This is the third installment in a new series in which we publish brief answers from experienced church leaders to this question:

In addition to knowing Scripture and sound doctrine, what should young pastors today be studying? Is your answer any different from what you would’ve recommended 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago?

David Powlison, faculty member at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (Philadelphia):

George Herbert’s The Country Parson (1651) answers this question by saying, in effect, that a pastor needs to know anything and everything that has to do with people. So where do you learn about people?

  • Be honest with yourself.
  • Talk with people—“the human documents”—so that you are studying primary sources. Listen, notice, ask questions, ponder, interact, remember.
  • Read histories and biographies. People are so different from each other, yet so alike. You need to learn how these realities intertwine.
  • Listen to the music and watch the films that capture hearts and minds.
  • Read good novels and poetry.
  • Read the daily newspaper and some thoughtful commentary—The Economist or The Atlantic, perhaps.
  • And, of course, read your Bible. Let your eye for what people are like and for what people experience be just as keen as your eye for what God is like.

You aren’t reflecting, talking, listening, watching, and reading in order to pass judgment. You’re learning what life is like—the human condition, the realities that Jesus intends to invade and that Scripture ought to illumine. You are learning about the clothes that redemption wears. You can’t cram when it comes to knowing people. So plan on making this a lifetime project.

David Dockery, president of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, Illinois):

You’re right to note that the primary formation for ministry has not and does not change. Priority must always be focused on knowing Scripture and sound doctrine. Those things, together with an understanding of how theology has been shaped and influenced through the years, along with how the church has responded to doctrinal challenges, are foundational for long-term faithful ministry.

While these things don’t change, it is important to note that the world in which young pastors will be serving will be quite different from what many previously have known. Twenty years ago, people still wondered if things like e-mail would have value. Most ministries had no website. Few if any could have imagined the role and influence of social media. In light of these realities, I’d urge two things: seek to be as technologically savvy as possible in order to communicate well and effectively in this brave new world. Find the right way to use innovative technological strategies in helpful and appropriate ways. (Still, Neil Postman’s warnings years ago about “amusing ourselves to death” are as relevant as ever. I think many people, young and not so young, waste a lot of valuable time in the technological sphere.)

At the same time I think it’s important to recognize that the needs of people are not dissimilar from previous generations. Reading the works of great Christian leaders can be immensely valuable in this regard. A few examples that cross cultures and generations would include: Augustine’s Confessions, John Calvin’s section on prayer in the Institutes, Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will, and Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections. Reading well-written biographies of influential Christian leaders can also be inspirational, informative, and genuinely helpful.

That said, one must learn to take truths that have been taught or the ministry models that have been practiced and then adapt them with insight and great sensitivity in light of the shifting cultural dynamics and demographics. Learning to think and communicate in cross-cultural ways, developing a commitment to convictional civility and convictional kindness while seeking to engage society and participate in cultural renewal, must take on a new priority.

Finally, I’d say to read widely and read wisely; I often tell people that readers are leaders and leaders are readers. In all of these things, one should ask the Lord for a mentor (or mentors) who will help to provide guidance along the way.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (New York City):

Two other areas they should “study up” on:

  1. Cultural analysis (e.g., Rieff, Lasch, Bellah, MacIntyre, Taylor, Christian Smith, and many more)
  2. Leadership (how to start and sustain organizations, how to help others to succeed, how to manage and raise money).

I wouldn’t say that this is different than what I would have said 20 years ago. However, the need for study in these areas has only become more acute during that time.