Once a pastor is involved in full-time pastoral ministry it can be challenging to continue learning and growing in God’s word and effective ministry methods. This article from ChurchChina shares the insights of several pastors who participated in a forum on how to continue learning. Due to length, we will post it in two parts. This is part one.
Do Pastors Need Further Studies? How？
Editor’s note: God uses pastors as his vessels to serve believers in the church, so the maturity and continuous growth of pastors are very important to the church. Whether pastors need further studies and how to study through reading and writing is worthy of discussion. Recently, our editorial department hosted a forum with some pastors who serve in the church and have a lot in common. They are all married and have children. I hope their sharing can contribute to the discussion around these questions.
Editor: Today’s topic is the pastor’s further studies, reading and writing. The first thing I want to ask is: Do you think you need further studies after becoming a pastor of the church? Why?
Lu Cheng: I think I need them. Seminary is valuable in that it teaches us methods, perspectives, and modes of thinking about things, which are holistic, prudent, and biblical. However, it certainly cannot teach everything. As pastors, our study lasts for a lifetime and is not limited to seminary because we, as limited human beings, are seeking to know the eternal God. Furthermore, the ministry in the church is diversified. Even though I may have learned something in seminary, when it comes to actual pastoring, there is still a lot I do not know. Therefore, I need to read more materials about this.
Yi En: I think further study is very important for a pastor. There are two reasons. First, in my experience, I always serve others with the Bible, but the longer I serve, the more I feel that my own spiritual life has not been nurtured by the Bible. Further study is my opportunity to be pastored. Second, when God created Adam, he blessed him and gave him work, so working is good. It is better not to rely only on previous ministry experience to serve in the present. We ought to study further in order to continue serving.
Shi Ming: I think the answer is obvious—of course we need study. In 1 Timothy 4:14-15, Paul told Timothy: “. . . so that all may see your progress.” This was when Timothy was already considered a leader of the church. The growth here refers not only to practice, but also knowledge, character, and maturity. In fact, not all pastors have gone to seminary, and even if we have, we mainly acquired knowledge and did not yet form our own views. Even if we have formed our own views, we have not thought through how to apply, practice, and teach it. So, we need to form views on relevant issues and test them in complex environments. Theological study and exchange of pastoral experience constantly sharpens our theological thinking and make us better pastors.
In addition, we all make mistakes. Some views we formed in the past may not be carefully considered, or we just blindly followed a person and adopted all his views without thinking. But when we actually pastor a church or when our perspective is broadened, we find that we need to rethink our past interpretations because they were relatively narrow. At this time, further study helps us revise our views so that we can walk closer to the truth in our pastoring.
Editor: There are three ways for pastors to study. First, study while serving in full-time ministry. Second, study while serving in part-time ministry. Third, study full-time. What are the pros and cons of each?
Shi Ming: I think the main difference among these three methods is whether or not you can leave the ministry. Full-time study is the most beneficial one because it allows you to study deeply without being interrupted. And in topics of study, you would not be distracted by mistakes you had made in past judgements or teachings. Furthermore, full-time study helps you think about problems more thoroughly and broadens your horizons.
However, not everyone has the luxury of full-time study. I think a better way is to combine these three together. For example, you can accumulate questions through full-time ministry first, and then invest some time to study intensively whether through classes or lectures to learn more about those questions. If you do really want to study one or two aspects deeply or even if you want to write a book, then you can choose full-time study to get a degree or finish your book.
Lu Cheng: Pastor Shi Ming chose to study while serving in full-time ministry. I studied full-time, and I agree with what he said. I just feel that nowadays Chinese churches lack pastors, and it would be a great challenge and rather impractical if pastors study full-time without serving.
Yi En: I have experienced each of them and I think each has its pros and cons. If a person is called to be a theology teacher, it would be better to study full-time since the learning process is far longer than usual. However, if he is called to be a pastor, part-time study while serving might be better for him because pastoring is a practical thing. When I was in seminary at age 25 or 26, my classmates and I studied a lot of theory with no experience in ministry, which was not the best arrangement. When I started pastoring, I found that I had a hard time remembering what I had learned, because my learning was separate from my serving. Yet it is very difficult for the pastor to serve while studying if there is only one pastor in a church. The best situation is if there are two teaching elders in a church. In that case, they can support each other and take turns spending time in study. Thanks to the elders in my church, I can take time for further studies.
Editor: You three are now serving full-time in your churches. So, what do you think is the best way to study? How do you study?
Yi En: This is a tough question. Because I am busy with ministry work, I often find that the week goes by before I get to the studies I had planned. I have tried two methods. The first one is to read for 30 to 60 minutes a day, and the second is to set aside time for more intensive study. The most effective way for me has been to choose one day of the week and spend two-thirds of the time preparing my sermon, and the rest on studying. Setting aside a day for myself each week, with no interruptions, has been very beneficial.
Lu Cheng: I just make use of every bit of time. For example, I would listen to some of my favorite lectures while exercising or while on the way to or from work. However, I find that I still lack reading time. Pastor Shi Ming once reminded me of this. I remember one time when he lived in our house, he read his Kindle while we were having breakfast. I asked, “do you love reading that much?” He replied, “I spend four hours a week reading.” Suddenly, I realized how important it is for preachers to read and study. Since then, I have forced myself to make some changes. For example, I invite some brothers in discipleship training to read a book with me that I have never read, thus setting up outside accountability to guarantee my reading. I also participate in some trainings and am renewed in the process.
Shi Ming: I think ministry itself is a process of learning. American pastors call their reading room a “study.” We are studying when we need to look up materials to prepare for a sermon or respond to a question. In addition, my translating work has been a good learning opportunity for me. The articles from both my translation and teaching help me broaden my mind and can be examples or applications for my preaching. That’s why I spend four hours a week focused on reading (not counting other scattered times). I also attend interesting lectures. During the interaction after the lecture, the speaker will sometimes mention some books, which we can add to our reading list. These might be authoritative books on topics we are interested in.
Editor: You all mentioned the importance of reading. Please share how a pastor could read wisely. How should we choose books? Arrange our time? How do we put reading into practice?
Shi Ming: Let me talk about my four hours of focused reading first. I think as a pastor, one of your jobs is “self-growth.” I spend four hours every Friday afternoon on reading, which I consider a part of my job. That means I take 10% of my working time to study. This is similar to how my former company did things. At that time, the company’s rule was that employees spent 75% of their time on work and spent 25% of their time on studying and improving their skills. I still follow this model today and I believe that learning is actually a part of work. Therefore, unless it is a life and death situation, I do not make any appointments on Friday afternoon, and reserve those four hours for reading. Sometimes, I have to change my plan for some special reasons. I would rather move this four-hour reading time to another day than to miss it.
Moreover, I’ve developed a habit related to reading. When I find that a book references another book, saying that the other book has a more thorough explanation of the topic, I will try my best to acquire that book. Those piled books are also my motivation for reading.
I classify pastors’ reading into five types.
First, I read to help others make decisions. If a member or believer asks me, “Is this book any good?” Or if the church librarian asks, “Should we add this book to the library?” I would quickly skim the books to make a good decision. It might only take half an hour.
Second, I read to acquire knowledge. Narrow knowledge would limit the examples I could give in a sermon. Or I might give incorrect examples, which definitely would reduce the reliability of my sermons. So, I read books on history, economics, sociology, and other topics. I read these books pretty quickly and can finish one in about two hours.
Third, I read to improve my literary and communication abilities. For example, I read novels and other literary works, or books about communicating (such as Transparent Conversation).
Fourth, I read books about preaching and ministry, including books on improving ministry skills and on ministry philosophy, such as discipling and training preachers, or on counseling (for example Side by Side by Edward T. Welch, Instruments in the Redeemers’ Hands by Paul David Tripp) or even books on pre-marriage counseling, divorce, and remarriage counseling, etc.
Lastly, I read some research-type books. Some topics can be very complex, such as certain theological issues, or conversations surrounding ethics, and these call for focused reading. Or sometimes I would read this type of reading when I am writing an article.
Different types of reading result in different reading speeds and output. For example, with the first type of reading, I just simply leave a rating on Douban,1 while for others, I might leave some simple notes or reviews, and yet other types of reading might result in an article or thesis.
Lu Cheng: While Shi Ming classified reading into different types and recommended more books, I would like to give some tips on selecting books. First, you can ask people who are familiar with the relevant field, and choose the books they most recommend, are the most classic, and the most worthy of reading over and over again. I also use Amazon’s recommendations sometimes, but I don’t rely on them, preferring the recommendations from people I trust. Second, I suggest you read the heavy, more taxing books during the day, while enjoying the more relaxing books at night, such as novels, historical, and economic books. I always read these books before sleep to relax myself.
Yi En: I want to add one more thing. I think we can make use of some websites that post recommendations and reviews for books, which could help us quickly skim the content of a book. I often learn about academic and relatively thick books through these websites. I also read reviews on websites from evangelical backgrounds on lighter books. Sites such as SBL Central deal with academic books, while sites such as Books at a Glance are good for lighter reads.
Editor: During the pandemic, have you read some books that were particularly rewarding? What rewards did you reap?
Lu Cheng: Parenting, written by Paul Tripp. Before reading the book, I felt a bit of pressure and struggle in parenting my children. For example, I would not be patient enough with them, and then would feel guilty, but I lacked wisdom. I strongly recommend this book. It speaks directly to the parents’ hearts, and is also pastoral. What I say and how I act reflects my views of my children and of God. This was rather convicting, but also full of grace. It adjusted my perspective and helped me teach my children with a proper attitude with the perspective of the gospel. I hope there will be a Chinese translation in the future.
Yi En: I read half of Timothy Keller’s Center Church. The first time I read it I felt like it wasn’t good enough, but this time I am discovering the strengths of the book. Another book is The New Testament in Its World. This book focuses on illuminating the way we interpret the Bible by understanding ancient cultures. Recently I’ve been reading Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. The author is an evangelical Christian who lived in Palestine from 1930 to 1990. He explains the gospel from the background of Palestinian cultural differences. And the last book is Paul Tripp’s Lead, which is a sequel to Dangerous Calling. This book is particularly interesting, and I recommend everyone read it.
Shi Ming: There are three types of books that deeply impress me. The first type is about holiness. For example, Jerry Bridges’s The Pursuit of Holiness, The Practice of Godliness, and some spiritual classics like The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Mortification of Sin. I have found that most church members have an incorrect view of holiness: “I could never fulfill God’s demands, so our Christian lives are just going to have a lot of problems.” And such thinking has largely stifled or reduced the believer’s efforts to pursue holiness. These books help us to better understand the importance of holiness and sanctification, to pursue holiness in the already/not yet, and how to teach our brothers and sisters the importance of holiness.
The second type handles questions we also face in pastoral ministry, the questions of singleness and friendship. There are two books I want to recommend: 7 Myths about Singleness and Messy Beautiful Love. There is a strong marriage culture in the church, which includes many views that come from traditional Chinese culture, and which may not be entirely biblical. For example, single sisters already face pressure from their parents to get married, and yet find no sympathy in the church. When we see single brothers or sisters, we ask, “Have you found anyone yet?” This implies that singleness is not good, and they would be better married. Messy Beautiful Love talks about Christian friendship. For example, the pastor hangs out with some people, takes a picture, and posts it on social media. This could cause someone to feel uncomfortable and ask, “why was I not invited?” The book talks particularly about how to deal with the jealousy in our hearts when encouraging friendships in the church.
The third type is related to specific challenges the pandemic has brought, thus books relating to social networks and online ministry. I started with The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, then Deep Work Rules by Cal Newport, and continued with Paul Bowles’ Hamlet’s BlackBerry. The authors of these books tell us that there is nothing new under the sun. Social networks are a modern version of things from the past, and we can find the pros and cons of social networks from the past. These books give us wisdom to analyze online ministry. These are three types of books that I found most beneficial since the pandemic.
Part two will follow at the end of the month.
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