There are many pitfalls and temptations of various kinds inherent in the work of pastoral ministry. (Please pray for your pastors!) No doubt this is why Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16, ESV) Pastors not only need to “keep a close watch” on what they teach, but also on themselves as well. Paul even adds that we must “persist in this.” We never arrive or outgrow this need for self-watch.
Now those of us who are in full-time ministry have, as part of our work, the great privilege and blessing of spending a good bit of time in studying the Word of God. It has been said that we are paid, not so much to do the work of ministry (as if it were just our jobs), but in order to be freed up to do the work of ministry. And part of that certainly includes time in study and in prayer.
Having said that, there are some peculiar temptations that may arise in the midst of that time in study and sermon preparation. Have you ever listened to a sermon and immediately thought to yourself (or even said to someone next to you in church), “I know someone who really needs to hear this sermon!” Now that may be true enough, but sometimes when we think this way it shows that we are not necessarily focusing on our own need for hearing that same sermon. If we, for example, are focusing so much on someone else’s shortcomings and sins that are addressed in the sermon text, there is a greater likelihood that we might neglect to focus on our own need for grace and repentance. And if that is the case, we have probably failed to benefit from the ministry of the Word much at all that day.
Well, a similar mindset can creep in unawares among pastors as well, even if it takes a slightly different form. This happens when I as the pastor find myself studying a given text of Scripture primarily with my listeners in mind first. Now don’t get me wrong – having the congregation in mind is certainly a necessary part of good sermon preparation. But it cannot start there. Starting there shortcuts the process in some rather important ways.
In his book, Shepherding God’s Flock, Jay Adams writes,
“One great temptation, for instance, is for the minister to read the Scriptures only in terms of sermons and ministry. Since he must preach to others, counsel with others, and in a dozen different ways minister from the Book to someone else, it is not hard for the minister to neglect the sort of reading that is calculated to penetrate his own heart and affect his life.” (p,23)
Personally, I believe this to be one of the more common temptations that many pastors face. And it is a rather subtle temptation at that, which makes it even more difficult to recognize.
Adams wisely notes that one obvious solution to this temptation is for the minister to “develop the practice of studying devotionally.” This involves studying, even as part of sermon preparation, “first with the aim of personal application” to himself, and only then with the aim toward applying it to the members of his congregation.
You might think that sounds simple, but I can assure you from personal experience that it is not nearly as easy as it sounds to keep such a perspective in mind.
Another practical suggestion is to seek to spend some time in reading and study that has no direct bearing on one’s preaching and teaching at the moment. This may not be easy to do, as there is only so much time in a day, but I believe it to be well worth the time.
So for my fellow pastors out there, I hope that you find this brief post to be helpful and encouraging. And if you ever find yourself stuck in the grind (so to speak) of studying just to preach to other people on Sundays, I sincerely hope that you will prayerfully consider these things, and get back to studying devotionally, as Dr. Adams suggests. (I know that I certainly need that reminder from time to time.)
And for those of you who are church members, may I humbly ask that you pray for your pastors, and encourage them in their work, which is for your benefit (Hebrews 13:17)? And see what you might be able to do as a church to enable your pastors and elders to avail themselves of opportunities for personal study and growth in the faith. That could even be through such things as attending a sound Christian conference or retreat from time to time. (Even seasoned pastors need to be ministered to, preached to, and taught from time to time.)