The Problem with Planning

Some years ago, Jill and I decided to ride our tandem from Western Michigan (where we were living at the time) to her childhood home in upstate New York. We didn’t have an exact route in mind. Instead, we gave the atlas a cursory glance before tossing it into our bike trailer with the rest of our gear and figured we would find our way. (This was a rather significant step forward in planning from a previous tour around Lake Michigan when we left our map sitting on the kitchen table.) “The way I figure it,” I said to Jill as we packed our bags and prepared for our departure, “if we cover sixty-five miles a day we should easily be there within a week.”

When we finally rolled into my in-laws’ driveway one week–and some seven hundred miles–later, it was quite clear that I had figured wrong.

All this is to say that I’m not much of a planner. But I also recognize that a little planning can save a lot of trouble.

I’m trying to remember that as I set out to do one of my least favorite tasks: planning my preaching schedule for the coming year. At First Denver, “planning the calendar” means deciding on an overarching theme for the church year (e.g. “God’s Peculiar People”), then settling on different sermon series for different blocks of the church year (e.g. “Peculiar Habits”) and then identifying specific text and themes for each week. In the ideal world (though not often in the real one–much to the chagrin of my worship planners!), this is all done several months ahead of time (if not more). As I’ve mentioned, it is not a job I relish–but it is one that I recognize as valuable. Among other things, planning ahead allows:

*Leaders of other church programs (from Magnify to Cadets to Adult Sunday School) to coordinate their themes with those being addressed on Sunday morning.
*Worship planners to provide special elements in the worship service (from organ preludes to dramas to sanctuary decorations to choral numbers) that compliment theme of the sermon.
*Preachers (in this case–me) to save time (and frustration!) by collecting illustrations and insights on the text/theme well before sermon writing day and by picking out the text in advance (I learned early on that a great way to waste my time is to crack open the Bible on Tuesday morning unsure of what text I hope to preach the following Sunday.)
*Worshipers to connect each Sunday with a broader theme and reflect on a certain aspect of their lives with Christ over an extended period of time.

Clearly, there are benefits to planning–and I part of me wishes that I had the brain power to plan several years in advance.

And yet–part of me continues to resist planning (at least as I currently try to do it). Admittedly, that is partially due to my personality, partially due to the fact that that there is no sermon series (and for that matter, no sermon!) as perfect as the one that has not yet been committed to paper. But I have a more serious concern, too: I wonder if my approach to planning presumes upon the text. That is to say: when I choose a text because I believe what it says fits into a series, which in turn fits into a broader theme–and do all this before taking time to immerse myself in the text and listen to what it says, I have not allowed the text to speak on its own terms.* I have short-circuited the possibility of new discovery, removed the opportunity to be surprised by the text.

In one of her books, Barbara Brown Taylor describes her sermon writing process. She writes:
“…I never know [before I study the text] what I will preach. If I did, then my sermons would be little more than lessons, expositions of things I already know that I think my listeners ought to know too…I do not want to scatter pearls of wisdom from the pulpit; I want to discover something fresh–even if I cannot quite identify it yet, even if it is still covered with twigs and mud. I want to haul it into the pulpit and show others what God has shown me, while I am still shaking with excitement and delight.
The process of discovery begins with the text. Whether I like it or not, I approach it believing that God is in it and I commence the long, careful discipline of panning for gold…”
(The Preaching Life, pg. 86)

Taylor’s words describe some of my greatest hopes–and my greatest fears–for my preaching. They also leave me wondering what to do next. What do you think?

If you spend your Sunday mornings in the pulpit:
*Are there ways to hold on to the benefits of planning while avoiding the potential perils? In other words, is there a way to plan that allows the text to remain primary? What process do you use?

If you spend your Sunday mornings in the pew:
*Do you find it helpful when a sermon is connected to a broader series? Why or why not? What makes a “good” sermon series?

If you are either a preacher or pew sitter:
*Have you had experiences (positive or negative) with the lectionary or preaching straight through books? How does this approach compare with a more “topical” approach (In other words, how might a series marching through the Gospel of Luke compare to a series on “FAQs” or “Taking God to Work”?)

* This assumes that I’m not pulling from a mental file of previously researched texts. (After nearly seven in one congregation, this is increasingly difficult– unless I preach the same texts repeatedly.)