Filing and organising past sermons doesn’t sound like a thrilling or life-changing activity. But in fact there are a number of good reasons to give it some attention:
- It helps to see what you have been preaching on, the diet you have been giving people, and the diet you yourself have enjoyed. Is it balanced?
- It gives you the chance to reflect more on specific passages or subjects you have been working with and revisit them. There are some passages (for me, 2 Kings 5 for example) where I have dug a deep well into Scriptures, and it has been an important resource.
- Looking back over sermons makes you aware of the ways in which you have changed and grown, and can give direction for future growth.
In other words, it is a ‘Sharpening the Saw’ activity described by Stephen Covey as one of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Along with organising paper filing systems, it is one of the ‘Quadrant 2’ Important But Not Urgent activities which improve efficiency. (Note the purpose of doing this is not to be able to re-use a sermon. Preaching is about communicating what God is saying to these people at this time through this text—so on a different occasion for the same text you will need to discern a fresh message.) Your sermons also represent a considerable body of work, and an investment of time, energy, study and prayer, so they are worth looking after.
Having been in public ministry for more than 20 years, I have long wanted to properly file and organise my sermons. I have just over 300 actual sermons preached, going back to when I bought my first computer in 1991. (Apple Macs are always ‘upward compatible’, so I have not lost any of my files or folders in upgrades.) This isn’t a huge number; I was 10 years in theological college when I was not preaching as often as I would be in a parish, and in parishes I have always worked with a team and so shared the preaching. But of course I also have separate teaching material and talks.
I recently had some time to give attention to this, and so have now organised them consistently. These are my reflections on the best way to do it.
First, make sure everything is electronic. If you don’t already, I would strongly recommend that you move away from handwritten notes to electronic notes. They are harder to lose, easier to read, and much easier to search and organise. I used to jot my ideas, notes and thoughts on paper, then write up the sermon notes electronically, but recently made myself switch to writing all my notes and thoughts electronically, then writing the sermon notes on the first page of the document and only printing that page off. This way, everything is kept together, and if I have any thoughts that in the end did not go into the sermon, I have not lost them.
Secondly, separate your sermons from other teaching material and talks. I don’t think that there is a theological justification for drawing a sharp boundary between preaching and teaching—since there is no such distinction in the New Testament. But a sermon preached in the context of a worship service has different aims, methods and strategies from a teaching session lasting an hour or more, and your material will be distinct.
Thirdly, collect the files related to one sermon into one folder. Because I am convinced of the importance of images in preaching, I will usually have two files: the Word document with my sermon script/notes and preparation material; and a PowerPoint presentation. (I keep the images for the PowerPoint separately in iPhoto, since this is the easiest way to handle large numbers of images which I might want to use on other occasions. A single right-click saves them from my web browser to iPhoto, and they drag and drop from iPhoto into PowerPoint.)
Now comes the moment of organisation. I decided to keep all my sermons (i.e. all the sermon files folders) in a single folder as a list. Computers usually organise the contents of any fold alphabetically. This means that, if you name the folders or files systematically and correctly, then your sermons will automatically fall into the right order. (See why it is worth having everything electronic?!) So what is the best system for naming?
I need to know these are sermons, in case any folder or file gets moved my mistake, or if I am searching for something. So the first part of the name is ‘sermon’. I used then to add the date—but I realised that, for future reference or review, the subject of the sermon was more important than the date it was preached on. So, if it is a topical sermon, drawing on different biblical passages, the topic comes next. Or, if the sermon is primarily on a passage, the book and chapter come next. But I don’t want topical sermons and passages sermons intermixed, so leaving two spaces before the name of the topic (but only one space before the name of the Bible passage) will pull all these to the top of the list.
If there was a main theme emerging from a passage, I might include this, and might also add the date and place in the file name—though I would also always have this as the headline on the sermon notes. Remembering the time and place is a great aid to revisiting the moment of actually preaching, so you can reflect more effectively on it.
So the folder or file name looks like one of these two (note the double space after ‘Sermon’ in the first example):
Sermon [Topic] [Text] [Place] [Date]
Sermon [Text] [Theme] [Place] [Date]
Sorting out all my sermon files, retitling them, and if necessary updating the file format so they remained readable, took a total of two to three hours. This is how part of my list now looks.
The file names are not completely consistent, but that does not matter. I can now see clearly what I have preached on, and it is very interesting. Although I have published on Mark, done teaching days on Matthew, and taught modules on John, it turns out that I have preached on Luke more than the other gospels. And I have preached even more often on Acts—so I wonder whether I ought to do something further with this material.
I would love to hear from anyone with a different system, or with suggestions to improve mine. What is your approach?