Many preachers have discovered the benefits of a sermon planning retreat. I have too! Some preachers may not be convinced of the necessity of such a retreat or, assuming they’re willing, others may not know where to start in planning for the retreat. In order to convince the unconvinced and assist the willing, we will explore the rationale, requisites, resources, and regimen for the sermon planning retreat.
-Connection: Every pastor who preaches needs some time alone with God, to connect with him. This often entails getting away from the hustle and bustle of the church office in order to prayerfully consider the texts and topics through which God may want to speak to the congregation. Setting aside an entire day to say to God, “speak for your servant is listening” rekindles the preacher’s relational connection to Christ and refreshes the soul of the preacher. More to the point, the pastor who frequently retreats to be alone with God for soul refreshment and ministry planning is less likely to burnout and fail morally than the pastor who is constantly running, going, and doing.
-Calmness: The rigors of preaching weekly or, for some, several times each week is enough to cause anxiety and ulcers even for the toughest of preachers. The stress of birthing the sermonic baby week after week can get the best of us. We deliver our baby on Sunday, hoping that everyone in attendance thinks the “kid” is cute, and by Monday we frantically search for another biblical text or topic that will impregnate us in time for labor and delivery the following Sunday. A sermon planning retreat extends the conception and pregnancy period. It allows the sermon some time to grow within us. Furthermore, when we preachers know what topics/texts we will address over the next few months, a measure of calmness replaces some of the anxiety.
-Coordination: One of the added benefits of a sermon planning retreat is being able to effectively and adequately promote upcoming sermons and sermon series’. Knowing what sermons are coming allows you and the church time to coordinate with other ministries, events, and programs within your church and community. You can coordinate your sermon plan with pastoral care. You will likely find yourself in pastoral care conversations in which you let people know that an upcoming sermon will be addressing some of the issues they’re facing. Another benefit of sermon planning is that it has the potential to enhance the worship vitality of the congregation. Your worship planning team will love you for giving them several months of time to creatively coordinate worship service elements around the theme of the sermon.
-Commitment: Schedule a sermon planning retreat on your calendar every four months to begin prayerfully planning for sermons and series that are at least two months out. So, for example, if you are going to plan for sermons beginning in September, your quarterly sermon planning retreat should take place in late June/early July. This will allow each sermon idea or series at least two months to germinate and penetrate your soul and mind. Schedule these four quarterly retreats at the beginning of every year and commit to taking them during work days, not days off. Perhaps you can schedule this full day retreat on a week when you have invited someone else to preach. If you don’t do this, you will find your mind wandering from the quarterly preaching plan and toward the coming Sunday’s sermon.
-Cave: Once you commit to some dates for the sermon planning retreat every quarter, you can hunt for a cave. This is not a literal cave, of course, but a place where you can hide away and not easily be found. Only your spouse, key lay leader, or one other staff member should know where to reach you in case of an emergency. Other than that, keep the location a secret. Find a cave that is relatively free from distractions we cannot control (noisy crowds, extreme heat or cold) or diversions we cannot resist (TV, excellent cell phone reception, email). Book your cave at least one month in advance.
-Contrition: It almost goes without say, but I’m a preacher so I’ll say it anyway- take with you an open humble heart that is ready to encounter and hear from God. God tends to speak most when we put ourselves in a posture to listen. I don’t think I ever came away from one of these retreats without receiving important impressions that resulted from my encounter with God. I didn’t always come away pleased with the progress I made on my preaching plan, but I always came away refreshed by God’s presence. Contrition comes from recognizing that more important than the work of the Lord is the Lord of the work. A sermon planning retreat, I hope, produces a plan for your upcoming sermons. But, at the end of the day, the best preachers are those who encounter and walk with God. A good sermon plan without intimacy with God will do very little for the preacher and the congregation.
-Calendars: There are three calendars you will want to bring to the retreat. First, you will want to consult the Christian calendar when planning sermons and series’. Lent, the season leading up to Easter, and Advent, the season preceding Christmas, are two highpoints that present golden opportunities for sermon series appropriate to the themes of these liturgical seasons. Other holy days might be including in your preaching plan such as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Pentecost Sunday. Be sure to bring your local church calendar too so that you can connect sermons and big events in the life of the church to each other. Occasions such as Baptism, Communion, and Membership might warrant particular sermon texts and topics. In addition to the Christian and Local Church calendars, you will want a calendar that shows the dates of secular holidays. New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving are secular holidays that open up various preaching possibilities. Perhaps you will want to list holy days, holidays, and church events for the upcoming quarter on one calendar before the retreat so that you don’t waste time doing this during the planning retreat.
-Chow: Unless you’re fasting, it is wise to eat a full breakfast before the retreat and bring some snacks with you to keep you alert and energized. Two bananas, a thermos of coffee, and several water bottles do the trick for me. A few sugary sweets can help get the creative juices flowing too.
-Contents: This almost goes without say, but you will want to take a Bible with you, maybe even several versions. In addition, you will want to bring a writing pad, laptop, or some other device upon which you can record ideas for series and sermons. Music that inspires you to worship God can foster creativity. Perhaps you already have a file of ideas you’ve been collecting for sermons and series. If you don’t have this file, you will want to create this on your computer and begin to record the ideas that come to you between retreats. If such a file or document exists, bring it with you on the retreat.
As you consider how to structure your sermon planning retreat consider the following progression:
-Communion: My aim at the beginning of the retreat is to simply enjoy communion with God. This is easier said than done. I need time to get beyond the stress and distractions of life and ministry to center my mind and heart on God. One of the ways I do this is to throw on some tranquil instrumental music and read aloud from the Psalms or words of Christ from the Gospels. The Scripture reading usually leads to spontaneous prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (ACTS). It usually takes me about 60-90 minutes to throw off distraction and genuinely experience communion with God.
-Context: Once I connect with God, I spend some time reflecting upon and praying for the people in my congregational context. A congregational directory assists me with this. I want the quarterly sermon to intersect with the deepest needs and questions of the people I serve. Therefore, it’s imperative that I spend an hour prayerfully reflecting on the congregation, as well as the local, national, and global contexts that shape their lives. What is going on in the life of the church that shapes the congregation? What cultural trends are impacting the people? What current events are on the minds of the people? What texts and topics, doctrines and themes, need to be addressed to help the congregation more faithfully love, follow, and serve Christ? You may want to distribute surveys to the people in your church that invite responses to some of the questions above. You can take the compiled data from your congregational survey with you on the retreat. Discernment and prayer regarding congregational needs may take 60-90 minutes.
-Commence: You have spent time communing with God and prayerfully considering your congregational context. During that time, God was surely giving you impressions and ideas regarding your preaching plan. It is now time to begin sketching out some specifics regarding sermons and series. Go ahead and grab the calendar you brought with you. If you are going to do any series, plug them into the calendar first. Then, if you have any stand alone sermons, put them on the calendar. Hopefully, you have four months worth of sermon starters. For each sermon, list a working title, text(s), and a theme sentence which begins to capture what the sermon is about. Add a little more detail to the first two months of the quarterly sermons. Consider listing Christian doctrines, congregational needs, image/illustrations/metaphors, and possible applications that seem to flow out of and connect with the texts and topics of your sermons and series’. This exercise will take the remainder of the 4-6 hours you’ve scheduled for the retreat.
It is time to get started. Schedule your quarterly sermon planning retreats on days you already work. Recruit someone to preach on the Sundays following your retreats so that you’re not distracted by the impending sermon and lose sight of the forest for the trees. Approach these retreats not only as opportunities to plan your sermons but to encounter God in ways that increase your love for him and for the people to whom you preach. Go for it!