Discern Module 3: How we Dwell. read. watch.reflect.practice


How do we Dwell in the Word of God?


The first years of pastoral ministry came with great enjoyment. I enjoyed entering my office on Monday morning and Thursday morning to prepare for the Tuesday morning Bible study or the Sunday sermon. I enjoyed sitting down to my Bible that sat on the corner of my desk. I held my cup of coffee and began to read line-by-line the assigned text. I was curious; I wondered, questioned, and underlined phrases and images that captured my attention. I enjoyed the youthful and invigorating space provided by the pastoral vocation to dwell in Scripture as part of my work. These early years I enjoyed wrestling with the text – first, for myself and then for the congregation. 

Time continued, and my workload increased. The relationship between ministry and family was now more complex. I no longer lingered over the text with my coffee and curiosity. I hastened to the desk grasping my Bible and hoping for some quick word or fix or encouragement to offer the hearers. I rushed to the text, so I could get on with the other urgent tasks of my day. The enjoyment of dwelling in Scripture faded. The curiosity waned and the anxiety increased as I sought to perform the word for my hearers. The obligation to dwell in Scripture moved from passionate engagement to compulsive misery. Where did the joy of my youth go? How did my passionate engagement give way to misery? And how, now, do I return?

I have returned, yet not through the vocational obligation of preaching and teaching; I returned through curiosity, coffee, and quiet. I am now quite interested in how preachers move beyond engaging Scripture as an obligation and return to engaging with curiosity. I desire to know how pastoral colleagues remember the text of our youth and engage with passion. I am interested in what it means for us to dwell in Scripture as a book we so deeply love.

Learning from a Saint, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a patron saint for helping pastoral leaders dwell in the text of our youth. I desire to emulate how he lived as pastor, scholar, professor, and activist. When I wonder how to find time to dwell in the word, I look to his life amidst leading the church during national tension and global war. He didn’t lament the fullness of his life; he entered it as a practicing and faithful Christian who also preached weekly. He was committed to his Christianity prior to his workaday commitments. Scripture, prayer, and Christian community were the roots that made the pastoral vocation flourish. Bonhoeffer was a friend of God and of God’s word. 

Bonhoeffer invited his young students to grow into a similar life rooted in the word and flourishing in the work. He asked them to submit themselves to a daily practice of dwelling in God’s word. He did not want them to center themselves in Scripture only when a sermon was looming. Bonhoeffer taught us that Scripture loses life when it is reduced to an instrument for our analytical and professional purposes. He continues to invite us to remember Christ’s invitation: “abide in me” (John 15). His invitation in Life Together was to recognize that however we dwell, we must not first come as preachers but as friends of God who befriend the text. Specifically Bonhoeffer said,

The word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love. And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you and ponder them in your heart as Mary did…. That is all. Do not ask, as though you were preaching, “How shall I pass this on?” but "What does it say to me, a pastor?” Then ponder this Word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you. (Life Together)

         The preaching life, for most pastors, is not simply the only task of the week. Funerals, disgruntled parishioners, hospital visits, cordial dinners, neighborhood tragedy, and the like are part of the preacher’s rhythm. Then there is the sermon. The practice of preaching rarely comes amidst an open schedule. Preaching happens amidst life, and so preachers have the gift and the burden, unlike laypeople, to rush to Scripture as a vocational expectation. It is often the vocation that compels us to open the Word.

Preachers can rehearse the difficult seasons of life when we only had strength to open Scripture when we were called upon to preach. These are dry and empty seasons, and every pastor has them. We remember how the tyranny of the urgent had possession of us, and Scripture was but an idle tale sitting beside our bedsides. We confess that this painful season occurs more often than we can bear. This honest confession turns to an invitation, and we hear Christ call, “abide in me.” Again, by Bonhoeffer’s words,

I cannot expound on Scripture unless I let it speak to me everyday. I will misuse the Word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer. If the Word is empty to me, if I no longer experience it, that should be an unmistakable sign that for a long time I have stopped letting it speak to me…. We want to meet Christ in his Word… (D. Bonhoeffer, “The Training of the Confessing Church” in The Way to Freedom, 57-61)

How then do we overcome the tyranny of the urgent, the dry seasons, and the temptation to be what Eugene Peterson calls, “a quivering mass of availability” in order to be a friend of God and to befriend the text? We can continue with Bonhoeffer, who recognized the depth of Scripture through his own narrative during war-era Germany,

It has proved useful to meditate for a whole week on one text of approximately 15 verses. It is not good to meditate on a different text each day as our receptiveness is not always the same and the texts are usually far too deep. Whatever happens, do not take the text on which you are to preach next Sunday. That belongs to sermon preparation… Half hour is the minimum time demanded for a proper engagement. (D. Bonhoeffer, “The Training of the Confessing Church” in The Way to Freedom, 57-61)

         This is an invitation worth taking up. It does not require additional books; it is not functionally productive, yet it is the manner to be a friend of the One who has called us to preach and who has blessed us with a people that will listen.

Learning to Dwell, the Hard Way

I remember serving as an associate pastor at Excelsior Covenant Church, a place I continue to love. I was very young. My pastoral portfolio was minimal. I wasn’t teaching weekly nor preaching weekly. I didn’t have the typical performance pressures that we have as weekly preachers. I was restless in my youthful ambition. I was rocking back in my chair wondering what to do (email was less of a distraction in these years as most didn’t have it and even fewer checked it). I grabbed my Bible, blew the dust from its cover, and began reading. This was the first time since before seminary that I had grasped my Bible for no reason but to read. I ingested Exodus that afternoon and continued the rest of the Torah prior to entering the historical books and Psalms. In a few weeks I had consumed the entire Old Testament and even now find myself continually living out of the readings started in the early years of ministry. 

I remember this initial act as a memory in time more than an ordinary practice, yet the preaching life calls us to take up the task of reading for no reason throughout our lives. Bonhoeffer and the pastoral saints remind us that our life in Christ precedes our vocation as preachers. I am turning to my dusty Bible today as I complete this essay, remembering that what I discovered in my youth is calling to me, again; “abide in me.”  

New Beginning with Newbigin

Lesslie Newbigin invites us to something similar. In The Good Shepherd, Newbigin writes,

We have to make the words of Jesus our constant theme of meditation, to come back again and again to them, to listen afresh to them, to apply them to our situation as it changes each day. If we are diligent in doing this, we shall find that new depths are constantly opening up within these familiar words. There is a miracle here, but it is really so...To abide in Christ means to let his words abide in us and constantly to refer everything to them. It means going back to them again and again and being willing again to start afresh like a child going down to the bottom of the class. It means, specifically, giving the first place in our time every day, and the first priority in our thinking, to this hidden life of the soul with Jesus. (L. Newbigin, The Good Shepherd, 142). 

This, for me, is how we dwell.



Dr. Kyle Small

Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Church Leadership

Western Theological Seminary


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Consider the questions below - ponder them in your mind and in your heart. Then write out your answers before meeting with your group.

As you read, how do you...

...find yourself resonating with the ideas offered in the essay?
...find yourself experiencing resistance?
...imagine that indwelling the scriptures could impact your faith journey?  Your role as a leader on campus?  Your discernment process?


How are you finding the process of indwelling a beloved text?