How to get things done in seminary: The 5 keys to productive scholarship
In my first year as a student at Southern Seminary, I took 48 credit hours in nine months: six classes in the fall semester, one class over J-term, six more classes in the spring semester, and three more in the month of June. (I would have taken even more if I could have, but that was the limit!) During the second semester, I finished all my assignments in the first six weeks so I could have the rest of the semester free to work more and do other things.
I felt like I had time management down — even though I had never studied it or given much thought to my productivity approach.
But I was in for a rude awakening. In my first full-time job out of seminary, my role was to launch a nationwide radio program and redesign our ministry’s website. These tasks were so large that I quickly learned that my time management methods were not sufficient. I was often working 90-hour weeks just to keep up.
So I went about the task of developing an intentional approach to time management that would allow me to keep up with everything I needed to do. David Allen’s popular bookGetting Things Done had just been released, and I resonated with it immediately. The ministry where I worked also encouraged using Franklin Planners, so I developed an approach that sought to integrate the best of these two systems.
This approach helped me navigate life after seminary. But I sometimes wonder how much it could have helped me if I had it during seminary as well.
While I don’t begrudge the fact that time management was not taught in my seminary studies (though I think it should have been), the fact remains: every seminary student needs to learn time management. There is no other way to prepare adequately for all the demands that will come after seminary. Further, learning time management now will pay big dividends by enabling you to be more effective in your current studies, with less stress and more peace of mind.
In fact, time management is especially helpful during the days of your theological studies. Archibald Alexander, one of the founding faculty of Princeton Seminary, writes:
Diligence without method will enable us to make but little progress; adopt, therefore, and preserve a regular method in the disposal of your time and distribution of your studies. When you have your time judiciously apportioned you proceed with ease and alacrity like the traveler on a road where the distances are marked and the stages conveniently arranged for his accommodation.
This is even more important now than in Alexander’s day or when I was in seminary, as the pace of life has only picked up due to technology. With the intelligent application of a few solid time management principles, it is possible to make the most of your time in seminary without letting your studies become a grind or unjustly interfere with your family, ministry, and other priorities.
So, how do you do that? Here are five principles that can serve as a starting point.
Managing your time well doesn’t start with discipline. It starts with vision. It doesn’t matter how fast you are going if you are going in the wrong direction. Hence, you need to know why you are in seminary. You need a vision for your time and what you are trying to accomplish.
What should your seminary vision be? To know God better and be equipped to make him known more effectively. This implies at least two main things.
Make your studying devotional. Don’t fall into the trap of segmenting your devotional time and your study time. Of course you should have a distinct time for personal devotions. But also make sure to do your studies in communion with God and for the purpose of knowing him better. What John Owen said about controversy is a general principle for how we should go about our study: we are to “commune with God in the doctrines for which we contend.”
David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell capture very well what it means to make your studies devotional in their book How to Stay Christian in Seminary:
Pray for God’s help before class, before studying, before writing a paper or taking a test, and during all these activities. Continually consecrate your studies to Jesus and ask him to freshly meet you in them, keep your spiritual blood flowing, and keep you soft to his grace. … Whatever the assignment, intentionally seek the growth and warming of your soul. There’s no spiritually neutral gear when handling the Bible.
Three short works that are especially important for helping any seminarian set their theological studies on the right foot are Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Benjamin Warfield’s The Religious Life of Theological Students, and Herman Witsius’ On the Character of a True Theologian. Read these works to get your foundation right.
Realize what it means to be prepared for ministry. It doesn’t mean, ironically, that you will know everything you need to know the day you graduate. As John Piper has said, the second day on the job you will encounter problems to which you don’t know the answer. The point of seminary is, of course, to give you a solid and extensive foundation. But part of that means equipping you with the ability to continue learning for the rest of your ministry.
More than this, I would suggest that you need to have the proper vision for your ministry in mind in order to have the right vision for how to prepare for that ministry while in seminary. Whether your aim is to be a pastor, professor, or ministry executive, I would recommend that you embrace the proclamation view of ministry rather than the application view of ministry.
This is not to say that application is bad. Far from it. The chief task of any pastor (or scholar, or anyone else in ministry) is not to give people five steps to a better life, or six ways to do this or that more effectively. Rather, the first task is to set before people a big view of who God is and what he has done.
In other words, your chief aim in ministry should be that people see and behold the glory of God. This follows from the fact that the Scripture is first of all about what God has done for us rather than what we do for God. Further, beholding the glory of God itself has a transforming effect (2 Cor 3:18) and thus is the foundation of real practical action for good. If, on the other hand, you focus first of all on giving people life strategies and tips, you will be unwittingly severing the root of true life change. (For more on these different views of ministry, see Jared Wilson’s very helpful book The Prodigal Church or John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching.)
Again, application is not bad. It is essential and, when done right, incredibly interesting. But your first task in ministry needs to be to proclaim who God is and what he has done. This, in turn, means that your time of preparation in seminary needs to be focused as much as possible on learning about God. Focus as much as you can on learning systematic theology, biblical theology, and how to mine the depths of the Scriptures for yourself. Then, as a way to bring those truths effectively to your people, learn preaching, counseling, and all the other disciplines.
With a basic vision for your seminary education in place, it’s now possible to apply some basic strategies and tactics for maximizing your time. One of the most helpful tactics is the simple practice of planning your week, every week.
This practice is so fundamental that, if you have a hard time with time management systems and can only do one thing, this is it.
In order to plan your week well, you need to understand first of all that the purpose of time management is not to force as much work as you can into your week or day. (So, take a big sigh of relief!) Rather, it is to enable you to keep the most important things front and center, with sufficient white space in your schedule to handle the unexpected and have unpressured time to think.
With this in mind, planning your week comes down to three basic steps. First, pull out the syllabi from all your classes and ask, “What do I need to do this week?” Identify any papers due, tests coming up, presentations to prepare, assigned reading to complete, and anything else that needs to get done. Then create a list of what you need to do that week in order to stay on course with your assignments.
This will help ensure that you don’t miss any immediate deadlines, while also enabling you to keep pace with long-term assignments so you aren’t stuck scrambling two days before the due date to get everything done. It will allow you to balance your load so you can get your studies done in a predictable, non-overwhelming manner.
Ask yourself, “What do I need to get done in my other roles?” This is crucial since you are more than a student. If you only plan your studies, you can easily allow your studies to crowd out other equally important responsibilities. To stay balanced, reflect on your other roles as well and make sure you are giving the people in your life the time they deserve.
Schedule into your week the most important things you’ve identified. If you create too rigid of a schedule, this will backfire. So don’t try to put on the calendar literally every assignment you will be working on. Rather, make sure you have a routine of some basic study slots in place. Then, during those slots, refer to the list you made of the assignments you need to work on that week, and work down the list.
When it comes to responsibilities from your other roles, some of those will probably be helpful to schedule specifically. For example, you might realize you’ve skipped date night with your wife for too many weeks and you need to get back to that. Schedule that for whatever night works best for you and then do the actions necessary to get child care if needed and plan a great date.
One of the biggest reasons seminary can become a grind for people is because they’re using the wrong study tactics, including rote review.
Rote review means preparing for a test, or otherwise seeking to learn the material, simply by passively reviewing your notes. Most students operate this way, thinking that this is what it means to study. In reality, this is a brute force technique that is incredibly ineffective. It fails to effectively imprint the concepts on your mind. On top of that, it is mentally draining, diminishing its effectiveness even further and creating a downward spiral of unproductive learning.
Instead, as Cal Newport points out in his excellent book How to Become a Straight A Student, “the most effective way to imprint a concept is to first review it and then try to explain it, unaided, in your own words.” That’s the key. Don’t just read and reread the material and your notes. Explain it in your own words. This “extra effort” is what gets it into your head.
Have you ever said to yourself, “I’m going to work on the paper tonight from 6 to 10”? Then you sit down to begin work on the paper — while also doing a lot of other things?
That’s the trap of pseudo-work. In this example, the paper is not receiving focused attention. Hence, it is taking a lot longer than it needs to. To solve this problem, we need to realize that effectiveness in studying (and any other type of work) is a function of time spent multiplied by focus. In other words, as Cal Newport also points out:
Time spent working × degree of focus = amount accomplished
What this means is if you increase your focus, you can decrease your time spent. Conversely, if you work in an unfocused way, trying to do many things at once, you will dramatically increase the time spent.
Work in focused bursts of shorter duration instead of unfocused bursts of longer duration. This will enable you to learn the material better while at the same time freeing up an incredible amount of time for your family and other priorities. Now you can get your studies done with plenty of time to go on that date night with your wife.
I mentioned earlier that seminary will not provide you with literally everything you need to know for ministry. This is not necessarily a flaw in the design of the curriculum. It’s simply not possible.
When I was in seminary more than 10 years ago, I did not learn much in class about leadership, management, and productivity. This is a huge gap, given the fact that good leadership is absolutely essential to the task of ministry and makes up a very large part of how any pastor or other ministry worker spends their time. Further, these things are actually taught and highly valued in Scripture. For example, Isaiah 32:1-2 prophesies that God’s church will be characterized in the last days by excellent leaders who lead so effectively that they are like a shelter from the storm.
Take the initiative to learn about leadership, management, and productivity while you are in seminary so you won’t be caught by surprise when you enter the ministry. The best place to start is Marcus Buckingham’s excellent The One Thing You Need to Know, which covers all three of these disciplines in a single book. Also very helpful are Hans Frinzel’s The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules, and Stephen Covey’s First Things First.
The need to learn about leadership leads to one final piece of advice: Don’t rely on your seminary classes to teach you everything that matters and everything you need to know. Always be learning on your own. You will likely find the same thing I have — that the most important things I have ever learned are often what I learned first through my own independent studies. Seminary is an excellent support, but the real learning in your life happens as you supplement it with the things you take the initiative to learn yourself.
Matt Perman is a Master of Divinity graduate in Biblical and Theological Studies from Southern Seminary (2003). He is a leadership consultant and the author of What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Zondervan 2014, $19.99).