Overcoming Sermon Procrastination: How to Get to Work When You Don't Know Where to Start

 Photo by  Alice Achterhof  on  Unsplash

By the end of the day, many of us are worn out from making decisions.

That's why at the end of the day, whining kids can wear us down faster than in the morning; choosing what to make for dinner can leave us staring fruitlessly at the contents of the fridge; and even deciding what to watch on TV can feel overwhelming.

That's when we know we've hit decision fatigue.

By the end of a day of decision-making, I find the fatigue affects even decisions about something I love: playing the fiddle.

To have to decide what to practice—what tunes, what scales, what new bowing technique—ack! Too many times I've been so overwhelmed by the decisions that I end up not practicing at all.

That is, until my fiddle teacher gave me a tip that changed it all:

"Don't practice, Lisa. Just put the fiddle under your chin."

When I'm feeling overwhelmed and not sure I can manage to practice, I remind myself I don't have to "practice." I only have to pick up the instrument.

That single step requires no decisions, no planning, and no motivation. It's thoughtless.

The magic of course, is that once it's under my chin, I can't help but play. 

We preachers make decisions all day long:

  • How can we best serve those to whom we minister?
  • Where's the money going to come from to pay the youth minister?
  • Who's going to fix the roof leak in the parish hall?
  • Who should run for the parish council positions?
  • And of course, what are we going to preach about?

After all the decisions we have to make, What am I going to preach? can feel like the Everest of decisions.

As a result, we put our sermon prep off. And put it off. And put it off.

Until we panic that it's crunch time.

Sometimes, what looks like procrastination is actually failure to make a decision.

But we can anticipate this difficulty and plan for success.

How do we overcome the fatigue that causes us to put off our sermon prep? How do we put the fiddle under our chin and just get started?

Create a Sermon Prep Ritual

When we make decisions in advance, we're far more open and ready for the Holy Spirit to enter and do the heavy lifting for sermon prep. Our reluctance, uncertainty, and anxiety are lessened.

How do we do this? We make a ritual for sermon prep.

When you do the same series of steps every time you start your sermon prep, you remove the decisions necessary to begin. 

Your resistance decreases because you know, without question, what your first 5 (or 10 to 20) minutes will look like. You're just committing to showing up for the first step of the ritual. And just like picking up the fiddle, without doubt, the next step follows.

The less you have to decide, the easier it is to simply begin—as thoughtlessly and painlessly as possible.

So how do you create a sermon prep ritual?

Schedule your Prep Time in Advance

Grab your calendar at the start of the week—perhaps Sunday evening—and block at your sermon prep time in advance.

Be realistic about the time it takes you to read, reflect, study, organize, and write.

Give yourself an adequate window of time each day to do part of the process. We recommend a 5-day process, but whatever works for you is a good strategy.

Consider your best time of day to enter into sermon prep. I am seriously not a morning person, but I have to admit that mornings are the best time of day for sermon prep.

Why? Because I haven't been worn down by decision-making yet. Our capacity to entertain sermon message choices—to see the possibilities and select from among them—is the strongest it's going to be for the rest of the day.

Make the Decision Now. When is the best time of day for you to be available to God to work on your sermon? Mornings are best for many, but not all.

Decide when you work best, block out the time in your calendar, and guard it fiercely.

Prepare Your Environment

What kind of environment will make you feel relaxed and comfortable but still alert and ready to hear the Spirit?

What kinds of "accessories" will make this time delightful and not merely utilitarian?

  • Coffee? Tea? Soda? Lemon water? Set out your favorite mug the night before. Choose the tea you'll make. Slice the lemons.  
  • Music? What kind? Have it ready to cue up.
  • Sensory Soothers? Do you have a favorite lamp? Would a flickering candle make your time more tranquil? Have you ever experimented with essential oils to see if a certain scent soothes or inspires?
  • Tools? Where do you like to keep your notes? Find a notebook that seems to beg you to fill it. Pull out the references you plan to use and have them sitting in your workspace. If you're headed out, have your keys on the counter and your computer packed in your bag so you're ready to grab and go.
  • Visual Inspiration? Do you like to face a certain window? Or have a particular photo or piece of art nearby? Gather what pleases the eye and mind.

Make the Decisions Now. Where, when, with what? You may find you do your best sermon prep for some stages in one place, and other stages in another. Make a plan and stick to it. Studies show that routine makes us the most open to our muse, the Holy Spirit.

Prepare Your Mindset

How do we leave behind the emails, meeting requests, phone notifications, and to-do list so we can bring our full attention to our sermon? 

Let it Go. Be fully present to here, now, and God in your body, mind, and spirit.

Body. Do you need to stretch? Choose your stretching routine in advance and have your mat and clothes ready next to your bed so you don't have to decide what to put on.

Mind. Have your calendar and a notepad handy so you can write down all your to-do's, worries, and prayer concerns. Once it's out of your brain and on paper, your mind will be less likely to toggle between past, future, and present.

Spirit. Have your candle ready with a lighter. Know which bible passage you'll read. Pray. Have your timer ready to go for a period of silence.

Make the Decisions Now. Decide what you need to become fully present.

Find an Easy Way In

When we write a sermon, we are joining the realm of creatives. We're entering into the same sacred work as writers, painters, photographers, sculptors, and other artists.

We begin with unlimited options and make deliberate decisions about what our subject will be, what angle we'll approach it from, how much context to provide, which details will best draw the listener in, and how to convey a cohesive message.

We can learn a lot by studying the processes of other creatives. There are certain patterns that show up over and over.

 

Read or Listen to A Master.

It's no surprise that we often feel inspired in our own craft when we've had the pleasure of experiencing a master.

When we start by studying the greats, we get a two-fold benefit:

1) We get to start with a passive activity. How much easier is it to start our sermon prep if we know we get to start with a passive activity? Sermon prep feels less overwhelming if we get to start by listening or reading.

2) We can't help but absorb the techniques of these experts when we are immersed in their work. It's no coincidence that great writers are great readers. Enjoy your favorites and trust that this exposure is improving your craft.

  • So find a preacher you admire and listen to one of their sermons online to start your prep time.
  • Read an author whose craft or "voice" you admire and wish to emulate.
  • Read famous speeches or addresses and pay attention to the rhetorical strategies that make them so effective.

Enjoy this time to learn and be fed. Fill up on the feast of gifts and talent and wisdom available to you.

 

Journal.

Many artists suggest that starting with writing/journaling a couple pages about whatever's on your mind (to start) and then following it into questions or reflections or seemingly random ideas primes the mind for creative work. Get rid of the layer of anxiety that lurks at the surface, and you may be surprised at what the Spirit will draw from within.

 

Pick Up the Thread.

It sounds counterintuitive, but whatever stage of sermon prep you're at, when the ideas are flowing easily, stop yourself and leave a little bit of unfinished sermon business. That way, you know exactly where to begin when you pick up in your next session. Once you finish that thought, your mind will be re-engaged and ready to continue the thread to the next idea.

  • If you recorded yourself reading the lessons (as I recommend you do each Sunday or Monday), start by listening again.
  • If you were doing Meditatio (formative exegesis), start by reading over your notes and checking out the last reference on your list.
  • If you were writing, It's exceptionally helpful to leave a sentence half-written or an idea only partially developed at the end of the day. Make notes about any ideas you haven't yet executed.  

 

Warm-Up your Creative Side.

Making decisions about sermons requires our logical, analytical left brains, but our right-brain has a lot to offer, too.

In fact, if you aren't in the habit of regularly tapping into your right brain thinking, you may find your sermons take on a whole new dimension when you do.  

Get your creativity going with creative warm-ups, writing prompts, or doodling.

  • Color in a coloring book,
  • Join a photography challenge.
  • Get moving: a run or walk or swim session does wonders for the mind.
  • Take deep, purposeful breaths.
  • Journal (see above). Write, even if you write about not knowing what to write about.

Not only does this right-brain activation help us see new possibilities for our sermons, creativity warm-ups relax us and boost our moods. Sermon prep becomes more fun and playful!

Make the Decision Now. Before you sit down, have a stack of warm-ups and do the one on top. Have the paper, pens, and exercise at your fingertips so you don't have to decide how you'll use this invaluable playtime!

(And if you want an introduction to creativity warm-ups, you can participate in our 5-day Stop and Smell the Ink! Creativity Challenge. We'll send you a 10-minute creativity exercise each day. All you have to do is open your email and complete it. 

Put it All Together

What ritual did you make?

Write out your steps, preferably by hand—it "sticks" better. Post it where you can see it when you start your day.

In fact, you can make tomorrow's creativity warm-up the task of writing or typing up your ritual in a beautiful way so you can hang it in your workspace. There's one decision done!

Don't think about it. Do it.

Don't give into the emotions of boredom or doubt or cynicism that this will work.

Work the problem. Engage the list.

Challenge yourself to stick with this new ritual for a week. If it helps, try it for six weeks. Perhaps this could be your Lenten discipline.

Tweak the details as you discover what you enjoy and what you don't, what's effective and what's not. 

Do. Only. The Next. One. Thing. When we're fully present, open, and full of mental and spiritual energy, sermons will emerge with far less effort and (dare I suggest) more fun.

Stop sitting down to write a sermon. Instead, use your ritual to thoughtlessly put the fiddle under your chin.


Our 5-day Creativity Challenge is underway (follow it on Facebook!), but you can still take advantage of the opportunity to experiment with how creative play might enhance your sermon prep and improve your preaching. 

Every day for five days, you'll receive a new exercise in your inbox.  

When it's time for you to work on any aspect of your sermon:

  • grab some paper and gather your pens/colored pencils/markers
  • fill your mug
  • light a candle and start some music
  • set a timer for ten minutes
  • complete the exercise

In other words, put your ritual to work.

This isn't about perfection or artistry!

It's about making yourself—your whole self—available to the Holy Spirit. It will prepare and renew you while the Spirit renews your congregation with the Word of God throughyou.

Try this new approach for five days and see what happens. You may be surprised at what shifts in your perspective, your prep, and your preaching!

BONUS: When you join the Stop and Smell the Ink! 5-Day Creativity Challenge, we'll send you BsP's Guide to Lectio Divina for Sermon Prep immediately. Learn our foundational process to help you craft your sermon in five days and get it done by Friday.