Saturday Night Special. Gun enthusiasts understand this as any kind of cheap handgun. Others know it as a song from Lynyrd Skynyrd. But preachers employ this term for messages written the night before a Sunday morning service. Now, most of the pastors I speak with don’t usually begin and end their sermon writing on Saturday, but many of them work on their messages all the way up to Saturday night. I don’t. My routine is to write the guts of my message by Tuesday and finish it all by noon Wednesday. I edit my manuscript down to a preaching outline by Thursday morning. That’s it. I don’t even see or think about my sermon until I read it aloud on Saturday night. I like this routine. In fact, I made it a point to shift to message prep which terminated early in the week instead of late. I did so by drawing a line in my week where I said I would not work on my sermon anymore. Let me give you three reasons to consider drawing a line in your week when it comes to completing your message prep.

It puts the right hours on the right things

Many preachers think they need time later in the week to “fine tune” their message in order to improve the sermon from a 60 to a 90. In all likelihood, those extra hours only enhance the message from 80 to an 82. In other words, the improvement isn’t monumental but incremental. And when you consider how much time invested in the second half of the week for sermon prep…including Saturday…it’s just not worth the investment. The message won’t improve as dramatically as you think. But drawing a line in your week is a guardrail that allows you to better steward your time as not only a preacher but a leader. So instead of spending 8-10 hours later in the week to move your message incrementally, free up those hours to impact your church monumentally. Put the right hours on the right things.

QUESTION: What hours are you giving your sermon that you should be giving to something else in your church?

It makes a statement about your priorities outside of preaching

Drawing a line in your week makes you available to the things most important to you outside of preaching. Take family as an example. I don’t spend evenings with my sermon. I spend evenings with my family. Finishing my sermon earlier in the week makes a statement to my wife and kids that they are a priority. Being available to my sermon at the beginning of the week means I’m available to my family on nights and weekends. When I’m with my family I’m truly with them. I’m not thinking about illustrations when I see my kid pitch at his Little League game. I don’t wonder how I’ll intro my message when I’m out to eat with my wife. Drawing a line in my week makes a statement just as much about my life as a husband, father, and friend as it does for my life as a preacher.

QUESTION: What does your current sermon preparation routine say about your other priorities?

It gives you time to work on the ‘how’ of your sermon

Far too often preachers work on the what of their sermon at the expense of the how of their sermon. Unfortunately, hours if not days are given to developing content for a message while mere minutes are given to the delivery of that content. But drawing a line in your week can encourage you to give at least some thought to your sermon’s delivery. If, for example, your line is Wednesday noon for the sermon’s what, you still have quite a bit of time (without running into the weekend) to think through the sermon’s how. And believe me, the how of a message is a big deal.

QUESTION: How much of your sermon preparation is focused on your delivery?

Give it a try. Draw a line in your week. Tell yourself that the sermon prep, for all intents and purposes, is done when you get to that line. You’ll be tempted to blow past it. Excuses ad infinitum. But for your sake, your family’s sake, and your church’s sake consider not only drawing a line in your week…but sticking to it. Let Saturday Night Specials be the rare exception instead of the norm. You’ll be better for it. And so will your family and your church.

My old sermon notes next to my recent sermon manuscript.

Today I pulled from my shelf a Bible given to me by my father during my first semester of college. In it I found several old sermon outlines I preached during my time in school. I was immediately struck by the difference between those old sermon notes and the ones I use today. My old notes were handwritten, one-page outlines mostly composed of phrases, alliterated points, and Scripture references. There wasn’t one complete paragraph I could find in any of them. Illustrations were simply noted by the letter “I” with circle around it, followed by a word or two (e.g., man with dog, broken bicycle). This epitomized my sermon preparation. I would study, take mental notes, scratch a few things out here and there on a scrap of paper, then proceed to write a sermon outline from which to preach. That was it. I continued this simple process through seminary, my first full-time position, up to my initial years at my current church, Clear Creek Community Church. If memory serves me correctly, my first sermon at CCCC was preached from something akin to a 5×7 note card on which was written a rather scant outline.

It was a good process. It was efficient (I don’t like to over-prepare). It fit my preaching style (I am an extemporaneous preacher). I felt it would serve me well for the long-haul and yet, today, I employ a preparation process whereby I manuscript the entire message (though I still preach from an outline). Why? Initially, it’s because I admired the preaching of my Senior Pastor Bruce Wesley. He manuscripted his messages and would preach the lights out! I thought I could possibly get better as a preacher by doing the same. Today, I see at least three reasons why I like manuscripting messages in the sermon prep process while still preaching from an outline:

#1: Manuscripting refines my thinking.

In the editing process I’m better able to see how different sections interact with each other. Does my illustration really support what I’ve just spoken? Is this the best place for it in my message? Am I saying too much here or not enough? You may be able to do this to some degree with a generalized outline; however, a manuscript affords me greater clarity about my thought process in putting a sermon together. I don’t have to debate what I’m thinking at each point in the message, the manuscript shows me what I’m thinking. In fact it does so in great deal in addition to what, if any, changes need to be made.

#2: Manuscripting sharpens my speaking.

I think saying your sermon aloud is invaluable. What you hear in your head as you read your notes can be very different once you speak out your sermon. When I speak though my message it helps me see where different elements of it may be too chunky or too thin or just right. A manuscript allows me to work as closely as possible to the message that actually gets preached on Sunday. I can hear in detail, for example, how a phrase sounds. Can it be rewritten for greater effectiveness? Is this the best way to communicate what I need said? Are there more memorable ways of saying this? I also find manuscripting keeps from from rambling, chasing unhelpful rabbits, or being incoherent in the pulpit. Honestly, it helps me from being lazy. I can’t say, “Well, I’ll just figure out how to say that on Sunday.”

#3: Manuscripting is better stewardship.

In my early years, being invited to speak at other churches was always an exercise in frustration. I would pull out my sermon notes and, because they were in sparse outline form, were essentially un-preachable. I would read something like “Illustration: Man with Dog.” That was it! Manuscripting filled in the blanks. It took out the guesswork and blank stares that went with my meager sermon outlines. It made me a good steward of all the hard work I’d put into preaching. Manuscripting allowed me to not only re-preach messages but to also use that content in future endeavors (e.g., training material, seminars, etc.).

Once again, I don’t preach from a manuscript. I don’t bring one into the pulpit (I take a really big outline with me). I’m still a rather extemporaneous speaker. More often than not I prefer flow to precision. And while it’s more time consuming, using a manuscript in the sermon prep process has been more rewarding. Try it. See if it refines your thinking, sharpens your speaking, and is a better way to steward the gift God has given you.

I’m often asked by church planters how CCCC develops elders. It’s a a great question. However, there’s a question which should precede it, namely, when should you add elders? It’s not a question of “if” but at what time is it most beneficial to do so? We see the Apostle Paul had some kind of process by which, after establishing church plants, elders were appointed within specific congregations. For example, his strategy for the island of Crete was to select Titus to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as [Paul] directed [him].” (Titus 1:5) This shows that there was some stage in the church’s life where a body of elders wasn’t best for these young plants. While we don’t know exactly how much time elapsed, we do know selecting elders intentionally came later. This also helps us see that if, in planting a church, you have the establishment of elders as one of the first things on the list, you may want to reconsider that plan. I can tell you from the personal accounts of many of my church planter friends how prematurely establishing elders not only handicapped their church, but for some, ended it. Could this be at least one reason why Paul counsels Timothy to not be too hasty in laying his hands on a set of elders (cf., 1 Tim. 5:22)? Let me suggest one way church planters can implement a progression of church leadership which doesn’t begin with an elder team, but ends with them.

Stage One: Lone Elder
This first phase is essential in both promoting and protecting “the DNA” that makes your church unique. You hold the vision, values, and strategy for your plant. You carry the fire for what you believe that specific local church will become. It’s the very reason you planted in the first place. This means that for a season, everything runs through you. It’s exhausting, crazy, and demanding, but it’s critical to establishing who you believe God has uniquely called the church to be. This doesn’t mean you don’t have any accountability. You must! This is the stage where you have an advisory board of godly men outside your congregation (often these are other pastors and church leaders) who regularly check in with how you are and what you’re doing. This is also the time you’re looking for men in your fledgling congregation that have the potential to become elders. In this phase, you spend an insane amount of time developing relationships with these kinds of men in order to see in them if they might make good elders.

Stage Two: Lead Elder
This phase is when you have selected, trained, and deployed an elder team. These are men who bleed the DNA of the church plant. They know and have your back as the lead elder. In other words, you still are at the front of decision-making for the church in matters of doctrine, discipline, and direction. This is to give your elder team time to see how their lead pastor operates, what makes him tick, and observe his strengths and weaknesses. As the lead elder, you call the plays and your elder team helps execute them. This doesn’t mean the team can’t disagree or debate with you. They can (and likely will). It’s just very clear at this stage that the senior pastor is very clearly the “first among equals” whereby the team is following his lead. During this stage you’re developing the leadership quotient of your fellow elders – giving responsibilities, evaluating execution, coaching them up on what it is to lead a church. I believe this phase often takes years because you aren’t just trying to grow as a team but as a brotherhood – and brotherhood is something that is forged over time. It solidifies over tasks, tests, and tragedies. When you feel like you’ve gotten a team of brothers who are leaders in their own right, it’s time to move to the last phase.

Stage Three: Lead Elders
These are men who each could lead the church without missing a beat if somehow you were taken off the planet. Indeed, this is the kind of team composed of individuals who could each lead their own congregation. But they stay – they’re there for the long haul – in order to make a real difference for the gospel in the community God has planted them. At this phase, there is a blurring of lines concerning role and responsibilities between lead pastor and his team. There may be an elder responsible for pastoral care, another for the preaching ministry, still another for the oversight of ministries, with none of them being the founding pastor. Now, you should be able to more acutely focus your time on your passion points and ministry strengths. At this stage, you play the role of an all-star point guard who knows which member of the elder team is best equipped for being the chief leader for ministries that, up to this point, you were responsible for. But your role is passing the ball. A lot. This stage demands you die to yourself and strangle that ego. Unfortunately, there are very big churches that never get to this stage. And they pay the price! High staff turnover at the executive level, loss of strategic momentum, and hurtful interpersonal dynamics to name a few. Stage Three is a place we rarely would ever start with our church plant, but it’s a must that we finish there.

What stage are you in? What are you doing or need to do in order to develop your elders? Ask your team how you can help facilitate the movement from one stage to another. Do it for your sake, your team’s sake, and for the sake of the glory of God.