Gathering Content: The Pastor’s Filing System

When I began my years at Southern Seminary I had an Old Testament professor by the name of Dr. Page Kelly. In the very first class he began to talk about a filing system. I didn’t know what a filing system was, but he said something that made me want to have one as quickly as possible. He said, “The wise man is not the man who knows everything–the wise man is the man who knows where to find it.” Not everyone can be a great preacher in the truest sense of the term, but every preacher can be the best preacher he can be. There is never an excuse for any preacher to be unprepared, uninspiring, or uninteresting.

Jesus was the master illustrator. He had the ability to take examples from nature, work, business, etc., to make a point and apply it. The biggest single thing pastors look for today are good illustrations. That is why the filing system is so important. Remember time spent in filing material saves time spent in finding material. The goal of any filing system should be to minimize time spent filing and finding materials so as to maximize time for ministry.

How, What And Where?

If you do not have a filing system you should get started today! Regardless of how much material you have to file any filing system beats no filing system. It is the life-blood of the content of your messages. I believe four characteristics of a good filing system are:

  • Simple. a filing system should be “user friendly”. It should save time and not waste time. It should give you the ability to find just the right quote, illustration, jokes, statistics, etc., for just the right sermon and just the right occasion;
  • Consistent. you should use the same file and topic heading for related categories of information;
  • Flexible. the system must be able to grow as you grow and change as you change. You should be able to add new material and drop old material as needed;
  • Personal. the filing system should be adapted to you, your needs, your personality, and your interests.

Keep in mind that one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. What I may file, you might not file and vice-versa. The only thing that matters is that the filing system meets your needs in order to be the best preacher you can be. What is to be filed? Everything–books, articles, CDs/DVDs, both digital and analog–all can go into the filing system.

The vast majority of illustrations should be filed under a topic, not just under one text or passage. The reason? You will preach a topic many times, but you may preach a specific passage only once. If you file illustrations only under a passage, the illustration may be lost unless you happen to speak on that passage.

Filing Books 

There is a difference between having a book and owning a book. You do not truly own a book unless you (a) know what is in it; (b) can easily retrieve it. As you read a book, if possible, file each chapter under a topic or text, file every illustration, “joke”, etc., according to the page number of the book. File everything by topic and/or text. Cross-reference as much as possible. File all material as much as you possibly can under different topics and text as you deem relevant.

File books by chapters (if possible). File them both textually and topically (if possible). File illustrations in books by writing the page number on which the illustration is found in the back of the book and then labeling for future filing.

Keep a Box

For “hard materials” keep a filing box. I use a formula “RRFF” – read, rip, fling and file. I will take a magazine, read it, rip out any relevant material, label it, put it in a box and give it to a designated assistant for filing. You can do the same thing with CDs and DVDs. I file all of my “loose leaf materials” either as S.F. (Subject File) or B.F. (Bible File). The key is not how you do your filing system, but that you do a filing system. Sermons that you have preached should also be filed for future reference and permanent record filed by (1) text; (2) title; (3) time or date; (4) place.


Author: Dr. James Merritt, Senior Pastor of Cross Pointe Church and host of Touching Lives