Over the years I have read and watched presbyteries review pastoral calls, and one of the regular benefits I’ve seen is a one or two-week study break. It’s fairly common, but what is the study break and what’s the best way to use one?
The basic idea is that the regular rhythms and responsibilities of ministry can pile up and keep a pastor from being able to do deep academic spade work. Sure, the pastor regularly prepares his sermons, and there is academic benefit in this weekly exercise, but when visitations, counseling, and session meetings fill his calendar, it can be difficult to get to important books and essays that either supplement or even undergird the pastor’s continuing education. While the illustration is imperfect, a software engineer needs time to read about the latest developments and advances in his field so he doesn’t fall behind and eventually become irrelevant in his work. In similar fashion, the Bible does not change, but pastors do need time to dig deeper into the word so their sermon preparation and use of the Bible in pastoral ministry is better, more efficient, and accurate.
So, if study breaks are important, what can you do to ensure that you use your study break well? I think one of the more important things is planning. If you schedule your study break but do nothing to plan for it, you will find that it becomes a waste of time. It will pop up on your calendar, the week or two will race by, and at the end you’ll have little to show for it. You can avoid this with careful planning. First, identify what subject(s) you want to study. Perhaps you need to do advanced preparation for an upcoming sermon series, or you want to read-up on the latest books on counseling, or there’s a subject that you think you need more study on because you feel like you didn’t quite grasp things in seminary. Whatever it is, identify your subject.
Second, determine the means by which you’ll study your subject. Will you attend a conference or read a select number of books or essays? Figure out the method by which you’ll study. If it’s books, for example, choose a reasonable amount of reading to accomplish in for your study break. Make sure that as you read, you’re taking good notes so you don’t forget the information. Also, do advanced preparatory work. Gather your books and essays well in advance of your study break so that you can hit the ground running.
Third, be deliberate about the discipline of your study break. If you can, get out of town, even if it’s to a boring place. Turn off your phone, don’t look at e-mail, shut off the internet, and let your session know you’re going on lock-down to facilitate your study. I’ve seen too many pastors plan their study breaks and start with good intentions only to get sidelined by life and ministry needs.
Fourth, and finally, once you’ve accomplished your goals, write up a one-page report to give to your session so they can see quantifiable and objective accomplishments. This not only shows your elders that you’ve been a good steward with your time and resources, but it also paves the way for the session to invest in future study breaks. If they can see that you read 1,000 pages on the doctrine of justification and that it produced a six-month Sunday School lecture series on the topic, then they’ll see the benefits to your ministry and the life of the church. Your elders will want to invest more time and resources into your future study breaks.
Taking time off to study and bone-up, therefore, is really important. What hay is to the horse and a whetstone is to a blade, a well-planned and used study break is to a pastor. It’s not just a vacation or an excuse to avoid preaching for a week. Well-used, it’s vital to a healthy ministry.