Do you struggle to “get ahead” in life and ministry? Nothing is undercutting the Spirit’s leadership in our ministries more than our last minute thoughts setting the tone week in and week out. To quote my high school speech teacher, “preparation precedes poise.” While the optics are different for the real heroes of ministry, bi-vocational pastors and missionaries, than we full-time pastors, all of us cannot afford to keep our heads down when we must keep our eyes on the God who fills the future and calls us to lead other into it with poise that only comes on the other side of working ahead!

Here are five primary areas of ministry that need less of a go-with-our gut management style and more of a “heads up” in most of our ministries:

In the Home

We begin with the planning in the home because it tends to get the leftovers and the least of our intentional focus. As Carey Nieuwhof wisely assert, “An open schedule is a guarantee you’ll spend your time on everyone else’s priorities, not yours.” No priority is more yours than your family! Our schedules are not only too open for our priorities to get done but also God’s. The dates and getaways with your spouse will not happen if you don’t put them in regular intervals on your master calendar FIRST. The family vacation will either not happen or not live up to the hype if you wait until the last minute to attempt one. Today, your husband/wife and kids/grandkids should already have something special and regular to look forward to sharing with you. If I were to ask your family “what’s next for your family time” and they got nothing, you are already BEHIND in your primary arena of ministry.

Practical Takeaways: Have a regular standing appointment with your spouse and kids. Do an annual family vacation or stay-cation, no matter how tight the budget or creative you have to get. Do a couple of 2-night-away retreats with your wife/husband right after or before the busiest seasons of the year. Make as nonnegotiable as possible one meal per day seated at the dining room table with no phones and face-to-face interaction.

On the Church Calendar

How many are filled with emotions-and not all of them good-when you hear the words “church” and “calendar” put next to each other? This area obviously varies greatly depending upon the size and context of our respective ministries, BUT it is a necessary part of intentional, Spirit-guided church life. The two key words that govern every successful church calendar are “comprehensive” and “flexible.” Start with the 1’s (the most important moments/experiences for your church) and work your way down to the 4’s (optional add-on’s that we could do without if necessary). While an annual calendar is extremely crucial, it is not all-knowing and will need to pivot on a regular basis to the ebbs and flows in real time.

Practical Takeaways: Have an annual staff planning meeting to establish the church calendar (We do ours in October of the previous year). This must be preceded by the senior leader/leaders’ formation of the sequence of sermons, special days, guest speakers, etc. that are uniquely their responsibility. You will likely also need your budget pretty well firmed up by this meeting since finances dictate much of the larger events and initiatives.

In Office Meetings

How many have heard the following touch and cheek expression, “I survived another meeting that should have been an email?” While “standing meetings” (regularly scheduled) meetings have their place for most church staffs, probably more them should be done WHILE STANDING to encourage greater brevity. Far too much of our meetings at North Life early on were too long and repetitive because they possessed underdeveloped thinking and collaboration BEFOREHAND. The key is to get the eyes and minds of all who will be in the meeting on the agenda items well ahead of time. If they hear about it for the first time in the meeting, thing will stall or breakdown…I guarantee it. Look at your itinerary for your next admin meeting. Is most of it about only the next week or two or is most of it much further out with only a few minor tweaks as it relates to this week or this month. The goal of your meetings should be the now-and-then vibe of,”Oh that is a few weeks further away than we felt.” This liberates your meetings to work ON THE MINISTRY, not just IN THE MINISTRY!

Practical Takeaways: Choose a team-based management system that you can do online-we opted to use Asana which costs us nothing with the modules we need. Setup recurring templates and workflow sequences for weekly tasks like bulletins and church service preparation; there is no reason to keep reinventing the wheel when we all know what needs done or collaborated on during the normal rhythms of church life. We have yet to make this transition, but I am hearing that larger, more developed leadership teams are allowing the administrative pastor to set and manage the meeting agenda as opposed to the senior/lead pastor-that makes a lot of sense!

In Counseling Room

The success or failure of your formal counseling ministry largely rests upon what you do BEFORE and AFTER every session. In preparation, prayerfully set an agenda at least 24 hours before for your meeting and preview it verbally before your counselees say or do anything in the session. As soon as the consultation is done and while it is still fresh in your mind, write down some takeaways and points of action to pursue in your next time together. Have penciled in, beforehand, when you prefer to meet for the next session as well as how many sessions total you plan to meet with the counselee. All of this preparation keeps you from being a perpetual “crutch” to the counselee that needs to be ultimately self-sufficient and self-feeding with the help of the Lord’s Spirit and Word.

Practical Takeaways: Initially hand out a “Personal Data Inventory” to gather an overview of the problem and person that must be filled out before you even schedule the initial consultation. Write out your questions and teaching moments in the lefthand column of a sheet of paper and leave space on the right side for the responses of those you counsel. Think through the “homework” (practical assignments to do between sessions) that you will give with the flexibility to adjust if needed. (Upon request, I would be happy to email any of the above forms that we use at North Life Counseling Ministry.)

In the Pulpit

Before I launch in to this arena of preparation, may I acknowledge that every preacher/teacher is wired differently and will process sermon preparation in their own, Spirit-led manner. One well-known preacher describes his process as the following: “I pick out the title and text either weeks or days ahead of time because I have to get it to the worship guys by Tuesday. But I don’t study it, and I don’t write or work on a sermon until Friday morning. I devote all of Friday to sermon preparation. If I need to I will stay up all night. My pattern is not to be followed by anybody except those who are wired exactly like I am, which is probably no one.” I almost cannot believe this is his method and definitely have realized that I am not that gifted.

With that being said, far too many of our sermons, the one preached by average-wired guys like me, are regularly underdeveloped because we are microwaving them when they need slow-cooked for not just days but weeks! Last-minute sermons are rarely Spirit-form and Spirit-led. Far too much of our flesh creeps in. In my still-learning opinion, the best sermons and lessons have their genesis a month or more in advance. This allows time for the sketchy thinking and hot-takes to filter out and the rich illustrations and interconnected spiritual-with-spiritual perspective of the entire Bible to further enter with illumination and unction. This required foresight lends itself to less topical/textual preaching and more expository-I tend to do most of the first type on special days and the balance of my sermons in a book of the the Bible study. To be direct with you after almost two decades of preaching, I can tell when my own or the sermon of another was framed by only the previous week’s study. And I believe it not only leaves the preacher and others in our ministries but also God wanting more!

Practical Takeaways: Develop an annual preaching calendar by late summer of the previous year. While it will obviously be adjusted as the Spirit leads through the circumstances of the body, this helps tremendously with the church calendar formation that was mentioned above. Make sure to preach the whole, balanced counsel of God by regularly alternating between more theological and more practical series. Lastly, determine to get ahead by just one extra sermon on a lighter week and once you are ahead the workload on a weekly basis is the same as before you chose to “minister ahead!”

As an example, I am currently about 5 weeks ahead. This allows me to maintain the following weekly schedule primarily from 7:30-Noon:

Monday-Write a new Sunday AM sermon.

Tuesday-Write a new Sunday PM sermon.

Wednesday-Work on non-study aspects of new sermons-graphics, illustrations, small group questions, etc.

Thursday-Take day off.

Friday-Review in detail all morning the coming Sunday’s AM and PM sermons. (This gets my mind and heart back in tune with a sermon that originated awhile ago.)

Saturday-Review again for about an hour each the coming Sunday’s sermons.

Sunday 7:30 AM-Prayerfully review again the AM sermon and slides.

Sunday 4:00 PM-Prayerfully review again the PM sermon and slides.

While I am sure that your routine will likely vary considerably from mine, my prayer is that this post will inspire you with the tremendous upside to getting out ahead of your God-entrusted ministry. Far too often we allow the tyranny of the urgent to displace the sacredness of the important in our service to the Lord. Mark Cole puts it well when he writes, “Preparation positions people correctly, and it is often the difference between winning and losing. A frustrating thing about preparation is that it usually takes much more time than the actual event you prepare for. And the preparation is far less glamorous than the event. Spectacular achievement comes from unspectacular preparation.

As Peter reminds us in closing, we need a “ready mind” that is eagerly anticipating the return of the Chief Shepherd (Who is thinking ahead to say the least) not a mercenary mindset that just getting through the next moment:

1 Pe 5:1-5 “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.”

Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash