Unashamed Workmen 9: Douglas Sean O'Donnell

April 7, 2015 | by: Bob Schilling | 0 comments

Posted in: Preaching Tags: Preaching, Book Review, Sermon Prep, Douglas Sean O'Donnell

Nearing the end of this terrific book, I see that (at least in my estimation) they've left some of the best for last. This is the ninth preacher in a book spotlighting the weekly routine of ten expository preachers:

"Unashamed Workmen: How Expositors Prepare and Preach"
edited by Rhett Dodson

Jason Helopoulos, an Assistant Pastor with Kevin DeYoung (popular and solid author) at "University Reformed Church" in East Lansing, Michigan, writes this of the book, Unashamed Workmen, 

"What a privilege pastors have in preaching the living Word of God each week. And here is a book to encourage us in that responsibility. Whether the reader is a pastor fresh out of seminary or a seasoned veteran of the pulpit, he will find these pages to be remarkably helpful and practical. Prepare to be inspired, challenged and exhorted." 

This chapter was a pungent, blunt, concise, clear, and invigorating exhortation to faithful, whole-hearted preaching - all conveyed through an autobiographical description of a week's work by Douglas O'Donnell, an instructor for the Charles Simeon Trust, a PCA pastor and currently a lecturer at Queensland Theological College in Brisbane, Australia while completing his doctorate.  

Every chapter has been an encouragement. It truly is beautiful to see the unity of diversity in the Christian Church. Main things held in common, and lots of leeway and legitimate dissimilarity between them. We've got just a couple more left - here's where we've been and where we're headed in the final two weeks of this series:

- Peter Adam, St. Jude's Carlton in Melbourne Australia
- Rhett Dodson, Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Hudson, Ohio
- Iain Duguid, Christ Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Grove City, Pennsylvania
- Ajith Fernando, serves as Teaching Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka
- David Jackman, former President of the Proclamation Trust, retired, London
- Simon Manchester, St Thomas in North Sydney, Australia
- David Meredith, Smithton Church, Iverness, Scotland
- Josh Moody, College Church in Wheaton, Illinois
     - Today: Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Senior Lecturer at Queensland Theological College, Brisbane, Australia
- Richard D. Phillips, Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina

Section 9: Douglas Sean O'Donnell, Spirit-Filled Sitzfleisch, The Prayerful Art of Sermonizing

O'Donnell is a graduate of Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and while at Wheaton he was an intern under Pastor David Helm at College Church. He opens this chapter with a couple of formative anecdotes from his time under David Helm, the second of which is this, 

"Helm had us take a pencil and pad of paper and go across the street to the front lawn of Wheaton College's campus to spend thirty minutes writing down everything we saw..."

"That exercise in observing was life-changing. I saw for the first time how little I saw. Being forced to write down things like...showed me what Helm was intending to show us: that stopping to make observations of the obvious is an important attribute of the effective preacher." (207-208)

That experience forms the basis for his title of this chapter, "Spirit-Filled Sitzfleisch."

"'Sitzfleisch' is a German word comprised of the words 'sitzen' (to sit) and 'fleisch' (flesh). To preach God's Word well it takes 'sitting flesh,' that is, the ability to stay glued to a chair - for at least thirty minutes! - in order to see what God's Word says." (208)

His point is well taken. Spirit-filled preaching begins with Spirit-filled study. 

O'Donnell has heart and passion; he's comfortable in his own skin and he's not afraid to be a little unorthodox. I find him to be very refreshing. To be as frank as he is requires humility, to be a clear as he is requires proven skill. He's a practitioner worth listening to. Here's the overview of his pastoral week:

     Monday: Sit, Mark-up, Generate an Outline
     Tuesday: Filling-in the Outline
     Wednesday: Day Off
     Thursday-Saturday: Writing the Manuscript

Monday: Sit, Mark-up, Outline

On Sunday at some point he prints out the text of the following week's sermon, usually just in English, sometimes with the Greek or Hebrew text below. Then on Monday morning he spends half the day sitting, reading the text, praying, sitting, and thinking. The whole time is spent observing the text and structure with the goal of formulating a homiletical outline. He adds in a footnote here:

"The art of exegesis to me is purely a homiletical outline. I am looking to get this text into a sermon. Some might disagree with my cut-out-the-middle-man approach. So be it." (209)

Those are the kinds of refreshing statements that fill this brief chapter, and make it for me both a delight and a profit to read.

He's circling, highlighting, drawing lines, jotting down lots of observations and questions. "This includes underlining key words, circling potential important phrases, and thinking through possible applications. It also includes taking into consideration the context of the book canon." (209)

What the prominent New Testament scholar Adolf Schlatter said of the science of scholarship - that it is 'first observation, second observation, third observation,' I say of preaching. Good preaching is derived from pleasurable yet painstaking observation of God's Word." (209)

His situation at the time of the writing this chapter was such that he had weekly meetings with an intern. His Monday afternoon meetings with him always involved repeating what he'd been doing during the morning. He'd have the intern study the text, list observations, ask questions and take a stab at a sermon outline. This dual input into the text he often found very fruitful for his preparation. 

Tuesday: Filling-in the Outline

He mentions here a conscientious pattern of his in studying the original languages for at least ten minutes a day. He bemoans his weaknesses in language skills but proves to be a stimulating and exemplary model in working hard, consistently to grow in that discipline. 

Tuesday is primarily his day to spend with dead guys - commentaries (though many profitable commentators are still living). His day "to get a little help from his friends." Aptly, he says, "To me commentaries don't merely help with difficult issues, correct my interpretations, and add exegetical insights, they trigger thoughts. Put differently, they open up my exegetical imagination." (210)

Blessed as we are to live in a day with many, many helpful commentaries, Douglas makes a blunt point and another unique statement:

"For a preacher to neglect commentaries altogether is the height of sloth and stupidity. For a preacher to use only one or two is till reclining on the La-Z-boy of laziness. I use between five and thirty commentaries a week. Call me crazy? That's fine. I'd rather than be crazy than lazy...Hanging out with commentators in the study or at Starbucks is the world's greatest Bible study. Don't neglect attending." (210-211)

He uses the skeleton of his homiletical outline and fills in insights and reflections under corresponding headings. After hours of culling quotes and thoughts and his own observations, by the end of his day he has a database of material from which to draw in the composing of his sermon. 

Wednesday: Day Off

What he means by "day off" may be different than what most men mean. And here I found O'Donnell again to be refreshing and admirable. He does little else on Wednesdays except to write books and articles. He quotes John Piper from "The Marks of a Spiritual Leader" - 

"A Leader does not see the pressure of work as a curse but as a glory. He does not desire to fritter away his life in excess leisure. He loves to be productive."

This is biblical rest - not the cessation of activity, but the refreshing engagement in activities that are not your ordinary work. This is exactly how I feel about my Mondays off. Mondays for me, frequently are a day to read - but to read whatever I want, or whatever I might currently be reading through for my own soul's delight or education. I like reading. And even though I do a lot of reading for sermon prep and pastoral labor, there's a kind of reading on my day off that is reinvigorating and restful. So also, sometimes on a Sunday afternoon - though usually for me, on a Sunday afternoon I enjoy a movie or television series show as an enjoyable way to relax after preaching. 

He mentions an aside, while on the topic of resting and our use of time which is worth quoting almost in full:

"What I have for you is a word of warning: don't procrastinate. Sermon-prep procrastinators are the lowliest forms of life. (You might laugh at that line, but I don't) John Piper wrote, 'Lazy people cannot be leaders,' I'll add to that, 'Procrastinators cannot be preachers.' I know that we shepherd people who have real physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. I know that we have technological temptations - phones, e-mails, texts, blog reading, blog posting, web surfing, etc. But I also know that our calling requires us to sit and study the Scriptures. Listen, sermon preparation is sacred time...Yet, sadly, too few pastors are in the habit of getting to this sacred duty and delight early in the week. The foolish preacher procrastinates. Don't play the fool. I won't pity you, and neither will the congregation..." (211-212)

Hard work. That theme has come up again and again from the lips of these proven expositors. There is no secret thing to know or easy way to go when it comes to faithful preaching. Sit at your desk, says O'Donnell, stand for a spell if you need to, walk if that's how you get your reflective juices going - but stay at the task, wrestling like Jacob, and don't let go until He blesses you (Gen. 32:26). 

A man needs to unstring the bow regularly, but there are often better ways to do that than on the couch or in the recliner. Refresh yourself with avocations - gardening, hiking, or working on a car if that is one of your loves. Take up painting, indulge your Sudoku tablet, write, read, cook or spend some time in your woodshop. Yes, rest, but again, in words borrowed from O'Donnell's,

- better to crazy then lazy - 

Thursday-Saturday: Writing the Manuscript

 Rarely do I write in the column of a book, "Amen 1000%" - but I did so in this section, and could've repeated it a number of times. Ponder these quotes. Some of them I know will resonate deeply with my fellow laborers. And if you're a brother in the pew - which all of us are to one degree or another, these words ought to cause you to pray to the Lord of the harvest, 'Oh Lord, give us preachers with hearts like this.'

I preface these quotes with this obvious qualification: You don't have to agree with every jot and tittle of a man's convictions to still admire and love the man of strong convictions. I happen to agree with most of what he says here, but what I most appreciate about what I'm reading from Douglas O'Donnell is his passion and esteem for the honor of the sacred desk. Hear his heart (emphasis mine),

"Each Sunday I am preparing to give a State of the Union speech regarding our union with God and our union with other believers."

"I'm not sure I believe that the sermon is the highest art form, but I do believe that it is the God-designed forum for communicating the most important truths in the universe."

"A high view of preaching, with a humble view of oneself, as the preacher, goes a long way to producing a solid sermon (slightly modified)." (212)


"I manuscript because this charge to communicate God's Word matters. I read the manuscript in the pulpit for the same reason. If you don't do the second, I'll leave that to your freedom in Christ. If you don't do the first, I'll reprimand you. Sit down please." (212)

I heartily agree with his point here - especially as he opens it up in the next couple of paragraphs. I wouldn't word it "read the manuscript in the pulpit" as he does in the paragraph above - but I think he's saying the same thing as this: "I write a manuscript because this charge to communicate God's Word matters. I preach from the manuscript for the same reason." And his caveat is perfect, "If you don't do the second, I'll leave that to your freedom in Christ. If you don't do the first, I'll reprimand you. Sit down please."

This is what he develops next - especially for young preachers, those beginning a pulpit ministry: write out your sermon in full. And his recommendation, as would be mine, is that especially early in your ministry, get to know your manuscript well, and preach from a full manuscript. When you know what you're saying, of course liberties can and should occasionally be taken while you're preaching. But your primary concern, as a preacher who shall give an account for your shepherding (Jam. 3:1; 2 Tim. 4:1-2; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-5) is to handle the word carefully, faithfully and accurately (2 Tim. 2:15). "Take pains with these things," says Paul (1 Tim. 4:15-16, NASV). If the manuscript in the pulpit is Saul's armor for you, by all means, exercise your freedom in Christ and preach from abbreviated notes. But maybe heed the counsel of others and take some time to build some homiletical reservoirs of wisdom in your soul before you venture into the sea of extemporaneity. Hear Professor O'Donnell, 

"A Jonathan Edwards scholar once shared with me how Edwards' early sermons were meticulously written out, while his latter ones were less so. From that change he deduced that it had nothing to do with laziness or a switch in methodology (i.e., that he became a 'preach-without-notes' preacher), but rather because after decades of preaching he actually knew what to say. I advise younger preachers to manuscript until they can actually trust that what they are going to say about God's Word is both accurate and edifying." (213)


His next words are very real, very O'Donnellish (I'm getting to know him while reading him). As he humbly states, not necessarily to be imitated - never mimic another man's practice - but do imbibe something of this spirit:

"I don't know the total tally of hours [in the study] for each sermon, but I would guess I average about an hour a minute [a 35 minute message involving 35 hours of prep]. If that number sounds high, it might be. Perhaps I'm exaggerating to earn your respect. Or, perhaps I have just unearned it with that boast. Either way, I spend more time than any sane pastor with a wife and five children should. Don't pity me. Don't emulate me. Just pray for my wife." (213)

That is a man I can fist-pump and high-five! Again, not because this is the model necessarily to which we should all aspire - but because I want to be committed to doing whatever it takes, reasonably, to faithfully handle the Scriptures and to preach the Word with unction and power and boldness and clarity. The words of a man like this do me good, and they drive deeper and deeper the convictions that over time become the solid foundation and platform from which a man preaches, having given his heart and soul to the work to which he's been called, serving "not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord" (Col. 3:22).

I appreciate his take on Introductions, Outlines and Illustrations:

"...Introductions are important. They should attract your listener's attention, introduce the text's theme(s), and invite curiosity. The key to a good introduction is constant change: no two introductions should sound the same..."

"My sermon outline intentionally provides variety...The preacher should be like a good baseball pitcher...Don't be predictable." ("While you don't want to throw your congregation curveballs, you certainly don't what to throw them your 95 mph fastball each and every week.")

"Speaking of illustrations, I limit my illustrations to between zero and two per sermon. I won't defend my school of thought other than to say I find observations and applications of the Bible text so utterly interesting that sometimes leaving the text for some extra-biblical illustration irks me. Why pour milk on top of your filet? Hey, that's a pretty good illustration (!) and it is also a good illustration of many of the illustrations I use - witty one-line word-pictures. Jesus liked that stuff too." (213-214)

Do you see why I find him both unconventional and refreshing? He's also biblically blunt and straightforward on things that really matter:

"Exegesis, outline, applications, and illustrations are all part of the art form. We have to be good at all of them for the sermon to sing on Sunday. If you have no skills at exegesis, that's okay, there are other jobs out there. Check out Monster.com today. Exegesis is foundational. If you don't know how to handle the Word, get out of the pulpit until you do. Attend some Charles Simeon Trust workshops...read...study...." (214)

He concludes by recommending that preachers remain students of both preaching and writing. Read about preaching, listen to preaching, and make books on writing and rhetoric parts of your regular diet. 

As to "conclusions" in sermons, he confesses that this is his self-assessed Achilles' heel. 

"Thus, I only have four words of advice. First, read someone else on how to give powerful, tear-jerking conclusions. Second, a simple summary of the sermon's points, or a brief story that summarizes those same points or at least the last one, seems to work well enough. Third, never introduce your conclusion with the phrase, 'In conclusion.' Fourth, if all else fails, pause abruptly, lower your head, and end with an unrehearsed long, earnest prayer." (215)


Lots of good material. This is a man after Christ's heart and it did me good to attend this study with him.  

From time to time in this series, and in others, I've mentioned my own Achilles' heel: failing to give myself adequate time to craft, revise, edit and own my sermon manuscript - thus, many more times than not, essentially preaching a very diligently prepared "rough draft." Week by week I persevere, seeking to slay this homiletical dragon. These last two sections of this book have been particularly helpful to me in this area. Both of these men (relatively young men, by the way - at least in comparison to the other contributors I believe), Josh Moody and Douglas O'Donnell start their work-week by tackling right up front, a homiletical outline. Remember Moody's practice? Right away on Tuesday mornings, having taken Monday off, when he enters his study, 

"I ask myself the question, ‘If I had to preach this sermon right now, or in five minutes, what would I say?' I create a very quick, handwritten outline which attempts to structure a sermon from the passage as if I were preaching it right away."

Add to that O'Donnell's Monday morning goal of drafting a homiletical outline by midday – those two comments have altered my approach to sermon prep in the very area that I needed a kick in the pants. Another example of sentences and paragraphs, not so much books - that change us. Terrific chapter.


Douglas O'Donnell's sermon is from Matthew 26:47-56, "A Sovereign, Scriptural Plan"

This was an engaging sermon with some great pluses. I felt that it started better than it ended (he did acknowledge that conclusions were his Achilles heel). But it wasn't just the conclusion, the second half of the sermon was just a bit blasé with an excessive number of quotes, some which were unnecessary, others which were from very questionable sources. 

I'm sure I would've found the sermon profitable if I'd have been in the audience that heard it. He is very clear for the most part and has a gifted way with phrases and one-liners. Like all good sermons, it was a thought breeder and contained some terrific and insightful points. He had some very smooth transitions, some excellent questions and some very pithy and helpful sentences. 

To take a good sermon and make it better, here are my three main critiques:

(1) Too many quotes.

Most are indicated in footnotes in the manuscript and admirably represent his concern to give credit to those commentators that have helped him, and most of these attributions would not be conveyed to the audience. But the actual number of announced quotes was unnecessarily large in my opinion. There is no need to quote men when stating something very straightforward that might have been said by any number of sources. For example, he quotes William Barclay, "Jesus died, not because men killed Him, but because He chose to die." (229) Do I really need to quote someone to convey that very generic point? Couldn't I say that same thing in my own words? Now perhaps he doesn't mention Barclay in the sermon at that point - but he has the statement in quotes with a footnote to Barclay's commentary on Matthew. So unnecessary. Too many quotes easily become exercises in "name-dropping" as though a preacher is trying impress us with all the resources he utilized in preparation that week. It's just distracting to have too many such quotes - in my humble opinion. 

(2) The plethora of questionable sources

He did warn us that he sometimes consults up to thirty commentaries in his weekly prep. I can see how that's possible in overviewing the multiple footnotes at the bottom of nearly every page of his 15 page sermon - in the format of this book. Frederick Dale Bruner is cited repeatedly and referred to in the sermon as "one of my best commentator friends." That is odd to me. William Barclay - yes I know, a favorite of John MacArthur as well, but I would be a little more careful with citing such men without the opportunity to qualify your apparent endorsement. Scot McKnight, also mentioned in the sermon by name - very favorably. Nt. Wright, Gnilka, Origen, Donald Senior, Ulrich Luz, Raymond Brown, Dorothy Sayers. And strangely absent, not a single mention or citation from renown commentators on Matthew like John Broadus, D. A. Carson, Leon Morris, William Hendriksen, Herman Ridderbos, Dan Doriani, John Nolland. I just find that weird. My two bits on that.

(3) The other point I'd make is kind of a mixed comment. There's an element in this critique that I like, but I would just caution preachers not to indulge this too much. Both his introduction and his conclusion contained strong (albeit a little back-handed) portrayals of himself as "the hero." I'm not trying to overstate it - you be the judge. I think we need to be careful of using ourselves in a positive light - I've done it, it is not wrong, but I don't think I'd ever open and close a sermon with such self-flattering stories. What I like about it - is that he apparently has thick enough skin bear this reproach, and if done innocently - the quotes certainly do speak well of him.

His Intro:

"Have you ever received an encouraging note from a friend that is so uplifting that it's humbling? I received on this past October for pastor's appreciation month. Below is a portion of it:

'My heart really overflows with appreciation when I think of you. In your vision casting for New Covenant Church...my love for the church was rekindled. In your consistent pointing to Jesus and marveling at Him in each sermon, my apathetic thought that 'my best years with the Lord are behind me' has been drowned by ever increasing love for my Lord! When I think back to the hunger in my soul during college to hear more about Jesus in church, and then about how I have been fed on three years of Christ-exalting preaching under your pulpit- I AM THANKFUL!'

'I come on Sunday's filled with anticipation for understanding the Word better and loving Jesus more. I am grateful for how well you know the passage you preach and the people you are preaching to! You anticipate our questions and confusions, and trace out how we can apply it. I am grateful for the clarity and beauty you preach with - no jargon, no tactics, no posturing. You hold out the Word to us in a way that unveils its truth and beauty and power. I always feel a sinking feeling inside me when I realize you are wrapping up. I am never ready for you to end. I thank God for calling and equipping you - and for building us up through you!'" (217-218)

As I retype that - it strikes me even more: praise God pastors when we receive such encouraging notes - but I adjure you, do not share such a letter in a sermon! Not a good move. 

His conclusion (these are literally the opening and closing words of the message):

"I don't know if I preach with clarity and beauty, as one person claimed not so long ago. If so, I'll let God get all the glory for the gift. What I do know is that I try, Sunday after Sunday, to gospel the Gospel of Matthew, knowing that the more people understand the full story the more likely they are to marvel, as I do, at Jesus."

I'm laughing as I read those quotes and I hope that in time Pastor O'Donnell will look back with some embarrassment at such self-congratulatory language. It doesn't matter that the complements came from others (or another), they are now being shared by your lips, and it would've been better to take heed to:

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips.”
(Proverbs 27:2)

God give me grace to see the logs in my own eyes.