What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to speak better?

Speaking is important to a minister because it’s a ministry of the word, and in reformed circles, preaching is a significant activity. Any course that helps me to speak and preach better must be good! So what worked?

Three areas of attention have helped me develop further (biblical languages, exegesis and biblical theology are assumed here)

1. Christ-centred preaching. With the quality of training and models I have been blessed to receive, I should be a much better preacher than I am. Covenant Seminary introduced me to Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered Preaching. I recommend it for the FCF – Fallen Condition Focus – a way to find the gospel connection to any talk and theme.

2. Pastoral Application is enhanced by knowing people better. And asking good questions opens that door.

3. Clarity flows from logical exposition. Which I learned as I grew in the ability to write.



What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to listen better?

Questions lie at the heart of ministry. It is notable how many times Jesus asks questions in his encounters, and how the replies reveal the other person’s thoughts and attitudes.

The model for the dissertation in this course is qualitative research, which is opposed to quantitative research. The latter aims to be objective, either through measurement, or through exhaustive study of the field. As a scientist by training, I have been deeply schooled in this way of thinking. In qualitative research the key data are the subjects experiences. How subjective is that! It is subjective, and does not give an exhaustive view of a field, but it can allow insight into how those subjects perceive a whole system. I now see more and more value in this approach because I understand that not everyone else is like me. How they see the world affects how they will act, even if it’s not how I see the world and how I would act.

Both types of research depend on questions. Qualitative research needs to ask sufficiently open questions for the subject to speak in their own terms, and reveal their own points of view. Not only is this genuinely interesting for research interviews, it’s essential for pastoral ministry to find out what people really think, and why.

Learning to listen by asking better questions was a surprising take-away from the course. The set-text for qualitative research is by Merriam. I have another book to read soon which may prove useful on asking questions: Vella Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach.


So…How is the Sabbatical going?


I promised to spare the church a blow-by-blow, book-by-book account of my Sabbatical progress. We agreed that instead I would share prayer points every 3-4 weeks. Now at the end of week four, I find I am overdue an update.

How is it going?

The pattern for these past weeks has been of reading interrupted by other activities. This pattern will change at the end of the week. Without giving a detailed breakdown of reading, I have delved into scripture, some history (Augustine) and biblical studies.
I have taught at the Ministry Training Course in Bath, and visited London three times with my family (a camp reunion, a university interview, and a funeral). And of course I have baked a weekly cake, photos of which became something of a hit on facebook. For the record, the all-in-one sponge is OK but the whisked fatless sponge has so far eluded me.

What is coming up?

From now on the pattern is mainly of a week away and a week at home. First up is a week in Ghana for some training on dialogue in adult education. I am really excited about the possibilities. As well as meeting new people, I hope to catch up with a couple of Langham Africa contacts.
When I get home, Christa and I will be leading a parenting seminar at City Church, Birmingham. Later in the month there is a week’s reading (or writing) retreat. I need to wrap up my dissertation and write up the results into a small book.

What can we pray?

Please pray for the trip to Ghana, for safety and health, for transformative learning so that I may be better equipped to teach and to train in Africa as well as at home.
And please pray that the reading, writing and study time would be fruitful.
Above I covet your prayers that my love for the Lord Jesus would grow through all this.

Thank you for your support and prayers. I am praying for you daily too.




What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to write?

I meant I can write better than before. As with reading, I was already capable of stringing words together to form a sentence. What changed can be summarised as the ability to create longer paragraphs and shorter sentences.

Paragraphs are the building blocks of an argument, and a single paragraph should contain a single idea. No-one ever taught me that, to the evident consternation of the scholar who supervised my first dissertation! For anything under 3,000 words one can usually get away with loose paragraphs, but for anything longer the discipline of building a water-tight argument is essential. Returning to writing longer papers and eventually a dissertation forced me to improve my paragraphs. Curiously I think the real benefit will be seen in my preaching if I can develop thoughts with greater clarity. The two recommended texts are William Zinser On Writing Well and Booth, Colomb and Williams The Craft of Research.

Sentences are the building blocks of paragraphs and they too should have a single thought each. My challenge is that word order has been a mystery for too long. As a scientist by training I am used to decoding formulae – the clue is to begin at the heart of the brackets and work outwards. That is why scientists read slowly and thoroughly (see my post on reading) I also learned foreign languages in which word order is dictated by grammar. For example in German, the verb is either in second position or at the end, and adverbial phrases are ordered by time, manner and place. So the idea that word order could be set by style as well as logic and grammar has been a gradual discovery. The set book, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, did not really help me here. (My other gripe with this book is that successive editions have still not learned that Bridgwater in Somerset does not have a central ‘e’). Strunk and White have an arch-rival, Stanley Fish, whose How to Write a Sentence: And how to read one was a revelation. His point that a sentence consists of words in a logical order helped the penny to drop.

Much remains mysterious about style. But I recommend reading and writing to improve reading and writing.



What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to read better?

Of course I could read before. So what changed? Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s aptly-titled How to Read a Book explains there are four levels of reading.

The first is Elementary reading, which you have mastered if you can read this blog!

Second is Inspectional Reading to get a sense of what the book is about and how it sets out to get there. In my experience this means leafing through the contents, index, and reading the first and last chapters, with a skim of the conclusion of the major parts in between. Some authors even save you the bother by setting it all out in a long introduction! It is if you like, getting a feel for the lie of the land. (Much easier in my experience with a print book than a digital one).

The third level enables one to ‘come to terms’ with the book. That phrase has a specific meaning, which is to understand the author’s key phrases (the terms), and understand how they are used here (coming to terms). That enables one to define what problem the author is trying to solve, how the parts of the book come together, and whether the problems have in fact been solved. Which opens the way to criticism, for which the following rules are given:

Do not say you agree, or disagree, or suspend judgement until you can say, “I understand.”
Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
Present good reasons for the critical judgement you make.

If you can show wherein the author is uninformed, misinformed or illogical, then you can state why you disagree. If their analysis or account is incomplete then you can explain why you suspend judgement

The fourth level of reading is Syntopical reading, which is to bring several authors together as they speak on a certain discussion. If you’re with me so far, you might recognise this as the skill that essay subjects aim to develop – to see what different authors say about a similar question, and to let them speak in their terms.

So what did I learn through the DMin? I learned that by growing in the Third and Fourth stages of reading, I could read better and quicker. Speed was important because of the need to get the reading done in the midst of a busy ministry. Quality mattered because this is a serious course with a credible doctoral dissertation as the desired end-product. I found that for too long I had read every word of every page and lost sight of the author’s main arguments. In other words, I used to read non-fiction in the same way I still read fiction – from start to finish.

It’s a legacy of my undergraduates studies which were in natural science. Chemistry is not an essay subject: the merits or otherwise of a reaction aren’t settled by argument on paper, they are settled in lab by experiment. And text books are dense texts filled with formulae that do not respond well to skim-reading. My first studies required me to read closely but I never needed to read intelligently. Somehow I stumbled through theological studies without really mastering the latter either. Thankfully the DMin helped me gain my feet in Learning How to Read a Book. I wish I had discovered that book twenty years ago.

Why I did a DMin


For the past four years I have followed a course of study called a DMin (Doctor of Ministry) at Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS) in St Louis Missouri (USA). The DMin was designed for ministers to receive further training in mid-ministry.

Following a degree course is a formal course of study. Advantages are that this gives us permission to study in the midst of conflicting priorities.

Another option would be non-formal study, which is organised but not institutional. One example would be the cell group that meets three times a year to read and discuss a book; or the preaching clubs and escuelitas that are the backbone of Langham Preaching‘s growth world-wide.

Informal study describes the lifelong process of continuing education. As I suggested in my post on Sabbaticals, all of us should be growing in knowledge all of the time: the reality is that some of us with tender consciences are easily kept from what feels like ‘me-time’ in the face of others’ needs.

The format of the course was three taught years consisting of a cycle of reading (c. 16 books), residency (2 weeks in St Louis), and reports (of 5,000 and 10,000 words respectively). The final year is devoted to the dissertation, for which there was excellent preparation and support.

My cohort are a wonderful bunch that it has been a privilege to get to know. Most of the others are Presbyterian (usually PCA), and between us we minister on four continents! Spending time with these men has been a joy.

I would summarise some of the benefits under the headings of learning better to read, to write, to listen and to speak. Maybe I’ll expand on this in a future post.

Meanwhile, here is a short video they made about us: https://vimeo.com/104540330


Plans, Plans…


Making plans should always be a tentative business. Proverbs warns us

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’S purpose that prevails.(Proverbs 19:21 NIV)

Nevertheless, it is useful to make some plans for my Sabbatical so that I at least know how to set out, even if I remain open about what the final destination will be.

I mentioned in a previous post that my aims for the Sabbatical are general rather than specific. I could sum my goals as Reading, Writing and Running


Although I read in the course of regular ministry, my choice of reading is constrained by what teaching I need to deliver, or what issues we are immediately facing a church. Sabbatical is a chance to read more broadly and I hope to do this by covering one or two works in each of biblical studies (Psalms, Matthew), history (Augustine), Leadership, Teaching (see below), and devotional works on prayer and preaching. I also hope to have more time to spend in personal Bible study.

The trouble with reading is that it does not look like you’re working very hard when doing it. The real action happens on the inside and it takes both time and a trained eye to see the results. Once I return, you will have both available to you!


I do not have a specific new writing project in mind. If something occurs to me, that is a sign that the sabbatical is working! But in the mean time I will spend a few days (hopefully not much longer) finishing the footnotes and formatting of my D Min dissertation, and converting the content into a booklet for Latimer Trust.

Writing also contrasts with reading in that it involves delivering content, and I will spend time in training settings. For the past ten or so years I have been involved with Langham Preaching‘s francophone team, and in connection with that I plan to brush up on adult education at a consultation in Ghana, then put it into practice with a seminar in Senegal. I also plan a visit to the Belgian Bible Institute in Brussels to see how they do it.


Running is in fact a shorthand because I’m not able to run, or jog at the moment. (What’s snn2515cc_441817athe difference between runners and joggers? Runners run because they love running; joggers do it because they love cake). Running stands for ‘self-care’, an important part of responsible and sustainable ministry.

I hope to be active, and also to try these new skills: baking (sponge cakes) and bicycle maintenance.

Watch this space!