Saturday, July 30, 2005

Transition no. 3: The pastor's study

Anytime I'm left waiting in someone's office, I look at what is on the shelves: usually, the books capture my interest the most, though I was once fascinated to find a clean, yet broken, inner-race of a automotive constant-velocity (CV) joint on the shelf of a philosophy professor! (The CV joint is the amazing piece of a car's axle that allows the wheels to spin at different speeds around turns.)

You can learn a lot about a person from what is on the shelves in their office. In fact, you can learn a lot about them from the whole office.

Now, in spite of Tychicus' (valid and true) comments that motivated this post, I'm not going to post on “feng shui for the pastor.” But there is a psychology to the arrangement of a pastor's study that those in transition ought to pay attention to.

Take, for example, the shelves of books. Nearly every pastor or seminarian I know is a bibliophile, and most of us are somewhat proud of our book collections. Will my study be the best place to store all of my books? Inevitably, there will be those in a congregation who are intimidated by the scholarly nature of their pastor, and the fact that his study is entirely lined with books will not help the intimidation. Perhaps the avenues of ministry would be less congested if some of the books were housed elsewhere.

Obviously, there will be some books that are essential, or nearly so, to a pastor's ministry and therefore have a proper place in his study. But many will not: in my office at the last church I served, I had an entire shelf unit filled with my philosophy books, though-- oddly-- I never used them for youth ministry. They were a nice testimony to the degree I completed in that field, but probably hindered my ministry (and certainly didn't help it). At present, I would guess that 1/4 to 1/3 of my 2000+ books have no direct value to ministry whatsoever, and could be shelved at home when I transition into ministry.

Another aspect to consider is the desk and work space. It may take a while for a working system to emerge as the most efficient way of using the space you have, but let me make a few recommendations based on experience and/or reflection:
  • Don't bother with the “In-box/Out-box” sort of arrangement unless you will actually use it. Since I never did, mine were always overflowing, which gave the impression that I was either overworked or never did anything!
  • Keep file storage close-at-hand. If you have ready access to your filing cabinets, you are more likely to actually file things regularly. Filing is usually tedious anyway, so any excuse (e.g., “I don't want to bother getting out of the chair to walk across the room”) will be enough to prevent regular filing. [N.B.: for a good system to get this under control, I recommend “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” (David Allen).]
  • If possible, place your desk so that it is visible from the doorway. When others walk by and see you working, it will affirm their sense of your work-ethic. Stated negatively, some congregants already suspect that a pastor loafs and slacks all week (“Pretty good pay for two hours a week...”), so if they can't see you working (or see the evidence of your work from the stuff on your desk), they may assume the worst. Obviously this only applies if you actually do work.
  • An ancillary point to the last one: set up your computer so that the monitor can be seen from the doorway. Hopefully you're not tempted by pornography on the Internet, but if you are (or is anyone suspects that you are), this setup will provide accountability and dispel suspicion.
Also, if the door to your study doesn't have a window in it, insist that one be installed, or the door be replaced with a windowed one. This is for your protection, as well as for the peace of mind of those you counsel. Otherwise, your alternatives are three: leave the door wide open (which means anyone can hear you and your visitor); close the door but always have someone else sit in with you (which is not always possible, nor does it avail the privacy that counseling often requires); or close the door and be alone with them (which, at best, invites speculation...). Of course, a fourth alternative is that you could simply refuse to do any counseling (but don't bother unpacking the books).

The size, shape, and kind of furnishings in a pastor's study vary so greatly from one church to another that it is difficult to offer any concrete suggestions about how a study might be arranged. Here are a few thoughts. Make the space as inviting as possible. Have comfortable seating available apart from your desk chair (one pastor I visited kept metal folding chairs behind the door for guests-- no wonder he seldom had them!). Light it well, but not harshly; indirect, incandescent light has been shown to be both soothing and restful, while fluorescent lights can make the eyes tired. The perfectly arranged study is one that is comfortable and functional for long periods of time, both when you are alone and when others are with you.

As Tychicus suggests, the desk can become an unintended divider between the pastor and his people. I've seen a variety of arrangements that accommodate this, with one thing in common: all of them had a part of the study that was structured for sitting with others-- almost an ante-room of sorts in some cases, while others were just chairs or a loveseat placed behind the desk, so that the pastor could turn around and face his visitors.

Finally, acknowledge the impact of nomenclature. What is the difference between a “pastor's office” and a “pastor's study?” Psychologically and semantically, there is a world of difference. An office is used mainly for administration, meetings, and business. A study, on the other hand, is a place for reading, reflection, contemplation (in other words, for studying). Which of those two best describes your calling?


Tychicus said...

Well said, Ed. Practical and accurate (i.e. you represented my thought correctly). Not trying to prescribe some legalistic office furniture arrangement; just trying to get your readers (of your site and of your eventual book!) to think about it a bit. It will serve them well, I think.

Bobby's blog said...

the most unusual thing I have on my desk, (and have had on every desk I've ever worked at) is a can of Gentry's Pure Missouri Opossum-Sun Dried and Road Tendered.
It was an item that my grandpa kept in his desk and is nearly 20 years old.
It's a funny piece and a conversation starter, but it's also a memento of my late grandpa who means a lot to me.
I think that it's good to have a desk or office that reflects more than just the books one has read, but other pieces of their life or hobbies that ease the minds of people who may come in.
I have not had the opportunity to have a "pastoral" office, and since I am a bibliophile, I know whatever I have will be intimidating to some, but I still plan on having personal touches that are not books, or mean something to me.
There is a twofold reason for this:
1: It is good for me to have reminders of times and people in life that have touched me.
2: It gives people who come to the office something to see that will pique their interest in me personally and give them something more interesting to ask me questions about rather than Wallace's Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, or any other book I may have on the shelf.

Ed said...

Good point, Bobby; I love me some Opossum.

Personal artifacts do bring a lot to a pastor's study/office. Some of the artifacts around my study are: a duck decoy my father carved; an inkstamp seal-- a gift from a friend from his visit to Hong Kong; some seashells that Marcie found for me; a pipe-rack; and an antique fountain pen. Good conversation pieces, indeed.