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Pastors, Put Down Your Commentaries for a Moment

Consider asking some new questions about your congregation (and their world of work).

An Unseminary Reading List

(5 ideas)

1 Ask good questions

Okay, not a book to read, but you can start learning by simply asking good questions when you meet with people in your church: What is the most stressful part of your job right now? What is the biggest concern in your field right now? How will you be affected by the Fed’s attempts to rein in inflation? 

2 The 10-Point

An email newsletter from WSJ.

3 After Hours

A podcast.

4 Your local business journal

Almost all mid- to major-sized cities have one. You can find them at places like bizjournals.com.

5 Faith-Driven Entrepreneur and Faith-Driven Investor

Podcasts about business and investment aimed at professionals.

All those stock abbreviations and graphs jammed into the front page of the Wall Street Journal used to make it the one paper I was sure to avoid on a newsstand. But when I realized that every guy in my weekly men’s group skimmed it daily, I subscribed.

It’s no secret that many pastors are natural students who love to learn. Many of us were drawn into vocational ministry, in part, by our inclination to do just that — to read and study the Bible, to understand theology, history, cultural trends, and more. Ideally, all of that learning is not just for our own enjoyment, but for the benefit of the congregations and communities we serve. 

In recent years even, because of the wider conversation around faith and work, many of us have benefitted from an incredible proliferation of books, conferences, and other resources that have deepened our understanding of the theology of faith and work specifically — the inherent goodness of work, the futility of work in a broken world, and work’s redemptive potential. 

But it seems that many of us have struggled to translate some of those abstract theological concepts to our congregants and community members. And it’s largely because we do not understand the daily practicalities of what they do. We may know what they do in the sense of knowing who their employer is and what position they hold — she’s a second grade teacher at the local elementary school, or he’s a loan officer for a mortgage company — but we have a long way to go in understanding what shapes those days and hours.  

Last year I made a transition to a new pastoral call and quickly learned that the congregation I now serve is full of engineers. It’s hard to imagine a field further from my professional training. But, by embracing my ignorance and asking what seem like basic questions, I’m beginning to learn about all the different types of engineering, pick up on some of the jargon, and learn the right questions to ask depending on what type of engineer I’m talking to

The challenge for many pastors is that when we enter conversations with people about what makes up their days, we will be entering fields where we are not the experts. We won’t know the jargon, the history, or who the important people are. But the sooner we get into the conversation, the sooner we can start learning and making up for lost time.

The solution to this challenge, as simple as it sounds, is for pastors to channel a portion of their studies in the direction of other people’s vocational lives. This can take many forms. For starters, simply take genuine interest and ask good questions when you meet with people in your church: What is the most stressful part of your job right now? What is the biggest concern in your field right now? How will you be affected by the Fed’s attempts to rein in inflation? In some cases, we may be able to actually visit people in their own workplace and see at least part of their work firsthand. Or maybe you don’t shadow for a day in their office, but you could be a patient in their medical practice, an audit student in a class they teach, or a customer for a product they sell. 

When I began asking congregants what they read and listen to, I was surprised by not only how eagerly they made recommendations but also by how engageable some of the options were. Alongside the Wall Street Journal, I subscribed to a daily email called the 10-Point that summarizes the top 10 stories of the day for quick digestion. Now I often read a few entire stories linked there, and I even recognize a few of those stock tickers now. Better yet, I can knowledgeably engage in conversations where I used to just be an observer. 

Similarly, a friend pointed me to the After Hours podcast, hosted by three professors at Harvard Business School. The show discusses the business implications of current cultural events and trends in a witty and entertaining way. For example, we’ve all heard for months about “supply-chain issues” but one particular episode tracked changes in supply chain dynamics going back before the Great Recession and how that history created the perfect environment for the chaos caused by COVID-19.  As professors, the hosts do a great job explaining terms and concepts like “DTC (direct to consumer) brands” and “SPACs” (special purpose acquisition companies) that MBAs would know but pastors might not, giving historical background and making connections that someone without a business background might need. The learning really never ends. 

So instead of asking a teacher “How has the new school year been so far?” I can ask “In what ways are you still seeing the effects of COVID disruption and online learning in your students?” The response to the first question will be something like “pretty good” while the response the more specific question is likely a 20-minute conversation that lets me into the details of her specific working world, her current experience of the fallenness and futility of work, and even some discussion of what redemptive work might look like in this particular school year.

Many pastors are disciplined to maintain practices of continuing education that don’t immediately relate to this week’s sermon, counseling session, or church board meetings. Some continually study Greek and Hebrew while others get leadership coaching. Some of us would benefit from a discussion group that simply skims the front page of the local Business Journal every day and discusses the leading stories once a week.

We should take advantage of the wealth of resources available for our love of reading, listening, and learning. Pastors should consider intentionally devoting some of their time and financial resources for professional development to this endeavor. If you are fortunate enough to have a budget allotted for books, periodicals, and other resources, consider spending a portion of it on a newspaper or magazine subscription that would help educate you on a vocational field that is well-represented in your congregation. Find out if there are podcasts or email newsletters that your congregants use for their own professional development and work them into your own regular listening or reading. 

Perhaps you’re in a rural agricultural community where professional knowledge is passed down more by word of mouth than in the classroom. You may need to listen in on a lot of conversations about cows or spend a lot of hours riding tractors to get the same education. On the other hand, if many of your congregants travel regularly for work, they simply may not have time to tell you much about it face to face, but there may be other ways to learn. 

Given the temperament, gifts, and interests that God gave you, these disciplines may only further affirm that you are called to be a pastor, not a teacher, farmer, or engineer. But if you find that God has wired you to love learning, I encourage you, in the realm of faith and work, to love learning more than abstract ideas and commit to learning the concrete details of other believers’ vocations, “knowing that in the Lord [their] labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58). 

By reading a few less commentaries and a few more articles on education, housing, or health care, I’ve found that I can engage my congregants more intentionally.

A version of this article originally appeared in Common Good issue 10.

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