How to Catalogue the Sermons You Preach
Over the course of a ministry career, a preacher is going to spend countless of hours reading, studying, writing, and delivering sermons. I am of the opinion that most sermons and self-prepared Bible lessons should be saved in a personal catalogue by every Bible teacher. A few reasons you might want to do this are:
- to draw on for future reference
- to pull out and preach when you are in a crunch
- to track your own progress and spiritual growth over time
- to remember when, where, and what you have preached
- to share with younger preachers as a means of mentoring them (sitting down with them and going over a text, not just handing them paper)
- to share with members of the congregation who missed it (not always a good idea but can be)
A sermon catalogue, when added to over the course of many years, becomes a treasure trove of one’s life and work. I have only been in ministry full-time for about 5 years and already my sermon and Bible-teaching catalogue is quite extensive. Here is how I organize it.
Step 1 – Make Notes for Everything
Ideally, every sermon preached, every class lead, and every Bible study you teach should have an electronic paper trail. Even if you don’t use your notes to teach from, you should make some and keep it in your records. Some pastors like to keep paper copies of their material. Personally, my teaching catalogue is digital-only and so I’ll be sharing tips from that perspective.
Every document should include:
- An easy-to-reference title
- The location and date when the content was taught
- An outline of the notes/material
If you are a person who likes to give your sermons catchy titles, you might want to consider saving them on your computer with more memorable names. If your titles are obscure, the likelihood of you remembering what the content actually is based on the file name ten years later is pretty small. Save your documents with a name that makes it fairly plain what the material is about.
For example, one sermon I preached recently at our church has the simple file name “Living Under Grace”. When opened, the top two lines of the document appear like this:
Living Under Grace
July 6, 2014 @ Bible Fellowship Church
Immediately I know the basic information about this sermon. It’s easy for me to skim the details of my notes from there.
Step 2 – Categorize Your Content
I like to save my teaching notes in files on my laptop. Because, over time, I have taught in a number of formats, I catalogue all of my content under several kinds of teaching. So, when I open up the documents section of my computer and click on “Teaching”, my subfolders are:
- Bible Study
To date, this list encompasses every style of teaching I have ever done (funerals are in a separate folder). Articles are anything I have written for a blog, newspaper, or website. Bible Study is for any self-prepared Bible study I have ever taught, with subfolders that title each series of studies, such as “End Times” and “Spiritual Gifts”. Typically, I like to file my stuff away by content rather than date. Camps are for notes from talks I have given at summer camps or retreats. Conferences are for any talks I have given as a guest speaker at a conference. Seminars are for any seminars I have led. I save them not by content but by what event I used them for. Sermons are for any sermon preached, typically Sunday mornings. Youth are for all of the messages I have given with our youth ministry.
Step 3 – Create Sub-folders
Creating a good sub-folder system is essential to quickly finding the information you are looking for. This part you may want to vary from my own methods; use whatever works best for you. However, I have found that my own subfolder system works pretty well and so I share it with the belief that it is a solid system for most people to use.
Without giving you every sub-folder in my library, I share with you a few examples of each of the categories to give you an idea of what it looks like:
- Church Website
- Youth ministry websites
- Bible Study
- End Times
- Spiritual Gifts
- 2010 Galilean (What’s Holding You Back?)
- 2011 All-Tribes (Truth)
- 2013 All-Tribes (Total Surrender)
- Questions Conference
- Chosen Conference
- Winter Blast
- Chosen – Youth Leaders Breakout Sessions
- Spring Folly
- Books of the Bible
- Senior High
- Junior High
Based on this example, I think you get the idea of how it works. Use whatever categories will help the material be easiest to track down.
Step 4 – Keep Using Subfolders!
The categories of Sermons and Youth are many layers deep. To get to an actual document, I often have to click 5 or 6 folders deep. This may feel tedious, but it actually keeps things very well organized. For a while, early in my career, I tried to keep everything only one file deep. After about 3 years I realized this system was jamming up my file folder listing. It became far too long, and required me scrolling through dozens of documents. To correct this, I took the time to create as many sub-folders as it took to make everything quickly retrievable.
For example, each sermon I have ever preached is filed either under “Books of the Bible” or “Topical”. If the sermon is part of a series on a book of the Bible, or if the sermon is solely based on one text of Scripture, it gets filed into “Books of the Bible”. If you were to click on that file, inside of it are files named after books of the Bible (only the ones I have taught from). Then, I make sure every file in that category is saved by it’s Scripture reference. For example, if I click on Teaching > Sermons > Books of the Bible > 1 Corinthians, one file I find there is named “Defending the Gospel (1 Cor 15:1-11)”. Within 5 seconds I can retrieve all of my sermon notes from a single text of the Bible.
It works similarly under the category of “Topical”. Topical sermons are based not on a single text (necessarily) but usually a gathering of multiple texts to see what the Bible says on a particular issue. When I click on that file, I find sub-folders like:
- God’s Will
…and a whole host of others. Then, by clicking on a category (such as Evangelism) I find documents like “Those Who Have Not Heard”. In doing so, I can see quickly what topics I have hit on at a glance.
The beauty of cataloguing sermons in this fashion is that you add folders only as you need to. If you preach a sermon on parenting but have no “Parenting” or “Family” folder under “Topical Sermons”, you simply add one and file your sermon under it. This develops your library as you go. Same thing goes for a specific text. If you preach out of Haggai for the first time, you simply create a folder called “Haggai” under “Books of the Bible” and save your document with the Scripture reference in it.
My youth group messages are saved in files based by date rather than subject, because I like to keep track of what stuff I have hit on over the past 2 years or so. Because of the high turnover in youth ministry (as teens are only in it for 4-6 years at best), I want to make sure each generation of students is getting a good range of content.
Step 5 – Build As You Go
It’s important to keep on top of your growing catalogue. If you find that your notes don’t seem to fit into any current folders, simply create a new line of folders that it does fit into. The only suggestion I would have is to keep your file names somewhat generic, or else you will wind up with literally thousands of files. For example, one file named “Money” is better than having several files named “Saving”, “Giving”, and “Stewardship”. You don’t need to get that specific – just enough to narrow your search down quickly.
Step 6 – Back It Up
Your teaching library is valuable. You have poured hundreds and even thousands of hours into all that it represents. Please, take time to back it up onto an external hard drive or in a cloud. Don’t let all your hard work be wiped away instantly because of a technological glitch!
Step 7 – Make It Yours
Hopefully you can take some of the ideas here and tailor them to fit your needs. My guess is that some people will want to file primarily by date and not by content, in which case you will need to tweak this system quite a bit. Either way, I think this is enough to get you pointed in the right direction. Ideally your sermon catalogue becomes a great resource that is easy to navigate and quick to refer to. There is power in being organized!
I am the Executive Assistant to our Lead Pastor and have decided to take on cataloguing his past 8 years of sermons as my personal project. Your suggestions have been extremely helpful. Do you save the sermon as PDFs and put them in each folder that they apply to? Or, do you create a link to each document and place the link in the folder? I appreciate any other info you have to share.
I keep the actual document (Pages file) in each folder. I also put the date and location preached for each sermon directly under the title. I should probably go one step further and create a master template of sermons, something like a spreadsheet that contains every sermon, the date, the main passage or topic, special event, and then update that document every week. It would help because sometimes I catalogue a sermon under particular passage while it could ALSO go under a specific topic, which then can make it harder to locate. I suppose I could duplicate the document and put it in two places but I haven’t bothered to do that yet. For example, if I preach a Christmas sermon out of the birth narrative in Luke, should I save it in the Luke folder or the Christmas folder? So my current system does have some holes in it. I would definitely suggest a master list that could be easily sorted by searching or by columns. Then it wouldn’t matter as much how and where you save the documents. Food for thought.
How do you, if you do any, store scholarly articles or papers. For example I think I should store my papers from seminary but can’t decide should I do this under book of the Bible since it’s on a specific book?
I have some of my school materials saved in a “School” folder, with subfolders for each class. I don’t reference them a whole lot though. Mostly the textbooks themselves.
I am literally looking for ideas of what “topics” people use in their organizing. I would love it if you could send me a screenshot of some of yours 😅
Under topical I have these categories: Addiction, Backsliding, Bible, Christmas, Community, Culture, Discipleship, Evangelism, False Teaching, Glory of God, God’s Will, Grace, Growth, Holiness, Idolatry, Jesus, Judging, Kids, Love, Men, Mystery, Parenting, Preaching, Religion, Salvation, Spiritual Warfare, Trinity, Work. I’m sure I have covered many other topics besides these but that’s what I’ve got listed. Most of my sermons I list by Scripture reference instead though.