It is common for pastors to delegate the task of leading Bible studies to others. Reasons vary, from a preacher’s need to streamline his or her weekly workload, to a desire to empower laity for ministry. Good intentions back these reasons, yet pastors who rarely lead Bible studies miss out on valuable opportunities for growth and development in their ministry.
1. Bible studies serve as pastoral field immersion. In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman describes a scene where he was watching a lecture on astrophysics, complete with charts, diagrams, and equations. Immersing himself in theoretical abstraction left him “tired and sick,” until he stepped outside and “look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” Pastors too easily bubble themselves into the confines of theory and abstraction, especially when it comes to sermon preparation and study. While it is certainly critical for preachers to engage in such private disciplines, a lack of regular interactions with parishioners, specifically in the context of a Bible study, can leave one “tired and sick.” Leading a Bible study gets the preacher “out into the field,” where the love of God intersects with the lives of people. Theorizing becomes listening as people name their experiences of God’s activity in their own words, with their own voices. In that living, dynamic laboratory of relationships, our preaching and pastoral ministry are enhanced beyond the theoretical.
2. Leading Bible studies broadens the conversation. A seminary professor once told me that sermons shouldn’t be the forum for doing “first-order theology.” This means that the pulpit shouldn't be used as a forum for didactic teaching about hardcore doctrines or theories of interpretation. This is not to say that sermons shouldn't be intellectually stimulating; rather, it is to acknowledge that perhaps the best place to engage such matters with curious, earnest people is in a small-group setting, not a sanctuary. This is the context where questions have room to breathe and answers come not from monologues but in communal discernment. Some of the deepest, most complicated mysteries of the faith are best illumined by people who see themselves both as coteachers and colearners walking the same path.
3. Leading a Bible study recalibrates the relationship between pastor and people. Parishioners who only interact with their pastor in the context of the Sunday morning sermon can often drift into an inaccurate view of the pastor’s scriptural authority. They might perceive the Bible–Preacher–People dynamic incorrectly, with the preacher and the Bible on one side, and the people on the other. In this model, biblical wisdom comes only through the voice of the preacher. A pastor who facilitates Bible studies, on the other hand, can recalibrate that image in a way that is truer to the way the Bible speaks to communities: The pastor and the people are in a symbiotic relationship with each other, and the Bible is the mutual bond that holds them together in love and understanding. Once, when I was leading a Bible study for a group of parishioners, a church member asked me a question about how to interpret a difficult passage. I contained the impulse to demonstrate my breadth of knowledge and, instead, directed him to resources he could use to investigate the matter for himself, encouraging him to share any discoveries with the class. “What—” the man said. “Do you mean you don’t know the answer?” My efforts to bite my tongue nearly led to a bloody mouth. The point was not for me to impress with my scriptural knowledge but to encourage a new relationship the Bible—not primarily one in which the preacher is in sync with the Bible to deliver wisdom, but one in which we are all there to teach each other and learn from the Bible’s truths.
4. Pastors who lead Bible studies become learners themselves. In his preface to his Standard Sermons, John Wesley describes what happened whenever he read a scripture and was unclear of its meaning. After following a process of prayer and continued scriptural reflection, he would turn to others for their opinions: “If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God . . . and what I thus learn, that I teach.” As a preacher, and writer, he learned to depend on a circle of fellow Christians to discern the scriptures and mature in his faith. Without fail, pastors who lead others in the study of the Bible will discover deeper truths for themselves that will enhance their own spiritual and vocational lives.
5. Pastors who lead Bible studies can identify new leaders. In an attempt to empower the laity, pastors often justify their delegation of Bible study leadership to lay people in the church. Often, however, the way pastors identify such people for ministry is by leading them in a small group first. In an incubation context, a person with a teaching gift often experiences his or her own inner curiosities and capacities for learning that will make him or her an effective teacher. And sometimes, it is only under the nurturing, watchful shepherding of a pastor that those gifts can fully blossom. Pastors who lead Bible studies can help identify, encourage, and model effective teaching for potential leaders in their groups.
Magrey R. deVega is the pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cherokee, Iowa, and serves as the leadership editor for Covenant Bible Study. Repurposed from Circuit Rider, May 2014.