The following is a chapter from my book, The Heart of the Preacher.
“Must be nice to have a job where you only have to work one day a week.”
Like many pastors, I’ve grimaced whenever I’ve heard someone make that statement, not knowing for sure if they were joking or not. But based on the pastors I’ve known over the years, the big challenge we face is exactly the opposite. Instead of only working one day a week, we struggle not to work all seven.
Over the course of my ministry, I’ve never been accused of being lazy. Like many pastors, I lean in the opposite direction—long hours, extra effort, continual motion. While some shirk when it comes to work, most in pastoral ministry live at a pace somewhere between busy and breathless.
But that doesn’t mean busy pastors aren’t lazy preachers. That’s the convicting insight I gained when I first read Eugene Peterson’s article “The Unbusy Pastor.” Peterson contends that busy pastors can easily become lazy preachers. Like the lizards that slip into kings’ palaces (Proverbs 30:28), laziness can slip into our lives as preachers. Especially when we get extremely busy in ministry.
Peterson links busyness to laziness in a surprising way:
The … reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. But these people don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do. The pastor is a shadow figure in their minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.
He goes on to say this kind of lazy busyness or busy laziness keeps a pastor from becoming a faithful preacher. Busy pastors can become lazy preachers. As I’ve reflected on how laziness can creep into our lives as preachers, I’ve come to see laziness as more of a heart-level test than a time-management problem. I’ve also learned to spot five warning signs that I’m becoming a lazy preacher.
Scattering Sermon Prep Time
The work of sermon preparation demands the best of our mental and spiritual energies. Compelling sermons demand clear thinking.
Paul made it clear to Timothy, and all preachers, that handling Scripture accurately would take our best efforts: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The word translated “do your best” (spoudazō) has the idea of energy, effort, and diligence. The King James version reads, “Study to show yourself approved.” That may not be the best translation of the text, but it’s a fair application.
Our best efforts at studying Scripture don’t happen on the fly, in the cracks, or when we are spent. We sabotage ourselves if we fail to block out time for study and writing when we are at our best.
The most effective remedy is to schedule sermon preparation time first. Block off study time that coincides with your peak level of alertness. For me, that means morning hours. I think one hour of study in the morning equals two or three in the afternoon, so I seek to study in the morning and schedule meetings and appointments for the afternoon. Establishing a regularly scheduled, extended block of devoted sermon prep time frees us from the exhausting dilemma of customizing each week. It also communicates to our congregations that preparing to proclaim God’s Word to them is a high priority for us.
Squandering Sermon Prep Time
It’s one thing to make time for sermon preparation; it’s another thing to make the most of the time. Laziness shows up when we give way to distractions in the time set aside for sermon preparation. We check emails, send texts, or answer phone calls. We opt for easier tasks that don’t demand the same level of focused concentration as sermon prep. We go easy on ourselves, pandering to our undisciplined fleshly desires.
The solution here is not difficult to identify; however, it’s easier said than done. We need to exercise self-control. Paul knew that’s what younger men needed to develop: “urge the younger men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2:6). Middle-aged and older men need it too. Self-control keeps us from distracting ourselves when we are studying. We need to find a place where we won’t be interrupted or put up a sign to signal we are unavailable. We must fight the urge to interrupt ourselves by checking emails, texts, favorite blogs, or news feeds. Self-discipline doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Thankfully, it can come supernaturally; self-control is a spiritual fruit that ripens as we grow up in Christ (Galatians 5:22–23).
Starting Sermon Prep Too Late
Sermons can be written at the last minute. There will be weeks when, due to crisis, illness, or travel, a pastor will need to produce a “Saturday night special.” Still, most Saturday night specials aren’t all that special.
Kenton Anderson says good sermons need to be slow-cooked, not microwaved. “Of course, as any decent chef will tell you, some things taste better when cooked slowly. Time can be a useful ingredient in deepening a rich and full-bodied taste. You don’t always want to rush things in the kitchen. You don’t always want to rush things in the pulpit.”
Slow cooking your sermons requires an early starting time. In my case, I blocked off significant time early in the week with the goal of having a draft manuscript completed by Wednesday afternoon. Later in the week I’d revisit my manuscript several times, making tweaks and revisions as needed.
When it comes to starting early on a sermon, I’ve benefitted from some advice from Haddon Robinson, who was for many years a professor of preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He urged pastors to set aside an hour for studying a passage ten days before they would preach it. For example, if you were slated to preach Colossians 3:1–5 on February 21, you would spend one hour doing exegetical spadework in the passage on February 11. After one hour, you shut down your study on this passage. But, as Robinson explained, your mind will quietly continue to work on it. When you come back to the passage a few days later, you’ll generally find you make progress more quickly.
Skimming the Surface of the Passage
Laziness also shows up when we don’t take the time and effort to understand what the text is saying and preach what we want to say instead. This can happen when we come to a passage with a predetermined sense of what we want to preach from it. Then, as we actually begin to prepare the sermon, we discover there is more going on in the text than we originally understood. In fact, as we dig deeper into the passage, we come to the disquieting realization the text isn’t emphasizing what we had planned to preach. However, we may have already turned in a sermon title to be printed in the bulletin or posted on the church website. The worship leaders may have already selected songs based on the direction we told them the sermon would take.
At this point, we face another test of our hearts. Will we do the hard work needed to understand the passage and preach what it says? Or will we simply use the biblical text as a starting point for the sermon we planned to preach? Eugene Peterson has the right pastoral instincts when he resists a superficial and skewed treatment of God’s Word. He rejects the laziness that skims the surface of a passage rather than diving down deep: “I need a drenching in Scripture; I require an immersion in biblical studies. I need reflective hours over the pages of Scripture as well as personal struggles with the meaning of Scripture. That takes time, far more time than it takes to prepare a sermon.”
If we are going to preach God’s Word faithfully, we must take the time needed to dig into the text and context of a passage; to wrestle with the author’s flow of thought; to prayerfully reflect on the pastoral purpose of the passage; to let the sermon simmer in our souls. Pushing ourselves to start our exegetical work earlier allows us adequate time to understand the biblical author’s message as well as unhurried time to pray the truth of the passage into our souls.
Serving Up Leftover Sermons
Over the years, I’ve heard divergent views on whether preachers should ever reuse a sermon they’ve already preached. Some advocate starting from scratch every time. No reheating leftovers and serving them up again. Old sermons, like old manna, get moldy, they claim. Preaching leftover sermons is a sign of a lazy preacher.
While it’s true that lazy preachers reheat sermons, repeating a sermon doesn’t necessarily mean one is lazy. I’ve found that some sermons, like good lasagnas, actually set up better the second time they are served. Besides, when preaching in a different venue, an old sermon is new to a different audience.
But since it’s easy for experienced preachers to over-rely on past sermons, we need to take precautions to prevent laziness from creeping in. I find it best to go over every line of the sermon manuscript, sharpening the flow of the message and updating illustrations and applications. While my general outline often stays relatively unchanged, changing illustrations and applications gives the sermon a fresh feel.
While there are times when we can heat up and re-serve a message, we should never stop preparing fresh sermons from scratch. In my role as a seminary president, I speak to a different congregation most weeks. For my heart’s sake (and my wife’s sake—she travels with me), I’ve committed to not repeatedly reusing a few favorite sermons. Fresh sermons help keep the preacher fresh.
Most preachers admit to being crazy busy at times. Few would suspect they could be busy and lazy at the same time. But if we fail to stay self-aware and self-disciplined, if we allow others to run our schedules or allow ourselves to squander study time, we can actually become lazy preachers—even when we are busy pastors.
 Eugene Peterson, “The Unbusy Pastor,” CT Pastors, 1981, http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1981/summer/81l3070.html.
 Kenton C. Anderson, “Slow Cooking Sermons,” Preaching Today, https://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/themes/structure/200104.26.html.
 Peterson, “The Unbusy Pastor.”