I do the bulk of my editing. I will get hung up on a section, or realize that something is not flowing naturally, or that I need some levity mixed into a particularly long section, so I will rewrite or revise, and come back to rehearsal again.

  1. Avoid Interruptions

You can maximize your sermon preparation time by eliminating distractions. Pastors often like to prepare to preach at a coffee shop, but these places are rife with distractions. “A key to maximizing my time is being able to get at least a few hours in (ideally several hours) without interruption,” noted one of the pastors who reported sermon preparation time almost twice the average of the total group.

It is so basic that it hardly seems worth noting here, but a key to making the most of your sermon preparation time is to avoid interruptions: put it in your calendar, clear your desk, refuse to be interrupted, get away from anything that will distract you, avoid social media, turn off your email, and get down to work. One pastor noted, “If I can have uninterrupted blocks of time, I can cut down my sermon preparation time by as much as 30 percent.”

  1. Prayer and Personal Devotion

Only two pastors noted in a comment section that they pray as part of their sermon preparation. Did prayer shorten their sermon preparation time? Quite the opposite: they actually reported spending twice as much time in sermon preparation as the rest of the group (20 hours per week compared to 10 hours per week for the pastors who did not comment about prayer). Sermon preparation does not show a lack of faith, and prayer need not compete with preparation. For those pastors who indicated prayer as a component of their preparation, prayer is not a shortcut. I suspect they see it as something that strengthens their planning, though. As Richard Baxter wrote centuries ago, “All week long is little enough, to study how to speak two hours; and yet one hour seems too much to study how to live all the week.”

© Steve Dunmire 2015

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I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page.  Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

Seedbed Preaching Collective

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Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is an ordained pastor in the Wesleyan Church, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches of New York State for 12 years. Steve also serves as director and primary instructor for Houghton College’s Equipping for Ministry program, which provides non-traditional classes for adults seeking ordination and personal enrichment. Steve is married to Tammy, and they have four children. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire

1. Mark Batterson The Circle Maker. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 188-189.

2. Lenny Luchetti “Practice (Literally) What You Preach”

How Long Does It Take To Write A Sermon? 4 Findings

Seedbed Preaching CollectivePreaching is the most visible aspect of pastoral ministry, and sermon preparation is a focal point of a preaching pastor’s workweek. In my own ministry, sermon preparation takes a lot of time and energy. Painfully I confess that it takes me a long time to prepare a lousy sermon, let alone a respectable one. As a preacher I have occasionally wondered how much time other pastors spend preparing their sermons.

In search of an answer, I conducted a survey (non-scientific) of 36 pastors from across the United States & Canada, from a variety of denominations, and various church sizes. Twenty-five pastors responded (a response rate of 69%) to my ten question survey about sermon preparation, and here are some of my preliminary findings.

  1. Pastors spend an average of 11.5 hours per week on sermon preparation.

The average pastor in this survey reported spending 11 hours and 30 minutes in sermon preparation per week. Individual responses varied greatly, however. The number of pastors who reported spending more than 20 hours per week was equal to the number of pastors who reported spending less than 5 hours per week in sermon preparation.

Some pastors wished they had more time to prepare. “As a solo pastor,” one pastor commented, “I wish I had more time to devote to sermon prep, but there are so many other responsibilities.” Others, however, said they have made the intentional decision to limit sermon preparation time because they feel called primarily to the task of equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4). Still several other pastors said that experience in ministry has allowed them to dramatically reduce the time they spend in sermon preparation over the years.

  1. Pastor are always thinking about their sermon.

On a recent Saturday night, my daughter asked me if I was done working on my sermon. I said, “Yes … well, actually, no. I won’t really be done working on this sermon until after the last service tomorrow.” In my case, a sermon is fluid, and never fully complete until preached. A pastor doesn’t preach because the sermon is ready: a pastor preaches because it’s time to preach.

Regardless of how much time they may spend in formal sermon preparation, the sermon seems to always be in the back of the pastor’s mind. A common theme in the comments from the pastors in this study was that the sermon lives in my head all week long.” Pastors reported that the time they spend reading books, reading scripture, praying, socializing, and even just pondering the sermon while doing other things may be an equally important facet of sermon preparation. One pastor said. “The sermons actually can be written in just a few hours… a lot of the time is just spent studying and thinking until the ‘light’ turns on.”

  1. Does the average person know how much time sermon preparation requires?

I asked the pastors, “Do people in your church understand how much time goes into preaching?” None of the pastors selected the option, “Yes, my church absolutely knows how much time goes into sermon preparation.” However, 52% of these respondents said many people, while only 8% of respondents thought most people know how much work it takes to preach every week.

Not surprisingly, the more time a pastor spends in sermon preparation, the more likely they were to report “people do not realize how much time it takes to preach every week.” A full 40% of pastors in this survey said they do not think most people realize how much time they spend preparing to preach every week, and these pastors reported an average of 26% more time in sermon preparation than their peers. Additionally, only two pastors in this study reported spending over 20 hours in sermon preparation every week, and both of them answered that people do not understand how much work goes into sermon preparation.

  1. What if a sermon was in a syllabus?

The old rule of thumb for sermon preparation I heard in my early years of ministry was “an hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit,” but is that an accurate expectation? In search of a more accurate rubric, I looked to Houghton College’s “time on task” rubric which helps faculty determine how much time it will take a student to complete various assignments. An ORAL PRESENTATION has an anticipated workload of 4 hours of preparation for every minute of live presentation (therefore, 100 hours of preparation for a 25-minute sermon). A RESEARCH PAPER, has an anticipated workload of “1.5 hours per finished page” and a JOURNAL or REFLECTION PAPER has an anticipated workload of “0.5 hours per each page of writing.” Based on my average sermon that would mean 28.5 hours of preparation for a research paper, or 9.5 hours for a reflection paper, which is closer to the average hours the pastors in this survey reported. I think this rubric is useful, if for nothing else, in recognizing the unique challenge of preaching every Sunday.

Next Steps

Thom S. Rainer’s research has found a correlation between sermon preparation time and overall church health: “Simply stated,” he says, “when the pastor spends more time in the Word, the church tends to be healthier.”[i] And it makes sense to me. There are many things a pastor can do that will have a bigger impact on individuals, but few things a pastors does will have an impact on as many people every week as preaching. A student can fill the pages or time required for an assignment, but most professors know the difference between a student who is giving a college-level presentation and a student who is just filling space. Likewise, a pastor can get up every Sunday and speak for 20, 30, even 40 minutes, but most churches can tell the difference between a pastor who has prepared to preach and someone who is just talking. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

So if the average pastor spends 10 to 15 hours per week in sermon preparation, what are they doing with all of that time? How much time do pastors spend studying, writing, outlining, and editing,? In my next article, I will share some of my findings from this survey about what activities makes up a pastors sermon preparation time, and how pastors might be able to maximize their preparation time.

© Steve Dunmire 2015

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page.  Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.
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Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is an ordained pastor in the Wesleyan Church, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches of New York State for 12 years. Steve also serves as director and primary instructor for Houghton College’s Equipping for Ministry program, which provides non-traditional classes for adults seeking ordination and personal enrichment. Steve is married to Tammy, and they have four children. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire

[i] http://thomrainer.com/2012/07/pastors_and_time_in_sermon_preparation_some_good_news/