Few can argue that the life of an average pastor is far more complex than it was fifty years ago. I recall sitting in a class only twenty years ago when Dr. Richard Pratt warned us that in our life time our parishioners would be able to check up on what we were preaching as they sat in the congregation. The amount of information that is instantaneously available is both astounding and terrifying.
One of the outcomes of a recent Lilly Endowment study on sustaining pastoral ministry was the significance of lifelong learning. Becoming a lifelong learner will serve to keep you sharp in your ministry skills and from the many temptations that result from idleness. A lifelong learner needs to do more than simply attend an annual conference; they need to develop a pattern of regular study. Many recent studies show that reading is an exercise that helps you keep a healthy brain… you need to learn to love to read!
If you serve in a church it is important that they understand the value of the pastor being a lifelong learner and provide you with the time and resources. I would recommend that at minimum a church provide you with two weeks devoted entirely for study. In addition a book allowance is a must! I recommend at least $500 a year.
Beyond the time that you may have for study leave, you need to build time into your life to read outside what is directly covered in your sermon preparation. If you are not already an avid reader, I suggest that you make a goal of one book per month. I encourage you to go beyond that; however that is a great start. Also, be sure to plan time in your day to read. Find a time that works best for you and stick to it. I make it a habit to carry a book with me, so when I find myself waiting for someone for an appointment I read it, rather than play a game on my phone.
Now on to some suggestions as to what to read. First, let me say that “surfing the web” aimlessly should not be classified as study or reading time. Nevertheless, the web has become an invaluable resource of information. Just use it wisely. Below are some broad areas that I would encourage you to cover in your reading. They should come from a variety of sources both on line, digital or old school – books.
I. Scripture – It is important we are committed to being lifelong students of Scripture.
A. Scripture: Develop a pattern to read through the entire Bible on a regular basis. I would recommend that you aim for once a year. There are many methods available to use, try rotating through several. Remember this is your personal time in God’s word, and not part of your sermon preparation.
B. The Gospel: Read anything that strengthens you in the Gospel. There is some great stuff out there.
C. Read books about the Scriptures: Find books or small commentaries, both old and new that either deal with specific sections of the Bible or are on a broader theme.
II. The Church – There is plethora of information on the church, but I would recommend you start with these areas.
A. Preaching: Never quit being a student of preaching. Read from various sources and differing perspectives.
B. Worship: This is an important part of the life of the church and many pastors have little knowledge of music or liturgy. Keeping up with the trends helps you better educate your people.
C. Organization/Leadership: Pastors are leaders of organizations that primarily utilize volunteers. Learning to lead them as well as paid staff is essential. Don’t just stick with books on Church Leadership, read broadly.
D. Practical: This is the category that includes all areas in the life of the church, from Christian education to Missions.
III. Culture – This needs to be a high priority in your quest as a lifelong learner because culture is complex and ever-changing. Be careful that you don’t only focus on “pop culture,” but also study the deeper cultural values that effect the people you minister to.
A. Your community: Know what is going on in your community. Read the local paper and look for not only key events, but use it as way to learn more about the uniqueness of the people who live around you. Remember most newspapers are available online and it doesn’t take that much time to skim the headlines. A seasoned newspaperman once showed me how most newspaper stories are summed up in the first two paragraphs.
B. Your Country: This is a vast area of literature that includes books, magazines, journals and newspapers. Be careful to not just read what Christians are writing, but pay close attention to what other writers are saying. Beyond the books, I suggest the New York Times.
C. Globally: Remember the world is bigger than North America, so keep up with what is going on in the rest of the world. Read with an eye to understanding what God is doing on a global perspective. Look for authors who are not simply writing from a western perspective. As far as an easy free online source, I suggest BBC.
IV. Biographies – Many of my best mentors are dead, and I have been mentored not by their physical presence but by their lives.
A. Pastors and Theologians: Show us the challenges of life and ministry of those who have gone before us.
B. Missionaries: I love missionary biographies! That is my heritage. There commitment and sacrificial lives are inspiring.
C. Leaders and Famous People: Whether it is a biography of a president, a corporate executive or other famous person, biographies teach us about history, depravity and idolatry.
V. Personal – This is the area that is fun and a “no brainer.” It has no direct connection to ministry and is way to get your mind off the stresses of life and ministry. This includes reading on your hobbies to fiction.