The benefits of formal study

Or: Why Study? Part 5

This is the last in a series of five posts on the importance of serious theological study beyond the commentary work required for preaching. The posts are by Garry Williams, with input from the Pastors’ Academy team.

You can listen to this post here.

There are some pastors who maintain the discipline of extensive wider theological study beyond preaching preparation on their own without any help, but there are few of them. Nor is it ideal to fly entirely solo, because it means missing out on external expertise and iron-sharpening-iron interaction. At the Pastors’ Academy we used to offer a rolling study project for pastors who wanted help studying alongside their ministry rather than during a period of dedicated study leave. Over the years a number signed up for it, but only three lasted for more than a few months, and only one has kept going. By contrast, we have worked fruitfully with over 100 pastors on study projects for which they have had dedicated blocks of study time. If we are honest, we all find it extremely difficult to maintain dedicated study in the midst of the demands of ministry. For most pastors, preparation and pastoral work will always feel more urgent than reading and thinking more widely. We are poor at playing the long game and we need all the help we can get.

Let me be clear about what I am not saying in advocating ongoing theological study. There was a surreal debate online recently about whether a pastor needs to have a PhD. It is bizarre even to ask that question, especially if we are alert to the realities of life for the vast majority of pastors in the world. It sounds as clueless as asking whether pastors need to have an iPad to preach or membership of a golf club to unwind, things unimaginable for most of our brother pastors in the world, and perhaps even for the majority in the West.

Pastors need to keep studying and growing theologically, but that is quite different from saying ‘All pastors must do this particular form of study’, especially one which requires high-level ability, prior qualifications, finance, and extensive time. I would say that most pastors ought not to do a PhD, especially a European one that focuses on a single, narrow, off-piste topic. A pastor is by definition a generalist, so the best post-seminary degree for a pastor who does have the opportunity and means to do one is going to be broad, like a taught Master’s. Far more important than the precise form of study is maintaining study itself. Theological growth is the aim, not more letters after your name.

So what is the point of engaging in further formal study for those who can? Further qualifications are useful only if and because they enable better study. They do this by bringing expertise, structure, and accountability. The expertise comes in the form of sustained engagement with faculty members. The formal rhythm of classes and assessment deadlines brings structure. Accountability comes in the form of feedback, and from the fact that your fellow-elders can ask how your work is progressing against an objective measure.

No one should prescribe a universal form of study for pastors, but every pastor should embrace the priority of study. The vast majority will need help to do it.

The Pastors’ Academy exists to provide this help. We offer a range of options for pastors in different situations and with different qualifications and opportunities, from study hours to our taught ThM degree with PRTS. Do get in touch to discuss how we might help you.