Healthy Sermon Preparation with Ed Litton

An Interview with Pastor Ed Litton of Redemption Church (Mobile, AL). How pastors can create a healthy sermon prep routine that helps them take back their time and their life.

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Ed is a pastor at Redemption Church in Mobile, Alabama.  He’s pastored there for 26 years, and in the process, he’s developed habits that help him deliver impactful sermons every single week.  In today’s episode of the Sermonary Podcast, we’re talking to him about his process for sermon preparation.

Josh: I would love to talk about your preaching preparation.  How do you still deliver quality messages, even when you’re traveling or busy for the week beforehand?  

Ed:  One of the things I’ve learned over time is that “Sunday always cometh.”  It’s always bearing down.  And so, you have to accept that.  You have to buy in and start to plan your life around it.  

Typically, I’m listening, reading, looking at the text, and breaking it down on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Then, on Monday, I’m getting ready for our preaching team meeting.  We all study the same text and break it down, then meet together to do some solid planning.  When I’m out of town we still do this- I email my thoughts to them, and they discuss their own ideas and send me an email me back.  My entire preaching team is younger than me, so we discuss language and tone together.  Then- and this is new since COVID- I’m ready to record the sermon by Thursday.  I preach it live on Sundays, too, when we’re meeting in person.

Josh:  That’s amazing.  I’m sure there are a lot of pastors right now who are thinking, “I would LOVE to have my sermon done by Thursday.  That would give me my weekends back!”

Ed:  Well, it’s funny, because I started as church planter.  Even though I’d taken preaching classes, I had zero preparation for the rigors of preparing a sermon.  In those days, I was preparing three sermons a week, and typically, I would be writing my Sunday morning sermon on Saturday night.  

Basically, I had to discipline myself and change my mindset and my schedule so that Monday morning, I’m at it, getting ready for the next week.  When you do that, you learn to think sermonically, and to look for examples throughout the week.  It’s not unusual if everything starts to seem like it’s relating to your topic.  

Josh: What does a typical week look like in sermon prep for you?  Because I know that there are probably pastors listening who spend way too much time in sermon prep, and pastors who spend too little time in sermon prep.

Ed:  Yep, you can do either- and I’ve done both!  Either extreme makes it an agonizing process.  But another thing you have to remember is that you have to plan your preaching ahead of time.  You don’t want to be waking up on Monday morning and thinking, “What am I going to be preaching on today?”  

That’s why expositional preaching is so important.  Going verse by verse or passage by passage allows you to plan far ahead.  We knew a year ago where we were going to be now, and I’ve bumped it up to three years of planning.  And please, don’t get the impression I’m a great planner.  That’s not my nature.  None of this self-discipline is in my nature, but it’s helped that I made a commitment early on that I would not repeat my preaching.  One of the men from the pulpit committee at Redemption came up to me once- he writes his sermon notes in his Bible- and he said, “Pastor, I’m not sure anyone else knows this, but I know you’ve preached on Ephesians three times.  And the amazing thing about that is you’ve never repeated yourself.”  That was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.

As to the number of hours- I would say I spend 8-10 hours, on average.  When you’re younger, it’s going to take longer.  That’s not because you’re using old stuff when you’re older, but because the longer you do this the more resources and connectivity of ideas you’ll be able to pull from.  Some of that 8-10 hours is exegetical work, really getting in the dirt.  Some of it is organizing the thoughts.  And the other part is creativity- which is very challenging.  You have to walk a fine line between helping people see the passage in a new light and not getting to carried away with your own ideas. 

Josh:  I love that.  Sermon planning is something we really stress at Sermonary and our sister company, Ministry Pass.  One of the biggest objections we get to planning a year at a time is that it quenches the Holy Spirit.  What would you say to that objection?

Ed: How does it quench the Holy Spirit?  I mean, you have to explain that to me, because that makes no sense.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t need my planning, but He uses my planning.  So any time I’m engaging the text, I’m engaging the Holy Spirit, because Jesus said the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth.  I hope you pray before you prepare, because you have to have the focus that the Holy Spirit helps you with, no matter what’s happening in life.  

I think what happens is that we have a romanticized view of the role the Holy Spirit plays.  You asked me earlier how much time I spend preparing, and I’m going to be honest- it varies.  Some passages are easy to get through, but others feel like swimming through Jello.  Sometimes, it feels like the Holy Spirit just hands me the message on a silver platter, but other weeks it’s like pulling teeth with a pair of pliers- it’s agonizing.  

One thing I have found, however, is that your quiet time is critical to your sermon preparation.  Instead of asking, “How long should I spend preparing my sermon?” I would ask, “How long are you spending worshipping and preparing in His presence?” Most of the text I’m using to support whatever passage I’m preaching on during my sermon will come out of my quiet time.  It will be the work of the Spirit validating what you’re studying and providing insight.

Josh: Another problem you hit on, and I think this is huge for pastors, is that creativity strikes at different times.  It’s not necessarily tied to the 9-5 schedule, and pastors need to be able to allow themselves some extra flexibility.

Ed:  I think you’re exactly right, and I’ll say this too- I think creativity happens in relaxed moments.  When you can relax, and laugh, and have a good time, you’ll see things differently.  You’ll see them joyfully, and you’ll see that there’s a balance in your life.  

Another thing that’s helped me is that, for some reason, God gave me a brain that’s like flypaper when it comes to insignificant, trivial things.  I mean, statistics, data, trivia.  My wife used to say, “You have more useless crap in your head than any man I’ve ever met.”  But those things can be really helpful when you’re trying to create a specific illustration.

Another element that really helps is storytelling.  Howard Hendricks says, “Picture the story in your mind.  This takes time.  Silent reflection.  Think of what you want to tell the story of, and then just relive it, describe it as you relive it.”  I’ve found this is really helpful when I’m telling a story in my sermon because all I have to do is describe what I’m imagining, even if I’m retelling a story from the perspective of a Biblical character.