Make time to study. For the seminarian, the need is obvious. Whether to read required texts, research a term paper, or prepare for a final exam, there is certain expectation that a fair amount of one’s time will be devoted to study. The words are not so much advice, but a fact of life.
Make time to study. For the pastor the words are a commendation, not a condemnation. There might be times in the course of formal theological education that a seminarian longs for the day when she never opens another theological tome again, but seminary introduces one to the depths and rigor of what should be a lifelong habit. Study is not merely preparing for the next service or sermon series; rather, it is seeking knowledge about eternal truth, beauty, and goodness. Making time to study might be some of the most lifegiving advice a pastor—and the ministry she oversees—can ever receive.
What constitutes study for a pastor? After all, there is no accompanying paper requirement. There is no grade to be received, or GPA to be calculated. In his classic, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes study as disciplining the mind to pay careful attention to reality. Study, according to Foster, is not the exclusive purview of the pastor, but a vital component of faithful discipleship if one wants to grow in grace and knowledge of Christ. For the Christian pastor, study is about discerning the movement of God in light of the world’s current condition. What better endeavor (other than perhaps prayer) can a pastor give himself to?
Foster helpfully lists four steps inherent in the discipline of study:
1. Repetition—that is, regularly engage the mind in particular ways. Paul’s exhortation to “set your mind on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:2) offers insight to regularly fill your mind with the things of God by reading the Bible and good theology. The sheer number of writers and vast array of titles spanning more than two thousand years of church history is not altogether different than sumptuous buffets on cruise ships: It is impossible to eat and digest everything, but nearly anything you select and sample is sure to fill you up. And, even if you overindulge at some point, you will be hungry for more!
2. Concentration, or the absence of distraction, in order to focus attention, is necessary to the discipline of study. Foster notes that concentration can be a tough feat in a multimedia culture that can overwhelm the senses (and that observation was made in 1978!). The need to unplug from the distractions in our “always on” culture in order to devote our entire self in our studies is only more necessary today.
3. Comprehension refers to understanding the ideas and concepts we encounter. There might not be a greater thrill than experiencing the flash of insight that comes in the “Aha!” moments when we finally make sense of what we’ve been reading.
4. Reflection concerns seeking the significance of the knowledge and understanding we gain through study. Theological study is not just knowing the things of God, but also knowing the human condition. Through reflection we are able to ponder meaning and discover implication for our lives and context.
Foster has two additional thoughts on the process of study. First is that, if study is truly Christian, it requires humility. To be a student of God means to have a teachable spirit. Only the arrogant can believe they possess the ability to know all that is to be known and be able to master the divine. And, finally, just as Foster maintains that the other disciplines produce the fruit of the Spirit, study likewise produces joy. No doubt the labor is hard, but knowing more about the truth, beauty, and goodness of God proffers unquenchable joy.
How does a pastor cultivate joy through theological study? Make time for it! Just as you make an appointment with a parishioner or schedule a meeting, block regular time in your schedule to spend time with Augustine or Hildegard of Bingen. Seek out a few colleagues interested in reading through and discussing William Law or Julian of Norwich. If you can’t find friends to meet you in the local coffee shop, renew seminary table talk conversations with former classmates via video chat on one of your phone apps. I know of at least three different groups of colleagues regularly meeting across time zones to read through Wesley’s sermons or N. T. Wright’s thicker treatises.
Above all, be sure your theological study serves the church and does not just fill your head. Loving God with heart, mind, soul, and strength is important, but equally so is loving others and sharing God’s love with them. Let your love for God and others be the motivation and the goal of your theological study—by making time for it.