Learn a Process That Reduces Frustration & Helps You Become More Effective
It’s that time of year. Most pastors are coming back from vacations and sabbaticals. A new ministry year will kick off in a few weeks. It’s always exciting, but it can also be stressful.
I sometimes meet pastors who have great processes, but truth be told, many senior pastors we work with feel their process could be improved. So, this week, Amy and I decided to share the best practices we’re seeing when it comes to planning a message series.
We give you a practical process in this episode that’s easy to learn and implement. I’ve seen it create alignment and optimize creativity, while still allowing for flexibility.
In this episode, Amy and I dig into…
- The most mistakes we see pastors make when it comes to message series planning, and how those mistakes create frustration on the team
- Why you need regular “listening sessions” with your key leaders in different parts of the ministry to hear their ideas
- A simple process to create a 12-month series plan that stays flexible while also setting up your team to win when it comes to creativity, mission and outreach
- How to align your budget and resources to the message series strategy
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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. One of the central elements of every church’s weekly gathering is the sermon, yet many churches struggle to find the right rhythm for planning their messages and the other aspects of the service that surround it. This week on the podcast, Tony and Amy explore the best practices and message series planning and practical steps you can take to create a focused process. Make sure before you listen to subscribe to get the show notes in your email each week. You’ll get one email with all of the info, including our leader conversation guide, the resources we mentioned and bonus resources go along with the content. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. You can also grab this week’s show notes by visiting theunstuckgroup.com/episode105. And now, here’s the conversation on message series planning with Tony and Amy.
Tony: 00:57 Amy, it’s hard to believe, but summer’s almost over. Can you believe it?
Amy: 01:02 Why would you start the podcast by telling us, summer’s almost over. It’s just depressing. Remember, I actually live in Minnesota where we’re frozen solid half of the year.
Tony: 01:11 I know, but it was beautiful. A few weeks ago our whole leadership team was in Minnesota. You were so kind to host us, but I get it. Summer’s closing down, but here in Atlanta or as we affectionately like to call it hot Atlanta, we’re, we’re actually, we’re ready for cooler weather.
Amy: 01:30 Oh, I’m not, I guess I’m ready for some football. As of now. My Minnesota Vikings are still in the run.
Tony: 01:39 We’ll get to the Browns later. Maybe. Well, the reason for today’s conversation, in addition to the weather forecast, most pastors are coming back from their sabbaticals. They’re coming back from their summer vacations. If you were lucky, you had one. And I have to guess that now you’re heads down getting ready for a new ministry year that will kick off here in a few weeks. And that’s exciting, but it can also be stressful because it’s the start of a new ministry run. And so today I want to talk through one of the big responsibilities every pastor has. And that’s the planning process for a message series. Some pastors have great processes, but many senior pastors we work with feel their process could be improved and some really don’t have a solid process developed yet. And Amy, because you champion this at your church and because you work with and coach a lot of senior pastors in this area, I thought I’d start asking you to share some of your learnings and insights in this area.
Amy: 02:42 Now I’d love to, I actually love this topic. You know me, I’m a systems girl and I believe the process can be our friend, especially in the message series process.
Tony: 02:52 That’s right. So as you work with pastors, what are some of the challenges you see in this area of series planning?
Amy: 03:02 Well first there’s either no plan or it’s just one to two months out. And I think while that might work for the senior pastor’s writing rhythm, it often doesn’t work well for the organization, especially as the organization gets larger and more about that in a minute. But another challenge I see is just frustration. I see senior pastors that are frustrated because people, you know, Tony, are always asking them for more details about their message or upcoming messages and they have like what are the message points, what’s the key takeaway, what’s the scripture? Are you going to do this or that? And while the pastor might have some of those details for the week or next week’s message, they don’t have that for the series that starts next month – at least many of them don’t. And then meanwhile, the folks that support the message or ministry leaders who want to get around the message are frustrated because the pastor doesn’t have that and they think they need that to get their work done.
Amy: 03:57 Right. And the third one, which is probably one of the biggest ones for me, is there’s just when you just plan in little short spurts, there’s no big picture aspect to the planning. So, in other words, there may be some thought, too. We want to do a topical series, then a book of the Bible, a financial series, et cetera, you know, as a pastor puts the plan together. But there aren’t any strategic conversations happening related to how ministry initiatives can support and integrate into the plan. So, Tony, I would like it to the strategic planning challenges that churches have when churches don’t pause, you know this, when they don’t pause, think through and agree on the priorities and plans for the next year, everybody just keeps doing what they think they should do, but there’s no real alignment or synergy to those efforts. And I think the same is true with message planning.
Tony: 04:45 So the word picture I would provide here, I mean you referenced your Vikings earlier. Let’s think about a football team. What you described just now is kind of like the quarterback who doesn’t huddle with the offense before each play. And it’s really hard to win football games if the running back, the wide receivers, the offensive line members are all running different plays at the same time. And it’s not unusual for us to see that in churches when it comes to teaching and series planning. Isn’t that true, Amy?
Amy: 05:18 Hmm. I think you’re just still sore about your Cleveland Browns
Tony: 05:22 Because that’s what their offense has looked like the last 20 years?
Amy: 05:28 That’s our line. If you want to do church like the Browns do football, then don’t plan.
Tony: 05:32 All right, that’s right.
Amy: 05:36 My quick list. Anything you’d add, Tony?
Tony: 05:39 Yes. Maybe this isn’t out there as much as it used to, but I’ve seen some churches have one series that runs for months, three months, six months, even an entire year working their way through a book of the Bible, like Romans as an example. And now this maybe isn’t a planning issue, but more of an issue with the plan. So first of all, you hear me right here: I love the Bible, okay, and I think people should read through Romans. I just think in today’s culture, keeping a series like that continuously engaging for 26 weeks, that can be a challenge. And we still find that series that run in spurts of about three to six weeks are most effective because each new series then gives your church the opportunity and the reminder to invite friends and family to the upcoming series. In other words, you want to create multiple on-ramps in the months ahead. So, Amy, with that in mind, how do you coach churches to approach their series planning?
Amy: 06:42 Sure. Well, let me give you an overview. The first thing I would challenge the senior pastors to do is just schedule a time to make the plan. Like grab your calendar, grab two, three days where you can get out of the office, away from the grind and actually give your best energies to this. And I often encourage pastors to choose a location that’s just inspiring for them. So don’t go to a Starbucks, go to a cabin, go somewhere where you can exhale a little bit and really get some time with the Lord and do your planning there. So schedule that time. And then the second thing, of course, is to prepare for that time. And I will give this disclaimer, Tony, this is where it really helps to have a weekend services director at your church; someone that the senior pastor can lean on to help pull some of this prep together.
Amy: 07:32 Someone who knows them, knows who they like to listen to, knows the various pastors that they follow. But even if you don’t have that person, you can still prepare. But couple things specifically, I would pull together a listening session with some of your key leaders to hear their ideas. Listen to your groups’ leader, listen to your serving teams later, the pastors around you. The whole purpose is to hear what ideas they might have for the upcoming year. After all, that’s the team that’s really aligned to help you accomplish what you want to get done that year. So a listening session. Also pulled together some samples of what other churches are doing. I think it’s good to be inspired by other great teachers and then invite a few people, even if you’re really, really an introvert, invite a few people to actually join you for part of that time away. And what I mean by that is if you’re going to be gone for three days, take an evening, that first night and a full next day with two or three people that energize you and that understand how you teach, that can help you brainstorm, kind of fill you up, prime the pump for that solitude time that you’ll have afterward.
Tony: 08:41 Yeah. Amy, let me just interrupt and offer a couple of additional thoughts here. First of all, you mentioned the weekend services director and you and I actually had a conversation on a podcast about that. So we’ll include a link to that podcast in the show notes because if you were thinking about series planning, you really ought to think about the person who could be helping you with this critical aspect of your church’s ministry. But secondly, as you’re thinking of and preparing for this extended conversation about your roadmap for future series, I really want to encourage you here to keep your mission field in mind. Who are, who are the people within your mission field you’re trying to reach? What are the questions they’re asking about? God and life and take some time to pray through those topics before you start developing your road map for the future when it comes to teaching and future series.
Amy: 09:38 Yeah, that’s really good. I’m going to add one more thing onto that weekend services director role. If you don’t have it, find someone who can help you prepare for this because I find that if senior pastors don’t have that preparation done for the time away, that time away becomes like a little sabbatical. Like they’re tired. They just, you know, ran the run. They had three days away on the calendar and it can be an exhale instead of planning time if you know for not ready for it.
Tony: 10:04 Well, and I find too, having a completely blank sheet of paper in front of me is not helpful. Right? You need to have some framework for thought process and conversation and then ultimately decision making about where I’m going next. If I’m just going into a time of way with a clean blank sheet, it’s not going to be productive. It’s not going to be renewing and we’re not going to come out with a plan.
Amy: 10:28 Right. Exactly. All right, so the third step I would say is you want to add this time away. You want a pencil in a 12-month roadmap and honestly, at this stage, you don’t need a lot of detail. I would just start by identifying what types of series you want to cover over the next year and keep in mind to feedback from your listening session and Tony what you just added with what people need or are wanting to hear that are in your mission field. And then after you get those series kind of longlisted, then pencil in a potential order that could go throughout the year. For example, you might want to do a series about parenting in the fall when school starts followed by a vision series followed by a book study maybe on James and then a series leading into Christmas that would be easy to invite others to just start chucking out those to fill up the calendar, and then look at that 12 months and see if you like the flow.
Amy: 11:20 And once that settled, take each series, spend some time with each one of them and see if you can break out potential message topics for each week. No topics are set in stone at this time, you’re just trying to build out that plan. So I would think by the end of those two or three days, if you can get that finish line, you’re well on your way to having a plan because when you come back, my next step would be to have a trusted colleague look it over. So someone who’s not been in the weeds, have a person or a few people again that you trust, look it over. I mean, I remember when I used to do this for my senior pastor and he’d come back and had a great plan, but I would go, hey, looks like we’re talking about adultery Mother’s Day. Should we change that or do you really want to launch a big series the Sunday of Labor Day weekend? And of course, he didn’t.
Amy: 12:10 But that’s the whole purpose of that conversation. Let me pass this off, have someone take it to the next level. Then this next step is really probably one of the most important ones and I’m gonna describe it this way. Once you have your series, let’s say there’s 13 of them for the next year or 12, we’ll just go 12. Let me disclaim this by saying every series needs to be great. You know, of course, every series needs to, you need to be ready for it. But I call them A, B and C series. The A series which I would limit probably to two, and it depends a little bit on your budget and energy, but those A series for me are the ones where you really want to go lights out on getting your congregation to invite that have high appeal to the people who don’t know Jesus in your community.
Amy: 12:59 It’s an easy invite and you’re going to put maybe marketing dollars behind it. Your strategic times, like that, could be the series before Christmas. It could be your fault kickoff, it could be leading into Easter or out of Easter. You can decide, but what are those two series that’s going to have priority marketing dollars put to? Next, are your B series and again two, maybe three of them can be B series, but these are the series that have a connection with your core discipleship ministry initiatives. They fit with your discipleship path. So maybe an easy one here would be if you are going to do a series on relationships or a series on marriage or you know, something along those lines, I’m guessing your group’s pastor would just perk up and say that would be a fantastic time to launch our groups for this next season.
Amy: 13:48 Or if you’re going to talk about generosity, my guess is someone on your team is going to go, man, we should build FPU around that: financial peace university. But look for those two or three B level ones that really aligned well with the ministry so that your ministry leaders can come alongside and start strategizing how to leverage that time. And then, of course, the rest are Cs and that just means we’ve identified the A’s and the B’s and I just alluded to it when the A’s are identified, now you’ve got people who want to get around that series and begin planning. They don’t need to know the message topic, they don’t need to know the key scripture, they just need to know this series we’re going to be putting the marketing efforts behind. And then these B series, same thing, you’re going to have helpers, actually senior pastors around you who are going to help really make that come off the page. So after that, you kind of have your road map for the year.
Tony: 14:37 Yes. Amy, that last point you just made it is pretty critical. You don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to make each series and each service bigger than the last. When every Sunday is the best Sunday ever, every Sunday becomes normal then at that point. And so, I just want to make sure that you’re highlighting those distinctive types of series throughout the year because that’ll give some encouragement for folks in your church to invite friends and family. But if you’re here, if they’re hearing every Sunday is going to be the biggest Sunday ever, it’s just going to become noise to them and they’re going to begin to tune that out. So it’s good. It’s good to create some rhythm. It’s good to create some breathing space between those various types of series that you just alluded to. Before we move on, Amy, you know, we are always encouraging churches to use team-based teaching. At what point in the process should they start to assign who’s going to teach what, which weekend is that? Does that happen now or does that happen later?
Amy: 15:40 That’s a really good question. By the way, if you do have a teaching team, which I hope you do, those couple of teachers are the great people to bring with you on your planning retreat for this. And depending on the synergy in that team, they may stay the entire time. But once that 12 months has landed and settled, the ABCs have been all identified, that’s the time for the senior pastor to kind of clock in his calendar. I would say for the year, and again, you’ve got some flexibility, but I would clock in when the senior pastor is going to be teaching which weeks he’s in and out and then have him assign the messages to the other team members.
Tony: 16:19 And then you’ll also identify not only where other team members will be teaching, but periodically you may want to bring in some guest speakers and things like that. And so you’ll have a rough idea of when those different teachers will be available and should be planning as well.
Amy: 16:35 I think Tony, I think the important part here is you don’t want to plan who’s going to be teaching and then do your message series planning. You want to do your series planning and then assign who’s going to be teaching.
Tony: 16:46 Yes. Good, good reminder. All right. So, Amy, you’ve talked through the process and what that looks like, but what are the benefits of having a process like this for series planning?
Amy: 16:56 There’s a lot of them, but probably two headlines for me. The first one, which I alluded to before, it creates alignment. It creates alignment between the weekend message, the big front door, and all the core ministries at the church. Now ministries can integrate in a strategic way with the weekend teaching. Years ago, I heard TD Jakes at a conference and he talked about preaching the announcements. That’s like, groups are starting next week, you know, Yati, Yati Yati. But if you align your group’s ministry with a message series that’s preaching the announcements and, uh, there’s a great book out there by Gino Wickman, it’s called “Get a Grip”, and I remember he also talked about this laser focus and it made me think of this as we were talking. He talks about the sun, you know, the sun showers the earth with billions of kilowatts of energy every day. And because all that energy is diffused by the air’s atmosphere, the worst thing that can happen is you get a little sunburn. And he says, “On the other hand, a laser beam uses just a few kilowatts of energy, but because that energy is tightly focused into a single direction, it can cut through steel, and that’s the power of focus.” So I think as churches, we don’t have billions of kilowatts of energy, but if we focus those few that we do in a single direction, I think you can truly accomplish some pretty amazing ministry.
Tony: 18:15 That’s good. I think you said a couple of benefits?
Amy: 18:21 Yes. The second one is I just believe it optimizes creativity. So it releases other leaders to support and optimize what can be done with the teaching. Of course, I let on the creative side, so once the creatives kind of know the road map, they can be released to go thinking about being more, what message topics lend themselves towards faith stories, what message illustrations could come in. Your communications department when they’re thinking about branding and now they know the A series and the B series, they’re just going to get added. It’s going to release them to start using their gifts. Just like the pastor can’t write a fantastic message, most of them starting on Friday and delivering on Sunday. Creatives can’t create great products if you release them on Wednesday and say you need it by Sunday. So just that prep time will really optimize creativity.
Tony: 19:07 All right, so Amy, I’ve heard the pushback. In fact, I’ve heard it so many times, I feel like I’m hearing voices in my head right now. So here’s the push-back: there was no way I can think about what I’m going to be teaching 12 months from now. Things can change. We could get a prompting from the Holy Spirit that we need to move in a different direction. I need more flexibility. I prepare messages at the last moment because I’m continually hearing from the voice of God and I don’t want to close down how the spirit’s moving in my life because that might impact how the spirit’s moving in our church. So when you hear push-back like that, um, how do you respond? How do you respond to the pastor that believes they’re going to need to change? They can’t stick to the plan.
Amy: 19:57 Right. Well, I do think you have to create a plan number one that works for your senior pastor. I think the plan that we just talked through, any senior pastor can adapt to, but I know that there are some more that are a little bit more last-minute are they immerse in their message starting on a Monday or Tuesday. So I think you have to have a system that fits him or her and that has flexibility in it. And so, I think my pastor who I worked with for several years, he was probably that quintessential week of writer when we first started this process and we eventually built in a process, a monthly meeting, and this would be with me as the weekend services director and the teaching team and we would just look out at the next three months and confirm them, confirm this is still the road map we’re doing.
Amy: 20:40 And if there was any pause, we talked through the impact of that. And so that he didn’t feel boxed in a corner at a meeting by the way too. That’s where we’d pitch creative ideas that were coming up. Um, you know, it’s a little bit closer now in the purview of the senior pastor so he can consider that and at that meeting, you hear the senior pastor’s heart and, and where he feels things are going. So there is flexibility. I took it one step further at that. At the end of that meeting I kind of felt like those next three months were kind of inked in, now they were penciled in before, but now we ink them in and then we look at the next four to six-months just as a reminder of what’s coming up. And again, in case there’s anything that might need to start shifting. So if you look at that once a month, you’re going to be able to think to manage it.
Tony: 21:26 That’s good. And if you do this right, if you do have a good planning process, it really does create flexibility for both the teaching pastors and for the artists. Actually, I’ve seen this play out with pastors that had two distinctly different approaches to message preparation. One of the senior pastors I worked with, he was a week of, he really had a sense months in advance of what he was going to be teaching on. But it wasn’t until the week of the message being delivered where the deep preparation process happened, impact that he was still tweaking messages, you know, in the day leading up to when it was going to be delivered. On the other hand, I had a senior pastor I worked with, he was preparing messages weeks in advance and knew almost a month out, “This is exactly what I’m going to be teaching”. In both cases, there was a long-term plan.
Tony: 22:23 So both the teaching team and the artists, the weekend services, the creatives team knew what was coming and could be in preparation mode on both sides of what it takes to pull off great series and great services. Um, but it’s an example of having that plan in advance and having good systems to support it. It gave flexibility to both types of teachers and their distinctly different approaches to ministry. So, this is if you do this right, it really is going to be more effective for the teachers, the communicators. And if you leverage a process like you’ve described Amy to focus these teaching plans, you’re also creating an appropriate road map for the creative and the communications teams as well to leverage their gifts. So this really can be a win-win for both the teachers and the artist. Amy, any final thoughts on this topic?
Amy: 23:21 No. I think we covered a lot of ground today. I would just encourage our senior pastors, if you don’t have a process or one that’s working as effectively as you wish it were, just be sure to download the show notes. Take a look at them, think about it, look for those people you can get around you and I encourage you to take your next step in beefing up your message planning process.
Sean: 23:41 Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, we’re working every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches by guiding them through specifically designed experiences that focus them on vision, strategy, and action. If that’s a need in your church, let’s talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast, help us get the content out by subscribing, giving us a review, and telling your friends. Next week we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week everyone.