How to file your sermons

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. Looking back over sermons makes you aware of the ways in which you have changed and grown, and can give direction for future growth.

41n262U6LdLIn 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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 10.50.17

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?

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33 thoughts on “How to file your sermons”

  1. For me, the date is more important, so I put it after “Sermon”. Your point “if you name the files correctly, then your sermons will automatically fall into the right order” is crucial with dates: using yyyy mmdd (and being consistent with spaces) ensures they sort sensibly. So a sermon today (25th June 2014) gets named “2014 0625”.

    • That’s interesting. Why are you interested in date? If you are e.g. preaching on Luke 4, surely the most interesting thing is whether you have preached on that before and what you said…?

      • If you follow the Lectionary, you put the Sunday/festival/proper or DEL week no in the doc name; and If you’re obsessive enough about the Lectionary, you will know which passages come up when (sorry!).

        • ‘IF you are obsessive enough’? Ha ha ha!

          Surely you would still be more interested in the passage than the date…since some passages come up in different places in the lectionary?

      • Fair question! Mainly because more recent dates are more significant, for referring back to: they’re more likely to be in the current parish, relevant to today’s situation, and remembered. I have a large file of my personal Bible Comments (the fruit of several Bible in a Year), and record dates I preached against Bible passages. That allows several sermons on a passage, and (more importantly) several passages for a given sermon. I find my sermons can’t always be defined by a single topic or even passage, especially if using the Lectionary.

  2. Set of folders on computer so there’s one for every book of the Bible. Top level is genre, then books, all with numbers before so alphabetical sort leads to book order sort.

    In each folder, sermon notes (files) and sermons (folders) with dates in yyyymmdd, all filed by passage name, done so alpha sort gives order sort. e.g. 2 Corinthians 06v04-19 20140621.

    Force items into urgent by having a “currently working on” folder, which will get clogged up with older stuff and clearing it out and generating new folders as a once-per-term item on to do list.

    Maybe I should do a blog post on this….

  3. My system is very similar to yours. But I like my biblical books to appear in the right order. So before each book I have a number which designates the place it is in the Bible (1 for Genesis, 2 for Exodus, etc.). So instead of, for example, “Jam 2 – faith and works – Gold Hill – 2012” I have “59. Jam – faith and works – Gold Hill – 2012”.

    It makes me happy to see them appear in the right order, and helps me find them that tiny bit quicker! Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

  4. As a regular (music) worship leader I do something similar with orders of service: e.g. Order yyyymmdd am or pm, sometimes preacher name (useful if visiting speaker) and additional info for festivals e.g. Easter, Pentecost, HealingService etc. Thus I have filed and orderd copies of every service I’ve led or played in back to about 2004.

    It has proved helpful for seeing the journey we have come on as a congregation in terms of songs, and also enables checking for a ‘balanced diet’ as we do a mix of traditional and modern, hymns and shorter choruses.

  5. I have a folder for sermons, and within that I have sub folders for each book of the bible. Then the file name will be the bible reference and the sermon title, sometimes with a note about the particular occasion.

    Thematic sermons will either be filed under the bible reference, or in the top sermon folded, depending on which I think is most relevant.

    I do have separate folders for wedding, funeral and Christmas sermons… Hopefully not too complex, but it works for me.


    • That’s really interesting, thanks Thomas. But as I only have 300 sermons, I wondered if that sort of thing was a little complicated for me. How easy is it to see sermons that might be related…?

  6. ENFP here, I just save them in a folder named ‘sermon’ and then search for them using the search feature! Can’t believe I read an article on filing sermons, let alone posted on it.

    • Done! And I am really impressed you have read and comment. Was it the curiosity of entering a strange new world?!

      I think the thing about my system (rather than just searching) is that it is easy to see the spread of things and where there is overlap…

  7. As one who works in a Benefice of 13 churches, and has often preached 2 different sermons in 2 different congregations on the same Sunday, I would be interested in any suggestions on how to adapt these various suggestions to such a parameter. I do want to know what themes I have pursued with one congregation, but isolating sermons to each church is not helpful if a thread is developing which would feed into future sermons in a different church.

    • I think the issue here is what you want to do–to integrate or to separate. There must be a good argument for wanting the two congregations to be walking in step at some level…

      • There are widely differing congregations: for instance, one is strongly medical/hospital; another is essentially rural/farming; a third is largely military, and so on. They wouldn’t walk in step, because their word-views are widely different. The interesting challenge in preaching, is to expand that view in a different direction, but they could not receive the same sermon.

  8. I use folders by the OT or NT, then subfolders Gospels/mark and so on, I keep the date at the end and since its only sermons I don’t need the reference to sermons. Teaching, assemblies and talks are in their own area. Powerpoint are in the same folders which is a little messy.

    your point about backward compatibility iv vital lots of my early stuff was produced on wordstar for windows and has been a problem to open of late.

    At the top of the text of each sermon I like to keep its use history, on the rare occasions something gets used twice its nice to see its history.

    One little thing I have learned to do is keep useful hearer feedback in a text box at the end of the sermon

  9. I used MacWrite Pro in the nineties. Nothing opens these files now. Fortunately I’ve got paper copies of the most important stuff.

    Even Mac users can suffer from backwards compatibility.

      • Not even textedit works on them. The best you can get is recover any text, which pulls in the text (unformatted) mixed in with loads of rubbish. Old versions of Word are no longer compatible with the hardware (pre/post intel divide). This is why I am now suspicious of using Pages, preferring to save in .doc, .rtf or .pdf. Once bitten…

  10. In answer to your question, Ian, I usually preach on the lectionary and the folders for each Sunday of each of the three lectionary years are therefore great for me. Also, it makes sense for me to have notes on, say, Trinity Sunday in one folder to remind myself what the focus has been in the last year or two. Sometimes I add a shortcut in the folder for the relevant biblical book by way of cross-reference, as I usually pick a strand from the lectionary readings which I follow for a while – Matthew at the moment (rather than Romans or the related OT readings), Galatians at the similar time last year.

    I don’t find it complicated at all. The biggest bother would be to create all these folders but that work has been done. I have only made one or two modifications, maybe adding Remembrance Sunday or Harvest. I don’t remember. But I did not have 300 sermons to file, partly because I did not keep notes for all my sermons. Even now I don’t keep notes for the evening sermons – a few handwritten scribbles which are afterwards discarded will have to do for them. If I had the time and energy to make notes, I’d keep those in the Scripture folders, as I’d probably find it confusing to have the second service lectionary notes in the same folder.

  11. Good post, Ian. My top level folder is priest. That’s sub-divided into Parish, Diocese, Counsels of the Church, which reflect my ordination vows. Church has folders for Administration, Apostolic, Diakonia, Kerygma, and Liturgia. Kerygma has folder for Christian Formation, Essays, My Sermons, and Reflections. My Sermons has folders for By Liturgical Calendar, By Scripture, By Series, Funerals, Ordinations, and Weddings. By Liturgical Calendar has folders for Feast Days in the order listed in the BCP, Sundays (the RCL designations), and Holy Days (like Easter, Pentecost, Christmas). By Scripture has folders for each book of the Bible that I have preached. Each book has a folder for each chapter. I create folders for each pericope (e.g., Mark 8.27-38 and Mark 8.31-38 are folders). So as I preach the same text using the RCL every three years, I see the 2009 and 2012 sermons in the same folder. As with you, each folder includes all materials created to produce the sermon event. By Series is organized differently. There is a folder for each topical series, and each of these has folders for each sermon in the series. A single topical sermon is a series with one sermon. The naming convention is YYYY.TopicName.

    Holy Days puts all of my annual sermons for Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Epiphany, etc., in a single thematic folder so that I can review all of my past sermons for a given Holy Day readily as part of my preparation. Though there are assigned texts for these, I preach on those days more on the basis of the liturgical canon than the scriptural canon (Incarnation, Resurrection, Giving of the Spirit, etc.). There’s much more seasonal exegesis than biblical exegesis in my preparation for those so I treat them as a separate category.

    I usually create aliases for my topical sermons reflecting the supporting pericopes and move those aliases to their respective By Scripture folders for cross-reference.

    Took a long time to set this up years ago but the effort yields great productivity gains. I can always find research by lection in a snap.

    • That’s an amazing system! But what do you do if you preach on a particular passage on an occasion for a series?

      And do you really only preach on the gospel reading from the lectionary…?

      • My method effectively treats the folder structure as tags. I can have and often do have multiple tags per sermon. Here’s how. I create aliases for the sermon file with a single keystroke in OSX. Then I drag the aliases to their respective folders, leaving the original file in the folder that I judge the sermon to be mostly about. That fits both of your two scenarios. I regularly preach on multiple texts but I only do this if I feel my treatment of each produced thought that I think would be fruitful in a future sermon on the text. Sometimes I merely strike a glancing blow to the OT text example, using it to introduce the theme that the gospel text answers. So it is a judgement call, but when it makes sense I simply ‘tag’ the sermon multiple ways.

  12. I am excessively OCD, and electronically file mine under ‘Religion’ ‘Sermons’ (for those I am working on), ‘drm Sermons’ (those completed and delivered), and then by the Scripture (i.e., Matthew 25-46, then the title).

    If I want to find something, I look by Scripture, and all those with that Scripture pop up.

    Rev deniray


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