Not long before his crucifixion, Jesus in John’s gospel promised the disciples that he would soon be sending the Holy Spirit to them. As Jesus goes on to detail it — in the longest single passage about the Holy Spirit in the entire Bible — the presence of the Spirit would have a small multitude of beneficial effects for the disciples and for future generations of leaders. But one thing Jesus made clear is that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:13) The idea seemed to be that at any given moment, the disciples and those who followed them would not already possess all they needed to know but would have a chance to keep learning as the Spirit would lead them along.
Of course, the Spirit still does this for the church and for its leaders today. Theology, as Neal Plantinga once defined it, is the study of “God, Creation, and their Relation.” That covers a lot of ground! Indeed, that covers everything. The things of God, God’s relationship with this creation, the grandeur, beauty, and depth of the kingdom of God: these are truths we will never finish exploring. There is always more to learn. Even after 2,000 years the church has by no means exhausted the riches of Scripture alone.
Obviously this applies to all members of Christ’s body. But it has particular application to pastors and those in leadership positions who are tasked with the awesome responsibility of instructing the people of God in the things of the faith. The preacher stands up every Sunday and is commissioned to mine the Scriptures so they can speak into some of the deepest, most fraught, most painful, most delightful experiences all humans experience on an ongoing basis. Doing that even reasonably well on a regular basis requires knowledge of the Bible, of the theological tradition of the church, of the culture at any given moment in history, of human psychology, of the local needs of the people of God in this congregation at this time.
Speaking for myself as a pastor and preacher, that is daunting! It is in fact sufficiently frightening that I often find myself leaning into Jesus’ promise in John 16 that — thanks be to God — I am not in this alone. The Holy Spirit is here and is ready and willing to continue to lead me into all truth. But preachers and the congregations they serve cannot simply lean back in an easy chair and hope that the Spirit will automatically download more knowledge or truth into the pastor’s head. As Paul writes in Galatians 5, we are also tasked to “keep step with the Spirit” by cooperating with God’s efforts to lead us into all truth.
Practically speaking that means all preachers and leaders need to be lifelong learners who seek to avail themselves of as many continuing education opportunities as they can find. On a daily and weekly basis this means keeping up on the news, reading thoughtful articles and books, consulting good commentaries in preparing sermons. But on a fairly regular basis it requires more: it requires some focused, intentional, and sustained opportunities to learn. It means attending seminars, conferences, and maybe auditing classes at a college or university or seminary. It requires that all-important rhythm of ministry that includes regular sabbaticals for the preacher so as to delve into some serious learning over a longer period.
Sometimes it seems congregations regard giving the pastor two weeks a year of study time or a multi-month sabbatical every six years as little more than beefing up the pastor’s vacation time. But although pastors need rest the same as everyone else, study leaves and sabbaticals are vastly different from vacations. These become tools that the Holy Spirit can use to lead the pastor more deeply into all truth, even if for a given season it is one particular “truth” or one particular area of learning that will enrich the pastor’s preaching and teaching ministry as a result.
None of us are ever finished learning. I have never met an older member of the church who concluded he no longer needed to attend any more Bible studies seeing as he had the Bible cased after 70 years of life. In fact, some of the most eager learners I have encountered across the years were retirees who delighted in being able to use their retirement years to learn truths about theology and the Bible they had never noticed before.
It is not different for preachers and other church leaders. Even the best seminary degree represents little more than a priming of the pump for a lifetime of abiding learning. The wise church knows this and provides its pastors with rich and ongoing opportunities to be led by the Spirit into ever-greater truth and understanding.
At the very end of John’s gospel John engages what appears to be a pretty big piece of hyperbole, of exaggerated speech, when he claims that if everything Jesus had ever done and said were written down, “the world could not contain the books that would be written.” Well, that’s a little hard to imagine. But then again, given the centrality of Christ and of his gospel, given the truths of the kingdom of God that really are finally bigger than this very world, maybe John was right: the world is not big enough to contain it all.
And every pastor and leader, therefore, will never get to the bottom of reading and learning all of that, either. But we do what we can, keeping step with a Spirit who keeps leading us along.
This article first appeared at The Network.