Lesson #3: A Pastor Needs to Study
I started my journey in full-time pastoral ministry 5 days after I graduated from seminary. Although I had been working on church staffs in different capacities for a few years, full-time vocational ministry post-seminary was different. In some ways I had way more time than I expected, but in many other ways I felt scattered and overwhelmed. The context was a large and quickly growing church in a suburban area. My role was youth/young adult pastor.
The predictable part of my schedule was the few hours a week that I devoted to study in preparation for preaching and teaching. I preached every week in our main youth gathering on Wednesday nights, twice on Sunday morning in our junior high gatherings, and periodically I would take the Sunday pulpit in the adult services (4 gatherings). There was also the occasional men’s ministry teaching, chapel preaching at local Christian schools, and leadership teachings for various teams. It ebbed and flowed. On an easy week I would prepare 2 sermons and preach 3 times (between Sunday and Wednesday). On a very busy week I would prepare 3+ messages and deliver them in different venues. One week I remember delivering 7 different teachings in 11 separate contexts. I didn’t devote a specific day or time to preparation for all this preaching, I usually just studied at night and/or fit it in wherever I could between other ministry responsibilities of my week.
I remember a pastor friend of mine, who coincidentally never had any regular preaching or teaching responsibilities as a part of his ministry, counsel me that sermon preparation was just something “that guys were supposed to get done on their off-time.” I remember thinking, “Wow, this vocational ministry thing is going to be a lot harder than I expected.” The nights and weekends spent in preparation for the next sermon were not difficult when my wife and I both worked full-time, but once we began having kids (about a year and a half after seminary), life changed dramatically. I could no longer spend 8+ hours in the office and then 3-4 hours prepping for the next sermon at home in the evenings. I had to establish new boundaries, I had to set healthy rhythms, and I had to learn to dictate my schedule with the awareness that a pastor who preaches needs to study.
Thankfully, the church I was on staff at was a great place to work. My Lead Pastor encouraged me to set aside specific times (half a day here, a few hours there) for study. I started utilizing portions of certain days specifically devoted to preparation for teaching and preaching, and it helped immensely. I also learned valuable lessons about how to prepare myself better and how to exegete a text quickly and accurately in order to form coherent biblical sermons on a tight time budget.
As I transitioned into a Lead Pastor role after 5 years as a staff pastor, I noticed that the demand for uninterrupted preparation increased. Producing content (for preaching or in writing) is something that demands focused time. At first, I devoted a half-day to study. I would get the rest done in margins of my days, nights, or weekends. In reality, the sermon always gets done because Sunday is always coming. But it doesn’t spontaneously combust. It sits there in your mind and heart (and gut for that matter) until it is ready to be preached. And it is never finished until it is preached.
After a year or two I began to devote a full day of the week to study. In the last year and half I came to realize that this still wasn’t cutting it. Again, I’m very thankful to serve at a church where we have a tremendous leadership team of elders and pastors, and a great support staff. This has allowed me, for about the last year, to devote two full-time work days to uninterrupted study. By and large this means no email, no meetings, nothing but reading, prayer, study, writing, and content-producing. This rhythm has truly transformed my life, though it took nearly 8 years to establish it. For those who regularly preach and teach in ministry, the burnout ratio is unbelievable. I’ve been there myself many times over the years. I believe a major reason I feel healthier now than at perhaps any time in my life in ministry is that I have started to learn and apply this simple lesson: A pastor needs to study.