10 Suggestions for a Life of Study

July 4th, 2012

The following suggestions are not offered on the assumption that the reader does not already possess a way of going about the task of study, nor are they offered as improvements upon present habits. What is presupposed here is that it is healthy to have one’s patterns of work raised to the level of conscious reflection in order to own them intentionally, modify them, or shift to new patterns altogether. For purposes of clarity, these suggestions will be itemized, with a brief discussion accompanying each. 

1. At the beginning of a ministry, small or large, student or resident, inform the congregation of one’s study schedule and explain that time in study is time spent with the entire congregation and with the community. Though every church understands that a minister’s schedule includes time for small groups and individuals, it may not have thought of study as benefiting all the people through preaching, teaching, and counseling. Until they are helped to think in such terms, many parishioners are left with the simple equation: more time in study equals less time in ministry. How ministers spend their time is something of a mystery to the laity and many are hesitant to probe or to question, but they harbor strong suspicions. The minister who does not take time to enable understanding should not complain when there is misunderstanding. It goes without saying that the minister will choose study hours during the day and week when the flow of congregational life is at its lowest and demands on the minister’s time are least. 

2. Be realistic in one’s expectations of the life of study. There is hardly an area of thought or activity that does not bear directly or indirectly upon ministry, and books are flowing from the presses every day. Pastors, especially those in remote areas, can sit in their studies and become depressed by the thought that there are many great new ideas circulating out there, but in what books are they to be found? Rather than being frustrated and immobilized on the one hand, or attempting the impossible on the other, a minister can do quality reading within the limits of time and the requirements of one’s position. Quality reading means locating and carefully engaging the few really significant books in a field. In theology, biblical studies, preaching, pastoral care, and other related areas, there are one or two landmark books, in response to which there will follow scores of books for the next twenty years. Thoroughly digesting one such book can be immensely more valuable than racing through two dozen spin-offs and hasty revisits to the thoughts of the central figure in the discipline. To aid in that selection, the opinions of respected peers and seminary professors can be solicited. In addition, subscribing to a journal that provides good book reviews will be invaluable. Though a minister need not feel guilty for not having read every book mentioned by lay and clergy, he or she should know the circles of thought and conversation out of which those books come. To have read the major works, to have reflected upon their contents, and to have weighed them carefully in relation to one’s own views and convictions, is to gain the ear and earn the respect of those to whom one offers oneself as a leader. 

3. Establish and maintain a routine of time and place of study. When hearing such a suggestion, some ministers voice the objection that ministry means being available, which means frequent interruptions of scheduled activity. The point is well made, but the point is lost on those who have no schedule to be interrupted, just as it is on those who go about seeking, encouraging, and advertising for interruption to justify failure to attend to study and reflection. The busy person has no better friend than routine and habit. Just imagine all the time wasted by those who are forever looking for “a good place” to study or “a good time” to study. Equally prodigal with time are those who study a bit here and a bit there, a little now and a little then. Such persons seem always to be studying but, in fact, are poor stewards of their time. Except for those rare individuals who can sink into deep thought and concentration anywhere at anytime, studying requires a good deal of time getting into and out of the subject matter. In fact, getting started is the major hurdle. Once into the process, the worth of the material and the satisfaction in thought usually provide sustaining power.

The greatest aid in reducing the time involved in getting started and later in coming to closure is placing oneself in a certain room, at a certain desk, at a certain time each day. Once the routine is established, the body, the mind, and the emotions know what that time and that place mean. Sights and sounds that once distracted do so no more. Negative adaptation has done its work; nothing is seen or heard except the task at hand. Routine has simplified life, and the minutes or hours of such total engagement are amazingly fruitful. In fact, not infrequently someone will remark, “When in your busy schedule did you find time to prepare so well?”

 A second benefit of a routine is the new level of pleasure gained without any real change in life-style. The formula is simple: study when studying and play when playing. All of us can recall from college days times when we did not enjoy studying for thinking of our need for recreation and did not enjoy a party or a game for thinking about our need to study. Hence both study and play were robbed, each by the other, of both pleasure and effectiveness. A good schedule removes the debilitating guilt and releases all one’s powers to enter fully into each moment.

4. Develop the ability to use small units of time. The word “develop” is used here because effort and patience will be required. There was a time with many of us when an hour between classes or events was regarded as insufficient to make any effort to study. We told ourselves that real study required larger blocks of time. That was not entirely self-deception; some of the tasks of study do require extended periods for thought and reflection. However, study also involves a number of acts which are important but which can be accomplished rather quickly. Reading brief journal articles, checking biblical references, assembling resources, using dictionaries and lexicons, sequencing materials to be read, and many other tasks can be cared for when only minutes are available. In fact, journalistic reading that informs us about denominational and general religious events and trends can well be done along with the reading of the daily paper and news magazines and does not need to be taken to the study at all. Now and then an article will be worth “elevating” in that room. 

5. Regularly read novels, short stories, and poetry. Because such reading is so rewarding and pleasure-filled, it can be regarded as recreation, but for reasons stated below, it is classified here as study. First, let us be clear that we are referring to good literature, not thrill stuff that depends on a murder and a rape on each page to sustain the reader’s attention. By great literature is meant that which has stood the test of time and remains on the list of recommended reading in literature classes. Those who are lacking a good high school or college education in this area, or those who have moved into ministry from fields more technical or otherwise narrowly defined, would do well to secure a reading list from a college literature class. There is no need to be embarrassed about reading Hardy, Maugham, Milton, Flaubert, and Dickinson while in or even after seminary. However, to allow fear of embarrassment to prevent one’s reading the classics would be tragic indeed.

Lest anyone misunderstand, there is nothing intended here which even remotely resembles the vulgar practice of combing through literature for illustrations. To read Flaubert for sermon illustrations would be prostitution. Of course, what one reads enters directly and indirectly into one’s speaking, but the reading is not done with usefulness in mind. Reading good literature enlarges one’s capacities as a creative human being and has a cumulative effect on one’s vocabulary, use of the language, and powers of imagination. Not by conscious imitation but through the subtle influence of these great storytellers and poets, a preacher becomes more adept at arranging the materials of the sermon so that by restraint and thematic control, interest, clarity, and persuasiveness will be served.

The ideal would be to begin in seminary the habit of reading such literature along with one’s assignments in history, theology, and biblical studies, and then to maintain the practice through one’s ministry. The reasons are two: first, seminary professors and classroom experiences so heavily influence the student not only as a thinker but as a communicator. However, the classroom lecture, properly designed to carry a heavy freight of information, is no model for the sermon. Second, the texts that are required reading of the curriculum were written by persons who are experts in the subject matter, but only rarely are they masters in the use of the language. In short, they do not write well. This is not a criticism but a fact, a fact that should prompt the students serious about preaching to supplement their reading with the works of master communicators. Since the short story is a first cousin of the sermon, the homiletics student could, for example, relieve the professor of the contradiction of having to assign such reading by taking the initiative to read at least one per week.

A major obstacle for the student is the feeling of guilt: there sits Aquinas on the shelf and I am indulging in Steinbeck. This guilt often leads the student to weigh the story and the poem in the samescales used for everything else, Will this be covered in the exam? Do we have to write reports? Will we discuss these in class? Since the answer is no on all counts, the reading becomes casualty to the oldest fiction in both academy and parish: I do not have the time. A large block of time? Probably not, but this is reading that can be done in brief time periods. The person who has a comfortable chair in a quiet corner beside which is always a book with a marker and who reads twenty minutes after dinner or before retiring will read dozens of books each year. The person who waits for time to read will, at the end of the year, have good intentions and sad regrets about the first one. The practice is not study in the heavy-browed, note-taking sense, but if the person whose primary business is communicating spends time each day with someone who has proven skills at that very point, it qualifies. 

6. Resist the urge to cease study once a sermon idea emerges. The temptation to do so is strong; after all, motivation toward the sermon for Sunday is a very real factor in study and with the birth of a central idea for that sermon, motivation for continued study may sag. And, of course, there is that nagging fear that further study may prove that the idea was more flash than light. It is disappointing to have Matthew or Paul give one a sermon and then in the next few verses take it away. That possibility is, however, the very reason for continuing with one’s study past the moment of insight. Will the insight stand the test of context and theological consistency? The claims of truth and appropriateness must be allowed to chase away tempters who whisper, “The congregation will never know.”

The suggestion that study not stop with the birth of a sermon idea does, however, raise the question of the effective timing of breaks from study. Some ministers feel that once interest in a text or subject is generated, it is best to ride that momentum until interest or energy is spent. Such a pattern has its good points. There is truth in the old adage, “The iron, once cooled, is hard to heat again.” Though taking a break after interest has ebbed and one’s efforts seem not to be productive makes the return to the desk uninviting and starting again difficult, much can be said for stopping when interest is still high and ideas are flowing, whether one is reading, writing, taking notes, or reflecting. Resuming one’s studies is a pleasant prospect and the desk attractive. One does not, however, simply stop at a peak; too much can be lost in the interim. A few notes sketching what is being done and thought and felt will offer threads that can be picked up again to carry the work to fruition. But again we remind ourselves that our rhythms of work differ, and we must honor schedule, habit, energy level, and abilities peculiar to ourselves. 

7. Locate and take advantage of library facilities available. These resources will vary from place to place, but one should not conclude without investigation that the absence of a seminary library leaves one intellectually stranded. Many public and small college libraries hold pleasant surprises, and some, even at great distances, have by-mail lending services. In any case, expenditures for one’s own library can be happily reduced. 

8. Set up your own library to function efficiently. Some ministers’ libraries were apparently arranged by decorators. Cluttered does not necessarily mean functional, but neither does placing blue dust jackets near the pale yellow draperies. In order to maximize usefulness, three simple suggestions seem appropriate. One, when new books arrive, leave them on the desk until read. Once on the shelves they can be forgotten, but on the desk they get in the way, staring back at the one who tries to push them aside. Besides, the minister does not know which books to shelve until he or she knows their contents. Two, share books with others. The right book for the right person can be an extension of one’s ministry. Other ministers might be willing to exchange books on a regular basis. Some books properly should be given away, not because they are of no value but because one has outgrown them. For them to remain on one minister’s shelves is poor stewardship when they could be used effectively by a younger minister who is at a different point in his or her life and career. And finally, arrange the books for ease of use. Some reference books are used every week, so they need to be located for ready access. It is not difficult to think that a certain book is not all that important if it is located across the room or on a shelf accessible only by straining on tiptoes while perched atop the back of a swivel chair. The law of inertia is very strong, especially when it protects us from bodily harm. Other books also should be placed according to regularity of use. Their very presence prompts the minister to consult them more often. 

9. Take advantage of available workshops, institutes, and seminars. These events are usually publicized in the journals, and most seminaries publish well in advance information on continuing education activities. One should strike a healthy balance between those events that address one’s weaknesses and those that address one’s strengths. Attending to one’s lacks is vital for growth in ministry, but also vital is being confirmed and encouraged in areas of one’s highest proficiency. In the meantime, for gain and satisfaction, ministers can form peer groups that meet on a continuing basis. Agendas for these groups vary from book reviews to texts for sermons to evaluating tapes of one another’s sermons to current issues before the church. These groups, if small and congenial, can be very stimulating and supportive. 

10. Preserve the fruits of one’s study. Methods here vary all the way from drawers filled with newspaper and magazine clippings to folders filed by topics, such as prayer, divorce, suicide, and Good Friday. If one does keep folders of materials, keeping one for each of the books of the Bible can also be a way of preserving the notes of research. Whether filing by topic or text or both, the point is to save materials for future use and avoid wasting time in duplicated efforts. It is a waste of time and energy to study for a lesson or sermon, and once the message is prepared, save only the message. The work done on Ephesians, for example, in preparation for a sermon, if preserved, will save much time and increase confidence when next returning to that book for a presentation. After years in the ministry, the cumulative value of such a file will radically reduce preparation time as well as increase the quality of your work. These folders do not have to contain all the information gained from research; in many cases, an entry indicating where appropriate materials can be located will suffice.

Preserving the fruits of study involves different kinds of note-taking. There are research notes, notes containing one’s thoughts in response to research, and notes that move the research and the reflection upon it closer to a sermon in preparation. However, there are notes to be taken on ideas that are spawned in the course of one’s study which are quite unrelated to the immediate purpose and direction of that study. It is characteristic of stimulating resources to generate such thoughts and ideas, sometimes an explosion of them, which move in many directions. Although tempted to do so, one cannot pursue every thought triggered by a text or article or personal experience. Neither should one take the time to evaluate their merits. The wise course is to make a note on the idea and place it in a card file or folder designated for further consideration. If it is clear that the thought belongs with a sermon or an occasion already in prospect, then, of course, take time to place it with the notes already beginning to cluster at that point. (More will be said about sermon calendars later.)

Some of these notes will wilt in the light of careful scrutiny later, but no matter. The important thing now is to make the note full enough to revive later the thought that prompted it. Otherwise, the note is not only worthless; it haunts the edges of one’s mind like an almost-heard conversation in the next room. For example, one may have a flood of ideas generated by Jonah’s resentment of God’s grace and generous love. The thoughts are pulsating and fresh but off to one side of one’s present course. So a note is made. The card says, “Jonah at Nineveh.” Months or years later, the note says too much and too little. It is good for nothing except to be cast out and trodden underfoot. Or, on a drive down a country lane, you are so alert to the sights and sounds of nature that a mockingbird in a tree becomes a magnet drawing together a rush of thoughts and feelings. On a scrap of paper the moment is captured: “Bird in tree.” A year later, you may stare for hours at that piece of paper and feel no racing of the blood, no pounding of the heart. Of course, at the time there seemed no possibility of ever forgetting.

Within the minister’s life of study there lies one pressingly regular assignment: the preparation of a sermon...


This excerpt is from the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Preaching by Fred B. Craddock, the book is included in the Ministry Matters Premium Subscription, you may also order the paperback edition below.

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