Upon seeing the picture of me in my office, a picture taken while I was still in college (the last family portrait we had made), my visitor remarked, “You look like a geek off of a TV show.” Well, yes, I did. Do. Whatever. My designated on-screen counterpart isn’t Sheldon Cooper for nothing, you know.
About a month later, the same member returned, walking in on me to find my desk littered with papers, my Bible open, and a Greek New Testament in my hand. “Oh. Sorry,” she began, “I just forget you do that.”
Bewildered, I asked, “Are you not used to pastors who study?”
She looked thoughtful for a moment before finally replying, “Well, no. Not really.”
On the one hand, I was horrified. Never saw a pastor study? Never witnessed a minister in the midst of digging into the word of God, making notes, consulting reference texts? Unthinkable. But on the other hand, I knew exactly where this church member was coming from. Pastors are private people, when we can be. And while we all have walk-ins, many make appointments to speak with the minister, so the opportunity to just walk in during sermon or lesson prep is minimal. For another thing, most preachers in Appalachia don’t do that kind of study. They are devoted men of God and better ministers than I’ll ever be, but they don’t see a need for it, or else they lack the training/resources to do the work of research. Another consideration is simply that the full role of the pastor is largely unknown to the average churchgoer. They wonder why we get paid a salary to see people in the hospital and talk for 20-30 minutes a week, never knowing we make house calls, teach in the nursing homes, plan events, write lesson plans, plan worship services, coordinate volunteers, keep up with the latest articles, serve the community at special happenings, counsel the hurting, handle people who come in needing financial assistance, fix the toilets . . . Well, let’s just say there are reasons the average workweek for the average pastor is well over 50 hours.
It should be apparent by now that pastors wear many hats. Different ministers excel at different parts of the job, so there are different archetypes for ministers: administrators, preachers, scholars, counselors, spiritual directors, etc. And we all know it — and know which one we are. In fact, in seminary, I was tempted to order t-shirts for the guys in my cohort featuring nothing but our archetypes: “The Administrator” (for the guy who scheduled making his schedules), “The Theologian” (for the guy who came to seminary a better theologian than I left it), “The Pastor” (for the guy who could do it all), and “The Mystic”(for the guy who took all the spiritual formation classes). In the interest of full disclosure, my roommates, two of whom were The Theologian and The Mystic, decided my archetype was “The Exorcist” (but that’s a different story for a different day.) Every pastor may wear any one of these hats at any given moment, but we all have a default role.
Regardless of that role, clergy friends, part of our calling is lifelong learning. We spent years receiving the training and education to do what we do, but we will never know all there is about our faith. Our task as shepherds of the flock is to get that knowledge into the hands of the people in the pews. They have questions, doubts, disbelief. We have to be the ones with the answers. Granted, sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know,” but that should always be followed with “but I’ll find out.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not mandating we ministers keep up with our Hebrew and Greek (although I think we should) or other things you may not find particularly valuable in your ministry context. But I firmly believe part of our job description is to study our trade. Leadership, theology, current events, all of it. Especially those things which don’t correspond to our default role (or t-shirt archetype). Oh, and fiction. We should be readers of fiction for two main reasons: 1) our congregations are reading it, thus culture is influenced by it, and 2) it can tell us about the messiness of the human heart in ways other things can’t.
Let me broaden my scope a bit. It’s not only pastors who need to constantly brush up on matters of faith. I encourage everyone — Christian or otherwise — to get their hands on solid books about our religion. Study your Bibles, study church history. Systematic theology isn’t for everyone, but I think we’re all interested in things like salvation, heaven, the end times, angels, and things like that. Find something you’re interested in and go for it!
One other word to the laity: please understand the various roles — and varying gifts — of your shepherds. I know we all want the perfect pastor (who, by one survey, would work about 114 hours per week), but we’re mortals, too. We’re great at some things, good at a few more, and terrible at the rest of it, even if it’s part of our pastoral ministry. Please be kind, forgiving, understanding, and patient. We cycle through all of our roles on any given day, so give us time to swap hats and chug along beside you. Help us in our weak areas. Love us the way we love you; after all, we’re family.
And sometimes, families have geeks who study a lot. So come study with us.