These words carry a burden known only to the preacher. Herewith the third distillation of wisdom I shared with my seminary student.
that_guy_zach is preaching this Sunday (the Transfiguration), so I have some time to work on my sermons for Lent. I do NOT work on sermons week-by-week. That just gets you nervous prostration; meanwhile, secretaries and choir directors and who-all are tapping their feet, wanting to know the title of your sermon, etc. Too many preachers find themselves empty and searching for inspiration on a Saturday night.
To avoid this, I fell into the habit years ago of laying out whole seasons at a time. I divide the year into about six planning periods: Advent/Christmastide; Season after Epiphany; Lent/Holy Week/Easter; Eastertide; Summer; Fall. Some of these are as short as six weeks; others may stretch to thirteen weeks.
I begin by noting special Sundays, etc., that I'm planning for. I frequently designate a given Sunday as a "golden oldie" (something from the barrel). Or I'll put a "hymn sing" (music as message, no prepared sermon) at the end of a planning period. These (plus others preaching occasionally), give me breathers when I need them.
Then I set aside time to work out my preaching ideas for the entire planning period, all at once. Principal texts, key ideas, titles are what I'm looking for. (Titles carry a lot of associative power with me.) Once these are set, I find that my mind works on them, even when I'm not conscious of it. It's what I call the stock-pot of the mind. Stuff is slowly simmering on the back burner of your brain, so that when you actually sit down on Friday or Saturday to write up the sermon, it just flows. No writer's block.
But wait: there's more!
Once I have texts and titles ready, I go through the entire hymnal to pick out hymns for that day. I jot down everything that might be appropriate, then plug in the actual hymns from my jotted list. I don't repeat hymns within the planning period. This avoids repetition, mental constipation on Saturday night, etc.
Once all this is done, with any other notes of what is to be plugged into a given Sunday (a baptism, whether there's a children's lesson or not, if I want to use a particular collect or something . . .), I type it all up and print it off. Then I put a copy next to the church office computer, for quick reference when I do the bulletin. I give other copies to the choir accompanist, my associate pastor, and the worship chair. That way, everybody else who might need to coordinate with me on what to contribute on a given Sunday has been empowered in advance, and they're not bugging me for info I don't have yet.
I used to hand-write my sermon notes. I would put them in 6x9 spiral notebooks, one after the other. When the notebook was full, I'd type up the contents and tape it to the front. That way, I could tell at a glance what was in that notebook, and re-preach that sermon easily. (One Speech professor in seminary chided me for turning pages -- he thought sliding note cards was the way to go. I think note cards are too easy to lose.)
Nowadays, I can barely read my own handwriting once it gets cold, so I type my sermon notes on the computer. I set up the computer to print in 14 pt type, in a sans serif font for easier reading. Further, I format the page in Landscape with 2 columns, in effect preserving the look of the written notes.
I write in short paragraphs or sentences with double spaces between 'graphs. I do not punctuate, except with dashes and space. Sermons are written for the ear, not the eye, so I write as I speak (tidying up one of my sermons for publication can be a difficult process -- I don't know where to put the punctuation or to break up the 'graphs much of the time).
Whether written or typed, I know how many pages it takes for the length I like to preach. At once church I pastored, the youth who helped with children's church downstairs (who also acolyted) said to me, "We don't have to look at the clock to know when to come back upstairs. You always preach the same number of minutes." So I deliberately wrote a sermon with two more pp. of notes. The congregation began to fidget, just as the acolytes came strolling in. They looked so discombobulated for me to be still preaching. Hah!
At once parish's intake interview, I was asked if I used notes when I preached. (Many laypersons are under the impression that sermons are more "real" or "spontaneous" if they are preached without notes, not realizing that that often means they are memorized, or -- in our hi-tech world -- being replayed in the preacher's ear from a pre-recording.) I replied that I used extensive notes when I preached; that way, I knew when to stop (i.e., when I reached the end). I never had a criticism about my preaching from that congregation.
In fact, my sermon notes are almost a full text, except that for easily remembered jokes and stories, I just insert a few key words. (Even my spontaneous remarks are often scripted.) For Scripture citations within the text, I just write down verse numbers and read them from the open Bible. With a ms. that you can easily catch up by eye, you can always augment a sentence or make an additional comment, then return to the text. (Of course, if you're like me, spontaneity can sometimes fall really flat. I distrust my off-the-cuff remarks.)
I was trained in the old, pre-lectionary style of preaching, so I select my preaching texts and all that; nevertheless, what I've outlined here will work just as well with the lectionary. The catch is, you can't let the lectionary make you lazy. If you go week-by-week, you will still find yourself on Saturday night, praying for a miracle of inspiration. If you use the lectionary, you need to set aside a day or two to go off alone and wrestle with the whole planning period's texts and decide which will be your principal preaching texts and what to emphasize, and come up with the titles. There are no shortcuts. But you can learn to be efficient.
My first (and best) preaching professor was a wee Scotsman in his last semester of teaching, who used to exhort us young preachers to put the necessary effort into our sermon prep. "Remember what David said when he offered to buy the threshing floor of Araunah," he said, over and over: "'I will not offer up unto the Lord my God that which costs me nothing.'"