It can be encouraging or discouraging to hear one of your favorite writers can read 500 books a year! When you leave seminary or graduate school (if you had a chance to go) you lose the structure classes provide to keep you focused on studying. There is a built in accountability system to getting a grade, but when you hit vocational ministry you lose structure.
When I lost the structure, to my detriment, I lost out on learning. I had taken advanced Greek and Hebrew and two years later could barely read John and Ruth. I would read articles online, but could only rely on what I had read 3-4 years prior to process them. Nothing was fresh. I was warned by Scott Manetsch in seminary that the reason pastors burn out and stay in a place for only a few years is because they rely on a "bag of tricks." When the bag runs empty the pastor has to move on to another location because he isn't learning anything new. His theology doesn't have deeper roots, but has shriveled due to a lack of watering. I read book reviews instead of books. I let blog summarize arguments instead of learning them myself. I relied on others sermons more than my own personal study. I became a second-hander. It wasn't as if I was not studying. I was preaching, which gave me some structure. It just wasn't the same.
So how did I get out of this rut? I made a decision to have a plan and I have tried to follow it. It was not meant to turn me into a slave, but it has given me something to go on.
I am a normal reader. I am not great, but I have decided I can read a book a week. It was convicting to read Karl Rove's account of how President Bush read 51 books (to Rove's 76) in 2007. Bush had read 56 books in 2006! I know people in vocational ministry are busy, but if the President of the US can read 51 books, I can try to read a book a week. Am I perfect at following this? No! Weddings, funerals and crisis strike. Instead of reading I might need to spend more time with my wife. But some weeks I can read more and try to catch up. I now have 4 children who all want time with me and travel 60 days a year and I still manage to keep up the pace.
People are always recommending books. I write down ones that might be interesting, but I don't buy anything until I am done with what I've got. How many of us have good books on our shelves or on mobile devices that have never been touched?
One last thing - I try to vary the reading. Read something light and then something heavy. Read a book on economics then OT theology then fiction. You get the idea. Learn.
Fifteen minutes a day of Greek. Fifteen minutes a day of Hebrew. I try to vary what I am doing. For the next two weeks I am going through vocab. The four weeks after that I will go through my old basic Greek and Hebrew books. Do I do this every day? No! But it gives me the structure I need to be able to prepare a sermon from the original languages and interact faithfully with what others write!
I follow the McCheyne reading calendar. I know some people can read technical books and find them to be helpful. They can spend a month on Ephesians and feel full. I can not. Four chapters a day helps me keep my mind on the bigger story being told in Scripture. Do I do this every day? No! Some days I go right into work and find myself immersed in what I am doing. However, this gives me the structure I need to be faithful to keeping my mind and heart in the Word!
I know many of us need a plan. This is mine.
Darren Carlson is the Founder and President of Training Leaders International. As President, Darren oversees the general direction of the ministry and serves as an advocate for pastors with little access to formal training and thoughtful cross-cultural theological engagement. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.