Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Don’t Skip the Vocabulary

Written by: on October 17, 2018

“Why are you reading this paragraph?  It is not lettered A, B, or C, so it does not correspond with any of the answers.  If you want to get the best out of a programme (or any other reading for that matter) you must watch out for clues that will help you skip material you do not need.  Otherwise you will waste a lot of your time.”[1]

Derek Rowntree drops this gem of insight early in his book Learn How to Study, that walks students through the very best of how to study.  Much of the book is about organization and time management but this line is what I was sharing with my co-workers the last few days.

There are two of us who are going “back to school” here on the staff of Huguenot Memorial Church.  We share funny class incidents and encourage one another as students.  I showed her this quote yesterday and explained this was what my study methods have always lacked.  I pulled a Church History book from the shelf and demonstrated my seminary conundrum.



This is from a book called The Rise of Christianity from the church historian WHC Frend.  This book is 1022 pages long.  If you combined all three Lord of the Rings books into one massive volume you would get 1178 pages.  In other words, you can wander into Mount Doom with your gardener and back in about the same amount of pages.  I was assigned to read Frend throughout the first half of my first semester of seminary.  Needless to say, the inside joke amongst my classmates was that “Frend, was not our friend.”

Do you see all of that orange highlighter?  Do you think I remembered all of that information at the end of the semester fifteen years ago?  Do you think I remember it all now?  Of course not!  I was basically highlighting two-thirds of every page thinking that everything was important.  Thank you Rowntree for cluing me in on the fact that there is material I need to “skip.”

Of equal value was the substantial recommended vocabulary list found later on page 98.[3]  I wonder how each of us scored on this vocabulary test.  How many of us could spell these correctly if given only the word and part of speech, spelling bee style?  “A wide vocabulary is essential, both for understanding other people’s ideas (whether in speech or writing) and for expressing your own.”[4] This truism was touched on recently, especially in regards to the way people discuss their faith by writer Jonathon Merritt in this recent piece in the New York Times.  Merritt shares that for “whatever the reason, for most of us in this majority-Christian nation, our conversations almost never address the spirituality we claim is important.”[5]  His premise is that it is because our own spiritual vocabularies are inadequate.  Could it be because of the lack of proper faith “study” that Rowntree describes?  How do we as faith leaders discuss our calls, positions, jobs, even our doctoral research with others?

[1] Derek Rowntree, Learn How to Study (London: Macdonald and Jane Publishers, 1978) viii.

[2] WHC Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 234.

[3] Rowntree, 98.

[4] Rowntree, 99.

[5] Jonathon Merritt, “It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God,” The New York Times, October 13, 2018, final edition.

About the Author

Rev Jacob Bolton

5 responses to “Don’t Skip the Vocabulary”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks for this post it has brought even more clarity to me in my studying process. I too can get caught up in highlighting every sentence thinking I will come back to this at some point and rarely do.

    You bring up a great point about vocabulary, and I was just having a conversation with another pastor who is going through a doctoral program and he asked me why am I doing this. At first, I wanted to give a big intellectual answer and after pausing and thinking I simply said because I want to help people live the best lives for Christ as possible and this is part of the journey to do that. We continued to challenge each other to not stay in the clouds (per se) with what we are learning but to bring it down to the people… I think your vocabulary insight is another step in making sure that happens.

  2. Mary Mims says:

    Rev. Jacob, I like your point about our “Spiritual vocabulary” in order to tell others why we are studying. I struggle sometimes to tell those outside of the doctoral program why I am doing what I am doing. The bottom line is I want to help children and youth understand their faith and be able to communicate that with others. My goal, and I am sure yours, is not the create a book to sit on a shelf and collect dust. We all need to be reminded of the “why” and also develop the vocabulary to communicate that “why”.

  3. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Jacob. I really enjoyed Jonathon Merritt’s article. I wonder if the smaller our world, the more limited our vocabulary? That seems to be his inference after moving from his world to New York. It caused me to interrogate my own reality and the circle I live in. I definitely want to expand it and the accompanying glossary of terms.

  4. Sean Dean says:

    I teach a bible study at my church that is predominantly composed of septuagenarians and octogenarians – several of whom have recently strayed into nonagenarian territory. We frequently talk about the difference in church vocabulary that they grew up with and what my generation and those after mine use. What I find interesting is how there seems to have been an accepted church vocabulary up into the eighties or nineties then people got into the “thinking outside the box” craze and came up with all sorts of new vocabulary. It seems like ever since then there hasn’t been an agreed upon vocabulary. For instance my group talks about telling their testimony, but the young folk in our church would talk about their faith journey or their story or something more obscure. Testimony was the word used for centuries, it’s just us young folk who can’t come up with a single term for it. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but it does make knowing the right vocabulary hard and also very situational.

  5. Digby Wilkinson says:

    I’ve done all that highlighting in the past. And of course it’s pointless because we rarely wade back through the book to enjoy all our inane highlighting. Skimming leaves us worried we are going to miss something, but after skimming a reasonable number of books, the bits missed in one book will often be found in another. We can then go back to previous books looking for specific information. It’s a case of trusting that the process works. I wonder if skimming also allows our own voice to percolate to the surface. Likewise, I wonder if skimming books that offer a counter position to our own personal orthodoxy has the effect of expanding our vocabulary too. I have been wading through the Spiral Dynamics of Ken Wilbur recently, and although he inhabits a very different space to me, his language has expanded my own way of seeing the world, and indeed my own dogmas. In the philosophy of linguistics, changing our words, changes our ways of seeing and understanding. In the Sapir Wolf theory, even learning a new language changes the the way we understand reality. It’s a little scary how true it appears to be.

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