How do I keep growing theologically after seminary?
I still remember the first day I stepped into the textbook tunnel in the LifeWay at SBTS. There were so many incredible books, and all were organized according to the courses in which they would be used. “The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” “Hebrew Exegesis: Joshua,” “Jonathan Edwards,” and “New Testament Exegesis: Galatians” all sounded like courses I would want to jump into immediately. There were prerequisites to take though, and required courses as well. Then, there of all of the other courses that could be offered: exegesis classes on a favorite book, a church history class on a favorite author or period, a theology class on a controversial doctrine. The possibilities are endless, and a student cannot take all the classes he wants or learn everything in seminary.
Seminary gives you the tools to become a lifelong learner. Unfortunately, the nature of a pastor’s work often means you will have to be strategic about making the time to continue learning. Don’t live in a fantasy world where you think you will find time to do important things. Just like getting exercise, spiritual disciplines, and spending time with your family, you won’t find time to do grow theologically after seminary, but you must prioritize and make the time. In addition, you will have to be strategic in planning to grow.
Here are five practical ways to keep growing theologically after graduating from seminary.
Read the Bible every day
Those who think every pastor reads his Bible every day are living in a fantasy world. Pastors often do not have discipline about how they schedule meetings; they have meetings in the early morning after a late-night counseling session, followed by a mid-morning staff meeting. Thus, there is little time to read and pray before the lunch meeting where another pastor would like to “get your thoughts on an issue he is facing.” If you do not prioritize Bible reading, other people’s priorities will eat up your time.
The best way to grow theologically is to read the Bible, so set aside the best time for you every day to spend extended time reading Scripture not related to your Sunday sermon. My personal conviction is that a pastor should, at minimum, read the entire Bible every year. Using one of many great Bible reading plans available, you can read through the Bible in three or four chapters a day. When you read the Bible, read with a highlighter and pencil in your hand and a curious mind. Don’t read distractedly as if you were driving a familiar road, but read carefully, mining every gem you see on your way. In reading the Bible at least once a year, you stay familiar with the whole of Scripture while continuing to learn with each new reading.
Preach Expositional Sermons
Expositional preaching, with the point of the sermon being the same as the point of the passage, is the best method to feed your church body on a weekly basis. It also serves as a great way for the pastor to continue to grow in his understanding of the Bible and theology.
When you preach expositional sermons, it forces you to think seriously about the details of a passage. You ask questions like, “Why does the author use this word in this place” and “Why does this thought follow that thought?” Then you must consider how this passage informs crucial biblical doctrines, relates to the rest of Scripture, and is meant to change the lives of God’s people. It also provides rich opportunities for interacting with serious secondary sources. Reading good biblical commentaries, relevant sections of systematic or biblical theologies, and journal articles are part of good sermon preparation.
Spending this kind of time each week in the biblical text and good secondary sources builds your theological understanding in ways you ordinarily do not comprehend in the moment. To grow in almost any area of life requires daily excursion and only seeing how much progress you have made with the passage of time. This is especially true of growth in theological knowledge after seminary.
After spending three or four years of intense theological training in which you make great strides in understanding, the remainder of your growth will be incremental. When you study faithfully each week for expositional sermons, at some point you will find yourself quoting Scripture you don’t remember memorizing, apply passages of Scripture to people’s lives in counseling sessions in ways you don’t remember formulating, and answering biblical questions you don’t remember studying. In these moments, you realize how much your faithful study has helped you to grow.
Plan your reading
You will not magically find time to read good books, but will need to make time. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said the pastor would have to fight for his life to make time for reading. Putting forth the effort for reading pays great dividends, as your mind is stretched and challenged. Through reading good books, you enter worlds you didn’t know existed, gain a greater understanding of your culture, and find rich illustrative material for your preaching. John Stott’s advice on reading is helpful:
“Many will achieve more, but the minimum would amount to this: every day at least one hour; every week one morning, evening or afternoon; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this, it sounds very little. Indeed, it is too little. Yet everybody who tries it is surprised how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It tots up to nearly six hundred hours in the course of a year.”
Not only do you need to plan the time for your reading, but you will also need to plan what to read. Here is an excellent plan laid out by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Put together reading projects across six disciplines: biblical studies, theology, history, church life, cultural studies, and literature. Read five or six books on each project.
Imagine the growth that would take place as you completed reading projects on the Gospels, the doctrine of Scripture, shepherding the church, Winston Churchill, issues facing rural America, and Wendell Berry’s “Port William” novels. In addition, he suggests reading everything you can by one author and reading sermons. The New Park Street Pulpit and Metropolitan Tabernacle may look like a daunting two shelves’ worth of books, and they are, but think of the benefit you would gain by reading through two or three volumes a year over a couple of decades.
Use your languages
Very few pastors keep up their Seminary-level proficiency in Hebrew and Greek. Even fewer make progress in them as they continue further into their ministry contexts. You never realize you are losing your biblical languages. You simply neglect one of them for several months and try to use it only to realize you can’t remember your vocabulary or how to parse. The frustration makes you put them down again only to realize you have become more hamstrung by trying to use them. Over time you will find that you have little facility left in them.
My last semester of seminary, one of my professors suggested that we translate one verse of Hebrew every week after graduation. He said that may seem small, but it will keep the Hebrew muscles exercised and over time we would achieve more. Begin with a realistic goal like this for your languages. Work with them in your preaching and make sure you are looking at the language you are not using in your preaching at least once a week.
For example, if you are preaching through Matthew, do your exegesis as best as possible in Greek and then take a little time during the week to work on Hebrew. Then when you find yourself in the Old Testament do the opposite. Over time you will find yourself growing in your languages rather than losing them.
Take study retreats
As I write this article, I am on the last full day of my fall study retreat. Less than one hour from my house in my state Baptist convention’s campground where pastors can do a “getaway” for a reasonable price. I spent nearly 12 hours yesterday reading Proverbs, sections on Proverbs from Old Testament theology books, and chapters on Proverbs from Old Testament surveys. Today I am doing the same with Matthew. When I am at home balancing the responsibilities of family and ministry, setting aside this extended time to study is impossible.
Start taking these retreats early in your ministry. Find a state park, a nearby Baptist college, a denominational campground, or a friend with a place at the beach. Get away for a few days with your Bible and a few books. Plan your time well so that you know what you are going to do when you arrive and take advantage of the time while you have it. This kind of intense study break can help you advance quickly in your understanding of Scripture and preparing in advance to teach God’s word to his people.
The pastor’s work is primarily and biblical and theological work. To grow in our effectiveness, we must make ways to continue making strides in our understanding of the Bible and theology. These are the major ways to do so, and we will find that faithfulness in these things over the long haul will produce much fruit in our lives and the lives of the people to whom we minister.
Scott Slayton, a 2002 graduate of SBTS, serves as Lead Pastor at Chelsea Village Baptist Church in Chelsea, AL and writes regularly at his site One Degree to Another. He has been married to Beth since 2003 and they have four children. You can follow him on Twitter.