Sparing No Pains

A pastor is a student.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I think in the hustle and bustle of everyday ministry there is some pressure to forget that. Or not totally forget that, but perhaps to minimize the importance of serious, extended study.

To get a sense of how differently we tend to think about life and the ministry, it is sometimes helpful to read how pastors in generations past thought about their work.

Take Nathanael Emmons.

Jonathan Edwards is legendary for spending thirteen hours a day in the study, but he wasn’t the only one who devoted himself to thinking and learning like that. Obviously his example had an impact on those who followed, and you can see it in the autobiography of Nathanael Emmons.

Listen to the commitment Emmons made to study at the very beginning of his ministry. Now, I am definitely not saying that he was one hundred percent right in the way he went about all of this, in fact, I don’t think he was, but at the very least, I think we can be challenged and pushed back a little ourselves by reading of his resolve.

He writes,

“As soon as I entered into the ministry, I resolved to devote my whole time to the sacred work, without encumbering myself with the cares and concerns of the world. I expected, however, that I should need great firmness and vigilance, to guard me against the solicitations of ease, interest, and seeming necessity, to neglect the proper business of my calling. Upon this consideration, I determined not to begin to do the least manual labor, nor even superintend my secular concerns; but to make my study my home, and my ministerial duties my whole employment.”

Now, we can stop there for a moment, because I think reading that, the line that stands out to me, is ‘I determined not to begin to do the least manual labor,’ and to be straight, that sounds strange and almost seems lazy. In other words, it would be something I would be almost embarrassed to write, especially in an autobiography. What’s important for now though is not so much whether it was right or wrong, but that he doesn’t even blink at saying this. He doesn’t feel the need to justify this statement, and I think that points to a somewhat different conception of the importance of study and the work of the ministry than many in our day currently have.

If you don’t quite see what I am saying yet, I am sure you have to see it as he continues,

“Soon after my ordination, I was invited by one of my parishioners to spend several weeks at his house, upon free cost; but I declined the offer, for fear my acceptance would obstruct my studies; and this refusal, I apprehend, prevented other invitations of the same kind. After I had been settled about a year, I employed some of my friends to purchase me a house and farm. The house needed repair, and I employed certain persons to repair it, and others to superintend the business; so that scarcely a man in the parish had less concern with it than I had. The next year, I entered into a family state, in which a great many worldly affairs invited my attention; but I kept my resolution, and confined myself wholly to my study, without doing so much as an hour’s labor in the garden, or in the field.

It was a time of war; when laborers were scarce and dear, and when many ministers supposed that the circumstances of the times justified them in neglecting their studies, for the purpose of laboring to support their families. Though they might have thought this to be their duty, yet I could never make myself believe that it was mine. Hence I felt constrained to separate myself from all secular concerns, and devote myself wholly to my ministerial work. I knew it would be in vain to propose an end, without devising and adopting proper means to accomplish it. Accordingly, I resolved to divide and appropriate my
time to the various branches of knowledge which I meant to pursue, and to furnish myself with a good collection of books.

These I spared no pains nor expense to obtain. I examined the libraries of my brethren in the ministry. I searched the old books which I found among my people ; I kept my eye upon the catalogues of the book-sellers ; and among the great variety of authors which I found upon different subjects, I made it a
rule to select the best…; that is to say, those who had written most ingeniously in favor of the truth, and against it. I meant to read upon both sides of disputed subjects, and wished to obtain those authors on both sides, who had exhibited the most light. Though I was not able to purchase many books at a time,
yet I constantly made additions to my collection, by buying and exchanging authors; so that I rarely failed of procuring any book, which I felt a strong inclination to read. Providence often smiled upon me in this respect. The Reverend Diodate Johnson, the minister of the church to which I at first belonged, gave me, at his death, a donation of forty dollars, which I appropriated to the purchase of books. My own congregation had a pretty parish library, when I was settled among them; and in the year 1786, Dr. Franklin presented them a donation of some of the most celebrated English authors. By these means, I generally had a supply of all those kinds of books which were necessary and useful to a divine ; and I never wished for others, because I meant to confine my studies to my own profession, and not waste time in acquiring mere speculative knowledge.”

Again, I am not saying, I think we need to go back completely to this way of thinking. The pastor is more than a student. Doing manual labor, caring for your family, all of these things, these are all ways to worship God, it doesn’t make sense that it can ever be right to neglect a real responsibility for an extended period of time and call that godly, what about discipleship, what about one on one ministry, and on and on we could go, but, at the very least, again, there’s a place, I think, for being challenged in that, just as we might read this and our minds immediately say, whoah, what about this, what about that, perhaps he might read our descriptions of what we do, and say whoah, in that, it doesn’t always seem that we take the role of study as seriously as he did.

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