No church leader wants to admit it, but for many of us it’s true: we still don’t have a sustainable habit for personal Bible study and prayer. Here are five ways forward—true for anyone, church leader or not.
1. Know your why
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl’s moving memoir about surviving Nazi concentration camps, he reflects on how the right kind of hope kept some prisoners going. Several times he quotes the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, saying, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Now, of course, the application is drastically different, but my point is to highlight the role of the will. How are you feeding your will to be consistent in devotions? What’s your why?
Envision the fruit of your devotions and the person you’ll become by being consistent. For example, meditate on Psalm 1, and consider how you can be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, yielding its fruit in season, not like chaff that the wind blows away.
Know your why. Visualize what you intend to gain—and who you intend to become—by studying God’s Word and praying.
Tip for church leaders: Consider Acts 6:4 and its implications for your ministry. What special reason do you have to form this discipline?
2. Know your what
In college, I had a professor whose office shelves were lined with three-inch binders on virtually every book of the Bible. Inside were his handwritten exegetical notes on every verse. They were the fruit of his “QTs,” as he liked to call them—his quiet times. (“Matthew Albert, are you doing your QT’s?”) Dr. Sauer had binders of notes because he had a plan: study the whole Bible in depth.
Your what doesn’t have to be so ambitious, but without one, you’ll wander. Your what may be a reading plan. It may be a workbook. It may be a self-guided inductive Bible study. What matters is that you (a) choose a plan that will truly engage you, and (b) make that plan specific, even if it’s just “read the Bible for 10 minutes every day.” That’s more of a plan than “read the Bible every day.”
Tip for pastors: Avoid making your what the same as your preaching calendar!
3. Know your when and where
Several years ago I received this helpful advice: decide when and where you will do your devotions.
6:00 a.m. at the kitchen table.
9:00 p.m. in the study.
Every morning on the train.
Be as specific as if you were making an appointment with someone—because you actually are! The firmer your plans, the more you’ll know if you broke them. Related to this, choose a suitable space for eliminating distractions and focusing on your devotions. Leave your phone in the other room. Pour yourself a glass of water. Avoid noisy areas. Simply ask, “When and where can I be most focused, and how can I make the space effective for prayer and reflection?” That’s your when and where.
Tip for church leaders: Put quiet time on your calendar as an unbreakable appointment—literally. As your conscience dictates, say “no” to meetings that would interfere with it.
4. Know your how
Now we’re talking about method—a path your devotions take each day. Having a method establishes a routine, which gets you into a groove and helps you improve your method. For example, let’s say you’re going to study each Gospel for a month, doing roughly one chapter a day (your what). You might decide to read each chapter twice, summarize what happens in your own words, and answer the same reflection questions each time (your how).
You can do the same thing for prayer. I follow the ACTS method (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication). Confession and thanksgiving are spontaneous to the day, but adoration and supplication follow a plan. I’ve divided God’s attributes among the seven days of the week and spend time praising him for that day’s attributes (Mondays are his holiness and sovereignty). And then I have specific people or groups I pray for on certain days—the Nielsens on Friday, for example.
Have enough of a method so you don’t wander, but not so rigid of one that you act without really engaging your mind and heart.
Tip for church leaders: If you’re doing exegesis in your day job, consider a more meditative approach in your quiet times.
5. Prepare to change things up
Life changes, and so should our plans. Maybe you become a parent. As a result, your why expands (“I am studying to equip myself to raise my child in the Lord”), and your when and where change (because 6:00 a.m. is feeding time, and the study is now the nursery). Maybe you are in the thick of suffering, and you need words to express your grief. Your what and how may shift to praying through a psalm each day.
Maybe your plan just wasn’t working. Your mind wanders as you read, and you realize you need a more interactive method (that’s what I’ve learned). Or you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and you need to start smaller.
The plan is simply a tool for consistency, so adjust it as needed.
Tip for church leaders: Model a healthy relationship with devotions to your congregation. Find ways to let people know that missing their devotions isn’t a sin.
Ultimately, it’s not the method that matters; it’s that we get alone with God. May God bless your efforts to dwell with him in Scripture and prayer.
This post was adapted from the original post in the July 2019 edition of Ministry Team magazine.