Study and Preaching

I am not sure where I first heard this wisdom, but I have heard it several times: a pastor does not need an office, he needs a study. Spot on. The bulk of pastoral work is not management behind a door labeled “office,” it is bookish work behind a door labeled “study” – reading, research, writing, and not a little staring far off to the horizon’s edge just to ponder. If his heart can see the pulpit from there, all the better, no matter where the study lands on Google Maps.

Now this discussion may be too pedantic for some, but it holds great rewards for those needing to be liberated from managing programs to stay busy with preaching. The late Eugene Peterson once worked up a good tale that helps make the point.

In the best book he ever wrote, Peterson repeats a pastoral joke he enjoyed telling until it backfired. It is found in, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity: “For a long time, I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation. The curriculum would consist of four courses.”

The meat of the joke is when Peterson lists and describes the four courses. I have space only to list: Course I - Creative Plagiarism; Course II - Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling; Course III - Efficient Office Management; Course IV - Image Projection. This last course, Peterson said, would help pastors “create the impression that we are terrifically busy and widely sought after for counsel by influential people in the community.”  

Why did Peterson say his joke eventually backfired? Because the joke became widescale reality in the American church. The point is this: it is easy for reformed pastors, men called to preach by Almighty God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – to be busy doing the wrong things. The right thing is a vibrant life in the study, not the office.

What should be included in such vibrancy? Besides careful exegetical study, which I am going to assume and leave unmentioned, many other things can be listed. My short list will hit a few things which I sense are often overlooked, things that greatly aid reformed preaching and even make the study a place of doxology and intellectual joy:

  1. In the study read massive amounts of scripture. It is likely you did not read enough scripture last year. Do better this year. Sanctification is progressive. Read more scripture. Start now. The task of preaching is dependent on scripture, not just because of the text being preached, but because all scripture aids our interpreting the one text being preached. As some of our godly fathers said: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.9). Search. Know. Get clarity.
  1. In the study search out your text in the best Reformed systematic theologies. Let’s admit it. Sometimes we don’t know, or we have just plumb forgot, where the passage we are about to preach might fit in a sound system of theology. A great help to us and our preaching can be found in the “scripture index” at the back of a few top-shelf systematic theologies. Look up your passage and be reminded under which head(s) of doctrine it stands. This will often inspire you to give a brief doctrinal lesson in your preaching which makes equipped and stalwart saints. How can we forget J.I. Packer’s ageless admonition: “Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep.”
  1. In the study pray until you see how to preach to people’s faith in hope of the Spirit. Just as a Reformed worship service is only to be enjoyed with the aid of true faith and the Holy Spirit, such must also be true of Reformed preaching. The abilities of the flesh must find no oxygen in Reformed preaching. The pastor thus labors in the study, especially in solitary prayer, to keep out of his preaching those fleshly rails upon which the flesh delights to ride, confirming we are doing just fine as we are. The study is a place to wrestle before God for the blessing of finding expressions in the pulpit that confirm to men’s conscience the Word is summoning them into the age to come which has been inaugurated for those walking by faith and empowered by the Holy Spirt.

The study is a special place. When we do the right things in it, we will want to be there more often and our congregations will not begrudge that door, that sign, nor that worker laboring behind it, rightly dividing the Word.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley