Pastors – Studying and Reading (4)

February 20, 2006

Mark, you are out of the blocks early and strong this morning. Thanks for both the posts. Though I wouldn’t suggest that we add "Humility" to the canon, I do recognize the vital importance of that grace to pastors, and all Christians – and to myself chief among all. One of the first things you ever told me about CJ, Covenant Life, and pastors of Sovereign Grace was how impressed you were by their evident humility. I can’t think of a higher compliment for Christians. Since that time, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing their Gospel-humility myself. And it is so encouraging and inspiring.

Now since, personality-wise, I suffer from an almost terminal lack of insecurity, the Lord has lovingly given me plenty of reasons for humilty. His greatest gift on this count has been my wife – who has a built-in sniff detector for pride and arrogance (she can pick it up at 500 yards, upwind). I admire her humility (a trait she has, though incredibly accomplished, just like her father and brother, who are world-class business leaders and Christian gentlemen without an ounce of pride about them). Anne inspires me to aspire to humility, precisly because she values the biblical characteristic of humility.

But now, back to books and study. Today, I want to take up a a relatively mundane but potentially important subject – when to read and study. For most of us, this is liable to be a challenge. Today’s minister, by definition, is something of a jack-of-all-trades. He is often viewed as the chief administrative officer, the chief executive officer, the staff hand-holder, the chief visitor, the head preacher/teacher/counselor, the public relations liason, the key denominational representative of the local congregation, and more. It is flatly impossible to do a good job at all of this (which is one reason I live by the motto – "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly"). So when a minister tries to do everything, his study usually gets squeezed out by the tyranny of the urgent. That means you are going to have to plan carefully when to study, and then how to protect that time.

Three main challenges will be how to deal with your officers, members and family in regard to the timing and protection of your study. You will need to devote some time to cultivating in your officers a sense of the prime importance of your study time (if they do not already appreciate its significance). I am blessed with officers who fully appreciate how important it is for me to have time to study, but not all ministers are so fortunate. If your officers are unsupportive in this way, or just unaware of the importance of it, first pray that God would grant them hearts to support you in this area.

Then, as opportunities arise through the cultivation of Christian friendship, share with those most sympathetic to you and begin to explain how you understand your calling and what things are necessary to the accomplishment of it – especially the requisite study. For one thing, you could compare what they have to do in their workday (including the unglamorous but essential behind-the-scenes-type work) to what you have to do in order to teach and preach. Help them appreciate the ways they benefit from your having adequate study time. Then explain and solicit their support for the ways you are going about setting and protecting that time. If need be, bring in another minister or elder from another church to speak at an officer retreat about his matter. They need to be your champions with the people on this.

This is serious business and I know many fine men who’ve been pushed to the edge by a lack of officer-support in this area. One dear friend had officers who would insist on coming to the church every morning of the week and chatting and drinking coffee with him all morning long. He did visitation in afternoons, and so they had effectively robbed him of all his time of study. He asked them to help him on this, but to no avail. It’s no surpise that he is no longer at that church.

With regard to members, when they call for an appointment and ask to speak with you, I have found only a few very sanctified souls gracious enough to be satisfied by a secretary responding with "he’s unavailable right now, he’s studying." People naturally think that their question or issue of the moment is more important than a dusty old book the pastor is reading. They can take offense at being put off for your study time. So, I would suggest that your assistant protect your study time by simply saying "he’s unavailable at this time." That should probably be the standard answer whether you are counseling, visiting, leading a staff meeting, writing a sermon or studying. That way the caller doesn’t have the opportunity to personally judge whether his or her issue outweighs your need to study.

Now family is a different matter. My wife is extremely supportive of my ministry. Especially when it comes to pastoral duties like emergency counseling or hospital visits, she is unfailingly accommodating of my taking the time to do them, no matter how disruptive they are to the family schedule. But even she has a hard time resisting interrupting if I’m studying at home and something comes up in which she needs my assistance. So balancing family time and study can be a challenge for us. You will need to work through this issue so that your wife can become comfortable with the rhythm and amount of your study time, and thus support what this means for the family schedule. One way I handle this is to do my study at home before my family is awake or after they have gone to sleep, and then to keep all my other study time at the church office.

Needless to say, reading and study time should not be wasted on email (you will have to devise a strategy so that this doesn’t rob you of valuable hours), theological discussion rings (which sometimes simply pool ignorance), meandering on the internet or taken to the neglect of other important pastoral duties. This is a problem with many ministers, especially those who are more introverted and shy away from the "people-responsibilities" of ministry.

By the way, I always carry photocopies of commentaries with me so that I don’t have to lug fifteen books around and can still read them anywhere/anytime (at red lights, while waiting for breakfast and lunch appointments to arrive, while making my coffer in the morning before anyone is up, or during any other period of just a few empty minutes that could be used profitably). The copies of a pericope, like Ephesians 4:1-3, from 18 good commentaries, is less than a half inch thick, and so easily stuck in brief case, backpack, or overcoat pocket. I also make sure that good books are ready-to-hand at home, in the car or wherever I might be. You can think of ways to use these kinds of moments too. Different strategies will work for different folks, but you need to do some thinking about how to redeem your time.