It is a common travail. The pastor has gotten to the end of his week without having had much time to focus on his sermon. He might have been thinking about his text, might have jotted a few things down, but the meat of his preparation and heat of his composition falls to the Saturday prior to preaching, perhaps even spilling into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
I know more than a few pastors—and overhear many more besides—who cite the busyness of their ministry lives as the reason sermon preparation gets crowded out week to week. They are left to “find” time to work on their message, taking snatches here and there as available, staying up after the family is in bed to work on it or pushing it into the days they (theoretically) have off. Therefore, their sermons are made up of leftover time and microwaved in short bursts—they preach on Sunday “microwaved leftover sermons.”
This should not be. Some thoughts:
1. The primary task of the pastor is preaching the Word.
We see from the establishing of the diaconate in Acts 6 that the labor emphasis for church elders is “the ministry of the word and prayer” (v.4), which they intend to “devote” themselves to. The first thing Paul charges Timothy with doing (in 2 Tim. 4:1-2) is the preaching of the word. Preaching and teaching is the primary work of the pastor and one reason why “able to teach” is one of the few distinguishing qualifications for the office of elder from the office of deacon. This does not mean, of course, that pastors should neglect other necessary work, especially the work of pastoral care and other leadership tasks. But it certainly means that:
2. The pastor’s weekly schedule should prioritize sermon preparation.
If sermon prep for you mainly comes when you find time, you need to do a radical reorganization of your calendar. If you prep on Saturday or over late nights simply because that’s the best time for your mental and spiritual energy, well then, I suppose you could carry on. If sermon prep comes on Saturdays because you are a bivocational pastor who must work another job Monday through Friday, there’s likely no alternative. But if you’re a full-time pastor doing sermon prep in the cracks of your week because other priorities have crowded it out, your week is upside down. Schedule your weekly ministry around your sermon prep, not the other way around.
If people don’t like that you have eaten up a whole day midweek to hole up in your study to read and write, remind them that they have hired you primarily to preach the Word. That God’s Word is precious and worthy of the investment. That ministry work is fundamentally “Word work,” and the Scriptures and God’s people are both worth concentrated, prioritized dedication to faithful preaching. Again, it’s a problem if you are holed up in your study all week to the neglect of “shepherding the flock of God among you” (1 Pet. 5:2), but the key thing a shepherd does is feed the sheep. Prioritize your sermon prep.
3. Slow cook the sermon but don’t overcook it.
Microwaved sermons are generally about as good as most microwaved foods. If you are working on your sermon only as you find time, the Word of God and its preaching are not receiving the care and devotional attention that makes the best preaching so rich and delicious. If you find only snatches of time to prep and then have to rush the whole thing to completion, it will show on Sunday morning. And yet there is such a thing as putting too much in and working on it too much. If you find that sermon prep is an uphill slog, and you’re unable to study and compose each week with time leftover to fulfill your other routine ministerial duties, it may be you need to refine your approach to preparation or even get some outside training or help with your preaching. Or it could be that you just need to stop trying to do everything in your sermon. The only thing worse than microwaved sermons are sermons that have cooked too long.
Some texts require more in-depth study than others, to be sure. Some texts are more complex and more demanding than others. But if you are finding that on average you need the bulk of your work week to finish every sermon, you may be overthinking it (at best) or not actually gifted to preach (at worst). Let’s assume the best-case scenario. Not every sermon needs to be an exhaustive dissertation on every possible implication of the passage at hand. This is especially true in smaller contexts where the main preaching pastor does not have the ability to delegate much else away to other pastors.
So don’t overdo it. Get some help if you need it. A measured, dedicated approach to sermon preparation will actually make it easier to prioritize the work each week and eventually provide you with a measure of rest each week besides. You don’t have to be ruled by the tyranny of the Sunday sermon deadline if you will take back control of your schedule and submit it to the biblical priorities for pastoral ministry.