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You Shouldn’t Have Bought That Book!

Over the years people would often come into my office and look at my books.

“Have you read all of these?”

My stock answer was, “I’ve read some of them, but a lot of them are reference books that I use for sermon and lesson preparation.”

That may have sounded odd to my visitors. Most people don’t buy books for “reference.” But the bulk of a pastor’s library consists of Bible reference tools, commentaries, and theological works – most of which are not going to be general reading. However, I also had books I bought on impulse, books I had no intention of reading again, and books that were probably outdated. So there were times when I looked at a book and said to myself, “You probably shouldn’t have bought that book.” I had good intentions, but – well, you know.

Books are expensive, even when you can buy them at discount. Some commentaries and larger theologies list for well over $40. You’re going to face both the need and the opportunity to buy books on a regular basis. How can you build a library that is top-notch: giving you the resources you need while at the same time not filled with books you wish you hadn’t bought?

If I could to start over, this is how I would build my library:

First, I’d begin with some basics. You probably have some or all of these already from your time in Bible College or Seminary.

Those books form the foundation of a good library. Some might want a concordance, but they are available in the public domain online.

Next I would begin building the commentary section of my library. My aim would be to pick up the best commentary on each book of the Bible. This is something you do over time, of course. A very helpful resource is Best Commentaries. If you haven’t checked that out, take a look.

The resurgence of interest in Biblical Theology has produced some significant works over the last decade. Westminster Seminary’s bookstore and Amazon can be helpful too, of course. I’d pick up a Biblical Theology of the OT and a Biblical Theology of the NT.

But, that leaves a lot of books on theology, church life, pastoral ministry, preaching, current issues, family life, and the spiritual life. What do you do here? There are exceptions, but I have found that these kinds of books are “read once and put on the shelf.” I’ve given away boxes of books like this. So how can you maximize your resources?

Get Kindle books.

Kindle books tend to be a bit less expensive than their paper counterparts. And if you don’t have a Kindle, that’s no biggie. Amazon provides Kindle apps for Android, IOS, PC, and Mac. Unless you’ve sworn off technology, you’re covered.

Some prefer a physical book to an electronic book. Physical books can be marked up and loaned out. Electronic books can be more limiting. But they can save you a ton of money.

Tim Challies, probably the most prolific (and helpful) Christian blogger, puts together a list of discounted Kindle books nearly every day. I have accumulated scores of books this way for as little as $1.99 each. His A La Carte article is worth checking daily.

Of course there are going to be exceptions. There are books that fit into the general categories I listed above that you may want on your bookshelf. But following this approach will give you what you need AND keep you from having boxes of books to give away because you have no use for them or you haven’t read them (and don’t plan to). And note that I haven’t even touched on the books that are available through software programs like Logos Bible Software, Accordance, or Olive Tree.

The size of your library is far less significant than the quality of the books that are in it. Buy well and you’ll build a resource that will last you through your ministry. Do you have ideas or tips? Leave a comment or contact me.

P.S. If you are a Kindle user, John MacArthur’s Biblical Doctrine can be had for $2.99, at least today (July 30, 2019).

Tools of the Trade – Monday, July 29, 2019

A Weekly List of Helpful Resources

I hope you had a great weekend of ministry. Today may be your day off, a day full of meetings, or a day to catch up and do some of the administrative-type of tasks that we all have to deal with.

A few weeks back I recommended the program Evernote. In case you’ve not heard of Evernote, it is an online repository for notes and articles. I use it primarily to clip articles that I think are worth coming back to and save them by topic.

There is a wealth of resources available in various blogs, online journals, and websites that can be very useful in your study. In addition, I’ve found articles that are worth sharing. In fact, I had a literature rack installed in a prominent place in our church and kept it filled with articles that would be helpful to people in my congregation.

You can get a free account that should be just fine for your use. Evernote also has browser extensions for all the major web browsers, so you can save an article into your Evernote file by clicking on the extension icon in your web browser. Evernote has apps for tablets, phones, and computers. Highly, highly recommended.

Here are some articles worth reading and clipping:

Tabletalk, the monthly publication of Ligonier Ministries (R.C. Sproul) has a good article by Guy Richards on handling criticism. If you’re a pastor, chances are you’ll probably get some. I know – hard to believe, right?

Here’s an article on J.I. Packer (Knowing God) and his teaching about holiness. It’s worth the read.

Pastors are not exempt from depression. In fact, we may be more prone to depression than a lot of people. Thom Rainer has a helpful article here.

Have you ever visited someone in the hospital and not known what to say? Or said the wrong thing? Or have them tell you of a well-meaning but thoroughly unhelpful comment another Christian made? Read this and share it.

Kevin DeYoung put together a list of books to read this summer on the subject of preaching. He polled some fellow pastors and scholars and gives us their recommendations.

Subscribing to several theological journals can be expensive. Thankfully a lot of seminaries put their journals online for free reading (and Evernote clipping). The Masters Seminary Journal (John MacArthur) can be accessed here.

See you on Wednesday!!

Preaching Is Shepherding!

A Minister’s Preaching, Part 4

My Master God,
I am desired to preach today,
but go weak and needy to my task;
Yet I long that people might be edified with divine truth,
that an honest testimony might be borne for thee;
Give me assistance in preaching and prayer,
with heart uplifted for grace and unction.
Present to my view things pertaining to my subject,
with fullness of matter and clarity of thought,
proper expressions, fluency, fervency,
a feeling sense of the things I preach,
and grace to apply them to men’s consciences.
Keep me conscious all the while of my defects,
and let me not gloat in pride over my performance.
Help me to offer a testimony for thyself,
and to leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting thy mercy.
Give me freedom to open the sorrows of thy people,
and set before them comforting considerations.
Attend with power the truth preached.
and awaken the attention of my slothful audience.
May thy people be refreshed, melted, convicted, comforted,
and help me to use the strongest arguments
drawn from Christ’s incarnation and sufferings,
that men might be made holy.

I myself need thy support, comfort, strength, holiness,
that I might be a pure channel of thy grace,
and be able to do something for thee;
Give me then refreshment among thy people,
and help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way,
or bear a broken testimony to so worthy a redeemer,
or be harsh in treating of Christ’s death, its design and end,
from lack of warmth and fervency.
And keep me in tune with thee as I do this work.

On Fridays, I’ve been commenting on a prayer from The Valley of Vision – a wonderful book of Puritan prayers. The prayer is called “A Minister’s Preaching.” I found it so helpful in focusing my own prayers on Sundays that I copied it and put it in my Bible, often using it privately on Sunday mornings before I preached.

I’ve written about the first part of the prayer here, the second part here, and the third part here.

Today I’d like to look at the section I’ve highlighted in boldface. There are several requests in this section of the prayer. I’ll focus on three of them.

First, the author asks that God would enable him to preach to “leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting thy mercy.”

Faithful preaching is Gospel-centered preaching. Without forcing the passage to say what it does not, at some point in the sermon we need to make sure we are explaining what it means to trust in Christ. If people hear nothing more than a motivational talk or a list of behaviors to adopt or put off, they won’t hear the Gospel. They may even make the assumption that being right with God comes through doing good things.

Weaving the facts of the Gospel into a sermon is not always easy. We need to pray for God’s help in this, just as the writer does. It is almost certain that you will have people in your audience on Sunday who don’t know Jesus, so keep the mercy that God showed in Christ prominent in your sermons.

Second, the author demonstrates a shepherd’s heart by asking God to enable him to minister to the sorrows of his people and bring them comfort.

Certainly we want to motivate our people to a greater love for Christ and greater service. But many in your congregation are wounded, discouraged, beaten up, and sorrowing. They hurt.

Help them. Encourage them. Bind up their wounds. Teach them about the love and care of Christ, who urges us to service but is also a tender shepherd. I’m reserving a future blog post for this theme, because I honestly fear that too many of us are championing our church programs and “mission statements” at the expense of pastoral care.

Finally, note that the author asks God to “awaken the attention of my slothful audience.”

Wow. That sounds harsh at first blush, doesn’t it? No doubt there will be people in your church on Sunday who have prepared their minds and hearts. But think: you’ll also have some who are attending out of habit (which is not the worst thing in the world), some who would rather be somewhere else, and many who have other things on their minds, like the burdens of the week or the afternoon’s ballgame or activities. They live in a media-rich environment and are used to being entertained. They are not bad people. They are products of the culture. And so are we. But we happen to be preaching so we have to pay attention! In this part of the prayer, the writer is asking that God would wake them up and help them focus on what God wants to say to them.

Whether you are preaching or teaching on Sunday, these are worthy requests to bring before the Lord. He desires to use you to minister to the varied needs of your church. Maybe it’s a good Sunday to use this prayer on your own or with your elders before the worship service begins.

May God bless your ministry this weekend!

Great News for Pastors (and Everyone Else Too!)

My intent is to post on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. However, I am a software junkie of sorts and have been experimenting with a some different blogging tools. I’ve settled on one called Ulysses. You can pick up the basics pretty quickly, but from what I’ve read the program has a great deal under the hood.

One thing I’ve learned about Ulysses is that if you press the “publish” button, your writing gets published. This is great if you’re ready for prime time, but not so good if the post is still in process or you want it to be posted at another time.

On Tuesday (yesterday), I had written a post for today and ended up not being attentive enough. So it published a day early. Which is hardly a major issue, but it’s not a good idea to leave too much time between posts. With that in mind I will post this brief quote that I hope will be an encouragement, whether or not you are in vocational ministry.

There’s a devotional book based on the writings of Martin Luther that you can get at Amazon. On the January 7 reading, reflecting on 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read these words:

”You must rely on these and similar verses with your whole heart. The more your conscience torments you, the more you must rely on them. For if you don’t and try to quiet your conscience through your own sorrow and penance, you will never find peace of mind and will finally despair in the end. If you try to deal with sin in your conscience, let it remain there, and continue to look at it in your heart, your sins will become too strong for you. They will seem to live forever. But when you think of your sins as being on Christ and boldly believe that he conquered them through his resurrection, then they are dead and gone. Sin can’t remain on Christ. His resurrection swallowed them up.” (Emphasis mine)

Whoever we are, whatever vocation we find ourselves in, the simple fact (as you well know) is that we are sinners.

May God encourage you with Luther’s thoughts on God’s word as you wrestle toward holiness!

Here’s Some Help to Get Things Done

There is no secret method.

I have to say that at the outset. I’ve followed productivity blogs and read productivity books for 30 years or more and there’s just no perfect system that’s going to be the magic bullet for life and time organization. The key to time/life management is to find a system that works and stick to it.

This is particularly important because a lot of people tinker with their systems and keep trying new things. As a result, important tasks don’t get done because too much attention has been given to the organizing tool.

I’m going to recommend a particular system that I think is workable and easy, but if you spend a little time researching what people say about it, you’ll find that people have spent hours drawing flowers and fairies in their planners to make them look cute. I mean, people are certainly free to do what they want. But spending hours decorating the tool you use to help you get things done seems a bit counterproductive. But, to use a cliche, “I digress.”

One of the decisions you need to make is whether you want your organizational system to be analogue (pen and paper) or digital (computer/phone). Some people use a hybrid system. Shawn Blanc, who writes for The Sweet Setup uses a hybrid system.

If you decide on a paper system, I would investigate the Bullet Journal system. You need a notebook. Nothing special or costly. If you want to read more than you’ll find on the website, author Ryder Carroll has written a book that you can get through Amazon.

The reason that I like the Bullet Journal system is that it makes sense, it is not complicated, and unless you find yourself wanting to draw pictures and fancy up your journal (please don’t!) you won’t spend hours setting it up before you use it.

There are other analogue tools, like the time-tested DayTimer system and the FranklinCovey planner. But I found the Bullet Journal to be workable and less expensive.

Digital tools are there in abundance, and I’ve tried several, but the most helpful and least expensive is Todoist. I’ve used it and recommend it. You can buy into a premium version, but the free version might be just fine.

If you want to go bare bones, you can keep a calendar and then a master list of tasks on paper of a document on your computer. Each night before you leave the office you can review both and write down the “musts” for the next day. Author Stephen Covey has a great illustration about planning the “big rocks” first. Here’s an article that explains it, but adds an important caveat.

You should also read about time/life management. Here’s where some discernment is needed. New books on time/life management are coming out all the time. Having a biblical perspective on time and life is important, and there are two recent books that have been very well-received. First, Tim Challies has written Do More Better and while I haven’t read it, Tim is a fine writer and understands a biblical perspective on life. Another book worth reading is Matt Perman’s What’s Next Best: How the Gospel Transforms The Way You Get Things Done.I’ve given links to Amazon, but you can check out the Westminster Seminary Bookstore as well.

I also want to put in a word for Evernote. If you do a lot of online reading, you probably find that there are articles or quotes that you want to save. Rather than having an eternal list of browser bookmarks, you can install the Evernote Clipper extension and, after you set up an account, copy what you want to save to Evernote. Evernote is available online, as a computer app, and as an app for both IOS and Android. Most of us probably don’t need anything more than the free version.

Have you been using a productivity tool to keep on top of your busy life? I’d be glad to hear what’s working for you. Click on the title of this blog post and leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

Are You Working Too Much?

There’s a trio of time- and work-related tensions in pastoral ministry. First, unless you work in some kind of weird regime that makes you punch in and punch out, you set your own schedule. Second, you have a lot to do. And third, you are never finished. You may complete a project, but there are more projects. You’ll finish your sermon, but then there’s the next sermon.

I feel your pain. Juggling these three balls is hard. Despite the tired old joke that pastors only work one day a week, most people in ministry work long hours.

Why do we work as much as we do?

For some, it could be pressure from above. And I don’t mean from God. Maybe the elders have unrealistic expectations, or the Senior Pastor is a workaholic and expects his staff members to be that way too. For others, it could be an overactive desire to please people. And while none of us want to admit it, some pastors equate their worth (both to the church and the Lord) with the number of work hours they accumulate. 

But even if we struggle with one or more of the above, the fact is that effective ministry takes time, and there always seems to be more to do. I’m pretty sure that few pastors have ever come to the end of the work week and said, “Well, I can’t think of anything else that I can work on.”

Think about your typical week. People needs, meetings, programs, and preparation all crowd into our work time. People drop in. There are unanticipated phone calls. Your study time is more difficult than you expected. You have projects that must be finished. As a result, it’s easy to keep working more hours. But if we don’t learn to manage our lives, we’ll pay in the long run.

Some tips:

Plan to take the same day off each week. For some it’s Monday. Sunday is draining and Monday is a chance to recharge. For others, Friday or Saturday works best. Obviously, there will be times when something unexpected comes up. But most weeks you should be able to manage a day away from work. But make it the same day so it is something that you have scheduled.

Find a rhythm for your work week and stick to it. For example, I spent time on Sunday night planning my week. Most of my administrative work was scheduled for Monday and Tuesday and then I focused on my sermon prep Tuesday through Thursday. I would finish my sermon on Thursday, let it marinate on Friday, and then on Saturday I would tweak the sermon and, when possible, catch up with whatever was left over from the week that had to be finished.

A word about evenings: Because our people are generally not available during the day, a good deal of ministry takes place in the evening. But don’t plan something for every night of the week. And don’t bring your work home. Sure, bring a book if you want to read at night, but don’t be working on your sermon outline while you’re eating dinner.

Find a good time management approach and follow it religiously. We have an incredible number of helpful tools available for managing time. On Wednesday I want to look at some of those resources. Whatever system you end up using to manage your responsibilities, consider planning an hour or two each week where you can read for personal growth. Schedule lunch with a fellow pastor regularly. And don’t forget your family! Take your wife out regularly, even if the best you can afford is to go to McDonald’s and split a small fries. If you don’t plan those kinds of activities, they’re not likely to happen.

I know these bits of advice are basic, but they could be life-changing and ministry-saving if adopted early on. How are you doing in the area of work and life management? Are you working too much?

Image by Theodor Moise from Pixabay

Free Stuff!!!

I’m a software junkie and I’ve been fooling around with some different programs for blogging. Yesterday I pressed the wrong button and posted what I had planned to post today. So I thought I’d post about some free stuff that comes my way and might not be familiar to you.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has some excellent resources. You can subscribe to their newsletter (which contains most if not all of these). I found some good articles on preaching, and with Al Mohler at the helm of the school, you can count on some superb analysis of contemporary culture and issues.

Years ago, we did not have access to many Study Bibles. I remember the Scofield Reference Bible, which featured notes from a Dispensational perspective, and the Thompson Chain Reference Bible. In our day, we are blessed with many helpful Study Bibles. While I have Logos Bible Software and Accordance on my computers, I have been using Olive Tree Software on my iPad and phone. Some modules cost, though they have periodic sales. But if you want something free, the study notes from the MacArthur Study Bible are available for free for both IOS and Android. You can swap between the King James Version (KJV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

I used to live about 10 minutes from Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA. When they had an on-campus bookstore, I visited regularly to see what was new. Today they are a web-only enterprise, but if you log on to their site and sign up for the free newsletter, you’ll get info about new books, special deals, and other sale items. The link to sign up is at the bottom of the page.

If you’re doing some research – or just want to keep up with current theological trends, this site takes you to the home of Themelios, the journal of the Gospel Coalition. You can search hundreds of articles from the beginning of the journal’s publication. The journal contains book reviews as well. I find it helpful.

Another excellent online journal is Credo Magazine. You’ll find up-to-date podcasts and articles and an opportunity to have the latest issue sent to your email. A form to subscribe (for free) is on the above page.

Maybe there’s something new here for you. I’ll post articles like this from time to time. Do you have any favorite free resources?

Companions for the Journey

I was hooked. I was watching previews for upcoming films and a preview of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy flashed on the screen. I would have to wait until the following Christmas, but this was my kind of movie.

I had never read the series, but I determined that I would do so by the time they released the first movie. I devoured the books. And while the films deviated in a few places from what Tolkien had written (thoroughly upsetting some purists), I loved them.

There are innumerable memorable bits of dialogue and some very unforgettable characters in The Lord of the Rings. And there are many great themes in the series. To me, one that stands out in particular is the friendship between Frodo and Sam. And by the way – if you don’t know the story, it’s a great read!

I’m writing this early on a Sunday morning, and this morning’s routine was the same as most other Sundays. I get my cereal and tea, check the Phillies’ score (alas! – last night was painful), and text two of my closest friends. One is preaching for the other who is enjoying the first Sunday of his sabbatical. I pray for both of them throughout the week, but especially on Sunday. And I know they pray for me.

For well over a decade, we have been meeting monthly for lunch. We’ve sometimes rescheduled, but we’ve rarely missed a month. Each of us has gone through both good times and hard times, but we’ve been able to rejoice together and encourage each other. Along with two or three others these men have laughed with me and cried with me, counseled and challenged me. I have friends outside of ministry, and I am grateful for them. But having friends who understand my world has meant much to me.

The two most significant traits among my ministry companions are their confidentiality and their lack of a competitive spirit. I know that I can bare my soul to these men and not fear that it will come back to haunt me. And there was never a sense that our church’s size made any difference, or that one of us had to have the upper hand.

We find ministry friends throughout the Bible. Paul had a bunch of them. Read the closing paragraphs of his letters and you’ll find them being singled out time and time again. And I can’t help but think Jesus’ disciples were more than a group of guys he was shaping into future leaders. We do an injustice to our Lord’s humanity if we imagine that he had no need for human companionship.

No doubt you have friends. But do you have ministry friends? Do you have men in your life who do what you do, who understand the challenges and the joys of pastoral work? If not, let me encourage you to reach out to some other pastors in your area. Have lunch, talk, and ask God to help you discerningly build one or more friendships that will enable you to encourage each other along the way.

Have you benefitted from these kinds of relationships? Or has it been a struggle to develop ministry friendships? I’d enjoy hearing from you.

About Expectations

He was between jobs, and as he sat across from me in my office he was pondering his future. “I wish I could be a pastor so that I could study the Bible all day.”

It wasn’t the first time someone said that. Hey, I might have thought that way myself when I was in Bible College (back in the antediluvian period). I don’t recall what my expectations were. But I learned fast that pastors did more than “study the Bible all day.” So I told my friend something that has often been true. I said, “To be honest, I often have to fight for the time to study.”

Has that been true for you? While preaching and teaching is likely the primary responsibility of most of us, it’s not our only responsibility. I’m sure you know that already. But has that knowledge affected the way you plan your time? And has it affected your availability to people? Because people are probably the biggest “interruption” we face in our preparation. Let me encourage you to welcome those interruptions.

When I first started in ministry, a church near us had called a new pastor. Shortly after he came, a young woman in the church went through a very painful broken engagement. Her dad, wanting to get her some pastoral counsel, took her to see the pastor. Instead of welcoming the opportunity to minister, the new pastor said, “I did not come here to wipe your noses.”

News of that encounter quickly got around the area. He didn’t last long. No surprise there.

It can be frustrating to have a drop-in visitor or take a phone call when you’re deep in study. But spending time with people is rarely a waste of time. In fact, how we handle people’s interruptions can enhance or diminish our effectiveness as preachers and teachers.

Let me offer some suggestions:

First, if you work in an office environment, keep your office door open as often as you can. People will stop into the church office for a variety of reasons and often they will pop in. Sometimes it’s just to say hello. Other times those visits will lead to spiritual discussions and opportunities to pray with and for our people. Those are good times. Christ is present in those moments.

Second, recruit your secretary to help you. I was blessed with three different secretaries who were great at this. Generally, I wanted to be available if any of our church people dropped by. When I closed my office door, they knew what I was doing, so they knew if they could interrupt me or not. Occasionally a missionary would stop by to drop off literature as they sought support. In most cases, our budget prohibited us from taking on more missions commitments. But support raising can discourage, and I wanted to hear about them and pray with them whenever I could.

On other occasions someone would stop by to see me wanting to sell me something. My secretaries handled those drop-ins so well. They would take literature and promise that I would call the salesman if I was interested in the latest video that would double our church attendance and/or turn people into mature believers in 12 weeks. My sarcasm may reveal the fact that I rarely, if ever, returned those kinds of calls.

Third, don’t cram so much into your weekly plan that you have no time for people. If your church members see you rushing around, it will communicate that you are too busy for them. Slow down. Not every project has to be finished in a day. Spread your sermon prep over a couple of days so that if a day goes haywire, you aren’t up all night on Saturday night trying to cobble a sermon together.

Finally, consider taking your study off premises. I’m going to write about this at some other time, but if you find the office environment to be too full of interruptions – or even a source of temptation to draw you away from your work – get out of there!

When you spend time with your people, you are letting them know that you care for them. You are telling them you are interested in their lives, even in what might seem mundane. And you are telling them you are glad to be their pastor.

If your expectation was that you came to preach and teach, you’re right. But you also came to “wipe noses.” Ministry is about people. Expect them to “interrupt” your day and welcome the opportunities those interruptions provide.

Is ministry what you expected? How have you done at adjusting your expectations? Leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear from you!