News and Views

Sermon preparation process: How it works for me

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By Rev. Dr. Ianther Marie Mills

Editor’s note: This article reprinted by permission from “By Faith Magazine,” May/ June 2018 issue. By Faith is a magazine celebrating the gifts and ministry of Black United Methodist churches. The article here was written by Mills as part of the magazine’s request for how Black preachers go about the task of preparing to preach.

When and how do you choose your sermon text/title?

Rev. Dr. Ianther MillsI am primarily a lectionary preacher and usually use one or more lectionary texts; however, I also preach sermon series. The lectionary text and sermon series themes I choose are based on the congregation’s current context, hopes, dreams and challenges. I plan themes one-to-two months in advance, but the scriptures and sermon titles may change. I was taught to brood over the text, so, sermon titles arise through reading the text several times and listening for a word or words that speak to my spirit and the congregation’s context.

Often, in the midst of my one-hour commute between home and church, a title, text, or theme emerges. Inspiration may come from a book, an article, a smartphone news feed, Facebook post, commercial, or something else. Driving in downtown Washington, D.C., I recently noticed a larger-than-life pencil eraser outside one of the Smithsonian art galleries; that reminded me of our new life in Christ and the invitation to begin again.

When do you begin working on your Sunday sermon?

Each week my typical routine is a Tuesday morning reading of the lectionary and discerning a text, theme and title. The Friday reading involves researching and writing; and Saturday morning rewriting and final composition. However, I may brood over a text, theme, or title for weeks before preaching on it.

What are some of your study resources and routines?

My favorite exegetical study resources are the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary 10-Volume set, Interpretation Bible Commentary Set, and Anchor Bible Dictionary. I use professional online sermon preparation resources (e.g., Homiletics, sermonwriter.com, and textweek.com). Although the African American Pulpit Journal is no longer published, the African American Lectionary remains available online as a resource. Daily I read the digital Washington Post, a personalized newsfeed, and trending stories on Facebook and Twitter.

Do you talk to anyone about your sermon?

My sermon preparation does not include structured discussions with others; however, I do talk with colleagues and parishioners about general sermon ideas and themes. That experience has led me to consider having an ongoing lectionary study/ discussion group. Additionally, recently our congregation revised its worship services, and working with the Worship Committee Taskforce through that process has confirmed the value of using a Worship Team for planning, including sermon preparation ideas.

How do you address/deal with controversial issues – in and outside your church?

In cases of controversial issues, I lean toward a teaching sermon that considers: What is the issue? Why is it important? What does the Bible say? What is our response?

A recent example is the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was initially met with skepticism and concern from some churches and Christians because it was not birthed in the church. After preaching on the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, which included how it was started, its principles, a biblical rationale for social justice advocacy, and how the church may faithfully respond, many congregants were appreciative of the teaching and were empowered to move forward as advocates for social justice and supporters of #BlackLivesMatter.

About how many hours does it usually take in your weekly sermon preparation?

Typically, I spend 12 to 16 hours weekly. My usual routine is starting with the theme, brainstorm ideas and illustrations, outline the sermon, then write two drafts before writing the final.

What is the most challenging aspect of your sermon preparation?

The most challenging aspect is having to prepare a message for an unfamiliar ministry context. I overcome this by research and requesting information on the ministry, people, hopes and concerns. I find preaching in a different setting quite freeing. I sometimes get too immersed in the exegetical aspects of preparation. So, I ask: What does this say to me and the people about our life and Christian witness? Additionally, a strong inspiring conclusion requires special effort and attention on my part because my preaching style, while grace-filled, tends toward challenge and a charge to go and act rather than celebration.

What would you advise young pastors to pay close attention to in their sermon prep?

#1 – Do not use illustrations without fact-checking them. #2 – Time to prepare is very important, but expect the Holy Spirit to continue working throughout sermon delivery and even beyond.

*Mills is senior pastor of Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C.

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