The Preacher’s Dilemma — Finding Time for Study


Looking back on forty years of pastoral work, there is one vexing problem I never really solved—the balance between the pastor’s study time and his other duties. Our first and foremost task as pastors is to preach and teach God’s Word, feeding the flock—systematically, thoroughly, biblically, expositionally, and relevantly. Paul commanded Timothy to preach the Word, and to rightly divide it.

Our greatest job is the handling of the Word of God, and our model is Ezra who devoted himself to the study of Scripture and to being well-versed in the Law (Ezra 7:6, 10), and to the public exposition of this Word (Nehemiah 8:8). Jesus told Peter to feed the flock (John 21:15-17). The very word “pastor” comes from “pasture” and refers to the shepherd’s role in preparing the nourishment of the Word for the sheep entrusted to His care.

The stability of a congregation is rooted in the quality of its pulpit ministry. When the people are fed with the unfolding wisdom of God through expositional sermons, the church will grow deeper, wider, and stronger. Millennials are particularly hungry for qualitative biblical teaching, and people who sit in the pews week after week want to learn new things, make new discoveries, and see things they’ve never before discovered in Scripture.

Too many of our pulpits are simply saying the same thing week after week; and too many preachers are rushing through their preparation and hoping to compensate for it by an enthusiastic delivery and a heavy dose of application. I’m all for application, but the authority behind the application is rooted in the words, sentences, verses, and paragraphs of Scripture, and in the theology it provides.

As preachers, we have to descend into the mines with our picks and shovels, dig deeply, find the veins of gold buried in the stories and poems and epistles, and then polish and shape them for our Sunday messages. That takes enormous time. It was – and is – my favorite part of the job of pastoring.

But it isn’t the only part of pastoring. We also have to articulate vision, chart plans, oversee staff, organize and administer a nonprofit organization made up of people of varying degrees of maturity, care of the sick, visit senior adults, counsel the troubled, placate the disgruntled, raise the budget, show up at hundreds of events, conduct weddings and funerals – all without neglecting our spouses or children or wearing ourselves to exhaustion.

For bi-vocational pastors, the task is truly daunting. And for those of us who came of age when pastors preached multiple times a week with different sermons or lessons, it was nearly impossible to do as well as I would have liked. I was determined to keep my preaching fresh, but sometimes I had trouble keeping me fresh in the process.

There are some strategies that may help.

  • Many churches solve the problem by engaging a preaching team to share the load, which is our current model at The Donelson Fellowship.
  • Others hire a church administrator, who can oversee much of the machinery of a church’s ministry. This was my lifesaver for several years at our church.
  • Some churches screen the pastor’s responsibilities. For example, in my opinion, a senior pastor should limit his counseling. I’m not a trained counselor or an authorized therapist, and I don’t pretend to be one. I’ll meet with someone once or twice for general pastoral counseling, but others can take it from there.
  • We can also decrease the frequency of our presentations. Few churches demand three fresh sermons a week any more, and Sunday night worship is almost a thing of the past. Whether this is a good overall trend is open to discussion, but in terms of time management it alleviates some of the pressures on a pastor-preacher.

Still, I love to teach and preach and don’t really want to do less of it; I’d rather do more. I do not regret the time devoted to the study, preparation, and delivery of expositional sermons. I was taught from the beginning to set aside my mornings for the study of Scripture. I minimized interruptions before lunch. I’ve given the best hours of the day to my open Bible, and I wouldn’t trade that practice for anything.

An expositor cannot prepare nourishing sermons with the leftovers of a busy schedule.

Our time with the Word must have priority on our daily calendars, and it must come first in our ministry. We should give our freshest time to the work of the Word, before our minds are weary with the worries of the day. Remember what Peter said when he delegated the food-distribution ministry to others: “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4).

I recall having a conversation about this with my friend, Peter Grainger, who was pastor of Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh. Among his predecessors was the famous expositor, Graham Scroggie. One day the elders at the chapel came to visit Scroggie in his office, upset he wasn’t more active in visiting the homes of the congregation.

Scroggie leaned back in his chair, threw his feet on his desk, and said, “Gentlemen, you can either have my head or my feet, but you cannot have both.”

They wisely chose to let him keep his head in the Book and give him the leeway to prepare his masterful sermons. We’re still benefiting from his prolific ministry today. The elders found someone else with two good feet and a big heart to do the visiting.

It’s not a matter of finding time for study. It’s a matter of studying, and finding time for everything else.

We are the electrical wires between page and pew, and this is no time to short-circuit. We are pipelines between the reservoir and the home, and in days like these we can’t afford to get rusty. We are stewards of the Word, and it is required of steward that they be found faithful.