In Praise of the Generalist III: Some Suggestions

If being a generalist is, as I have argued, not simply possible but more than ever necessary, how does one set about becoming one?

The first part (indeed, 90%) of the answer is likely the most unwelcome: disciplined use of time.  I have a job and a half (Dean at a Seminary, plus a teaching load which is close to that of a full-time, non-administrative faculty member), I am ordained as a Minister and serve a local congregation as Teacher, I have a family, I have a pathological need to write, and I love to read. Yet I still spend quite a bit of time each week day dreaming, training for marathons, having drinks with friends, listening to music, shooting the breeze with whomever passes by my office, watching DVDs of classic British crime dramas, and getting a good six hours plus of kip each night.  Do I have more hours in my day than others?  No.  Am I a workaholic?  Well, if I am, I am the laziest workaholic I know. Could I do a lot better?  I surely could.  But, even so, I guess I do OK; I do get done most of that for which I get I get paid, and a fair bot of that for which I do not.  I simply organise my time as well as I can, and, when I sit down for ten minutes to write or read or think, I make sure that that's what I do.  It's not rocket science; it just involves getting things done, not messing about, and applying myself.    And to be a generalist, that's what you need to do: stop whining about how little time there is these days, and use what time you do have in a wise and disciplined fashion.  You might find you still have time at day's end to slouch in your armchair with Rush on the stereo and a glass of red wine in your hand.

Second, use the books review section of a good journal to which you either subscribe or to which you have access via the web or a library.  Here is one possible resource: some years ago, I edited a journal called  Themelios which was then published by UCCF/IFES and is now under the auspices of the Gospel Coalition.   One of the interesting things about this publication was that it was designed for theological students but most of the subscribers were ministers and pastors.  They bought it because they wanted to keep abreast with developments in the theological sphere, and the journal provided such a possibility with its extensive book review section.

Third, build a private library of good theological books.  Do not waste space on garbage.  Life is too short and shelf space too precious to read or buy second rate books on any topic.  Use the reviews in journals like Themelios to guide your reading and buying habits; keep track of the forthcoming books from the major evangelical presses; take advice from friends on what to read; and purchase useful survey books which can guide both reading and purchases(like the ones on Old Testament and New Testament commentaries by Tremper Longman and D A Carson respectively).   I would suggest you make sure that your library (and reading) takes account of the key areas of the theological curriculum: biblical studies, systematic theology, church history (both general -- the Penguin multi-volume history the church is still the best and least expensive survey --and that specific to your denomination or tradition), apologetics, and practical theology (the latter two also including works on ethics -- likely to be an increasingly complex and increasingly relevant area in everyday church issues).

In addition, one might add here: if you do not have time to read, take advantage of all the podcasts and lectures available on theological material that is freely available on the web.  If you spend half the day stuck in traffic going to and from the office, then use that time wisely.

Fourth, read one general, secular cultural publication each week.  I subscribe to the British Spectator; there are plenty of equivalents around the globe.  These keep you in touch with general cultural trends and commentary which will impact your people.

Fifth, keep an eye on the Amazon bestseller lists and the shelves at your local Barnes and Noble.  This will tell you the kind of books that are being read in wider society and attune you to the kinds of questions your congregants may ask.  So your congregants may not have read Bultmann or Tillich, but they may well have picked up similarly problematic theology through reading Dan Brown or the popular works of Bart Ehrman, or (perhaps even more likely) The Shack or Eat, Pray, Love.  And you will need to give serious answers to serious questions based on such congregational reading habits.

Sixth, talk to the people in your church.  Nothing highlights the kinds of issues you need to be adept at addressing than actually listening with a carefully tuned ear to what your people have to say, what is on their minds, and what is causing them problems.  Allow this to shape your reading during the week.

This is a tall order; but it can be done.  Discipline and application are the key; and these will not be a problem if you really care for the people who are under your pastoral care.  If they are a problem, perhaps you need to think about a career change.