Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Organized Pastor -3

The Filing System--part 2: Topics

As I noted yesterday, my files fall into three categories: (1) Biblical; (2) Topical; and (3) Church/work committees. Today, I want to talk about how I organize my files under topics. Begin with this simple axiom: organize general to specific. This keeps things easily accessible at the same time it organizes by specifics. If you work general to specific you can expand your subfolders when a folder become too unwieldily to be useful. The goal is to get what works for you, what is usable and explainable. You don't want finding an example or fact to turn into a three hour research project.

All my current files have started under a general category. I will use three extended examples in this post: Apologetics, Pauline Studies, and Statistics. Each one started as its own topic. But as it expanded it got pretty detailed sub-folders.

First, my 'Statistics' was a jumbled mess until about a month ago. It was large and expanding. I new I had facts on 'sexual immorality', 'pastoral fallout', 'church decline' and a whole mess of other things. But I would wade through a three inch file to find a two page Barna survey. It was not worth it. So I broke it down. Statistics now has subfolders:
  1. "Beliefs of 'Christians'" --Tracking the trends of
  2. "Beliefs: Pluralism" --Tracking Pluralism in Religious Belief today.
  3. "Church Attendance" --decline rates, etc.
  4. "Culture, Christianity" --mostly on trends specific to evangelicals
  5. "Depression and Happiness"
  6. "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" --which has the studies by Christian Smith and Melina Denton.
  7. "Sexual" --this keeps track of trends. I also started a file under "Sexual Immorality" for some general essays I found in this area. This tracts statistics of moral decline and acceptance of sexual immorality.
  8. "Pastors" --which has the stats on how often pastors leave pulpits.
  9. "Religion in America" --the stats that show that religion is actual headed towards pluralism.
  10. "Youth/Young People" -trends regarding the next generation.
This makes a stat easily findable when I am writing a sermon. If I get a new stat unrelated to these topics it will either go in the general "Statistics" or more likely it will go into its own special file. Here is the key: it takes time and research to develop subfolders. If you make subfolders to early in your filing system you will have an unworkable mess of endless subfolder or more likely a mass of folders that have no connectivity or real organization. You pull 5 topics from "S", "P", "G" etc. before you actually get related data and essays. Don't just make a "Church Decline" folder for a few stats. If you have essays on Church Decline you may want its own folder or you may want to start under: Church, until you can expand it to "Church Health" and "Church Decline." Work general to specific. Allow the files to evolve over time. As you pull stuff or file new stuff ask yourself: is this organized? Did I find it quickly? If you are looking through a file and are finding in 10 essay on Pauline Studies you have three on the New Perspective, 5 on history, and 2 on theology it's time to reorganize.

Second, ironically, in my files I do need to reorganize my Pauline Studies files. So far I have 4 folders:
  1. "Pauline Studies"--this is the original.
  2. "Pauline Studies: New Perspective on Paul"
  3. "Pauline Studies: New Perspective on Paul."
  4. "Pauline Studies: Law, Works of the Law"
Here's what I need to break it down into. Things like:
  • "Pauline Studies: Pauline Theology"
  • "Pauline Studies: Historicity"
  • "Pauline Studies: New Perspective,"
  • "Pauline Studies: New Perspective, Nomos"--I may need to add a couple here, like on 'Justification' or other sub-sub topics.
  • "Pauline Studies: New Perspective Critique."
I promise, I'll break it down as soon as I use it. I'm not going to organize it until I (a) get some free time, or (b) need to find something, then I'll organize as I look. Just for reminder, issues like the date of Galatians will go under Galatians in the Biblical section of the files. I also have Topics on "Justification by Faith" including a Sunday School series and research from that. However, all the debates on Justification and the New Perspective go under "Pauline Studies". This is because this is more properly their topic. Where it does get tricky is I have a series on "Christology" which included discussion on Pauline passages. There is invariably an overlap. So here's the general practice of my break down:
  • There is a generic file for "Christology" and for "Pauline Studies".
  • Any exegetical papers go under "Biblical" with the passages.
  • Work product from "Christology" goes under that section including the handouts. I believe I have a subfolder on "Christology: Pauline." This is because the work there, while under Pauline issues, mostly relates to a larger category of systematic theology.
Whenever you do research you will invariably pull multiple files--if you have a comprehensive filing system. If I am working in Philippians I pull the Biblical files, the Pauline Studies Files that relate, and when I'm in Philippians 2:6-11, I'll pull Christology to see how the passage relates within Christology. I do have a lecture or two from when I covered Christology. However, all the essays on Philippians 2:6-11, like N.T. Wright's essay reprinted in Climax of the Covenant,* are under the Biblical text but I do have some diagrams relating to the humiliation and exaltation of Christ under 'Christology'.

"Justification by Faith" has popular articles and notes/work from a SS series. But if I study the issue I need to pull files in the Biblical: Romans, Galatians, James. In Pauline Studies, especially New Perspective. And then in 'justification by faith' which has two sub-folders. Sounds complex but here's the point: If I find a new article on Romans 4 and justification I file it under Romans 4. If it is N.T. Wright's discussion of justification it goes under "New Perspective" (I soon I'll give him his own sub-category here). If it is on church life and justification, or on imputation in general it goes under "Justification by Faith". I try to be exact as possible. Sometimes it is a subjective judgment call--use what works for you and ask: "How can I best find this later". So for example: should I expand my "Pauline Studies: New Perspective" by topics (e.g. 'Law', etc.) or by person (e.g. Wright, Dunn. etc.).

One file I have to move: "pistis christou" that Pauline issue in Romans and Galatians, has its own file under the "p". In needs to be a subfolder of "Pauline Studies". The only reason it isn't is because this research goes back to college when my files were smaller.

Third, "Apologetics" has numerous sub-files. I keep notes from two seminary courses under there own subfolders. I have topics on Atheism including debates like "Stein/" and "Hitchen/Wilson". I have historical apologetics, philosophical apologetics, responses from unbelievers. Some areas are more general like: virgin birth, or atheism. The "Atheism" on has articles by atheists but not apologetic responses. If I want to find responses: "Apologetics: Atheism", if I just want to read them in their own words: "Atheism".

Here's the actual breakdown:
  1. "Apologetics: Atheism"
  2. "Apologetics: Atheism: Dawkins" --his work and responses.
  3. "Apologetics: Atheistic Critique of Presuppositionalism" --an atheist points to flaws in presuppositional apologetics.
  4. "Apologetics: Hitchens vs. Wilson Debate" --this is the Christianity Today Series. Along with Wilson's blog review of God is Not Great.
  5. "Apologetics: Christianity and Religious Pluralism"
  6. "Apologetics: Introduction to" --class notes from seminary.
  7. "Apologetics: Islam" --These are responses. 'Islam' is its own file too.
  8. "Apologetics: Myths about Jesus, YF Fall 2008" --this is a Youth Group (YF= youth fellowship series). All my series whether in Biblical or Topical have info about the formant (e.g. Sermon, SS Adult, Senior High SS, YF, etc.) plus the quarter or time period.
  9. "Apologetics: Origins of Christianity, Mystery Cults, etc."
  10. "Apologetics: Presuppositionalism"
  11. "Apologetics: Stein/Bahnsen Debate"
  12. "Apolgetics: When Skeptics Ask: Adult SS Sumer 2008"
  13. "Apologetics: Zeitgeist" --info on the movie.
Hopefully you see my information is accessible without being overwhelmed. I don't have to wade through issues of atheism if I want information on presuppositionalism or Christian Origins.

This may seem overwhelming at first--I mean thirteen files... how do I know where to put it ? As I mentioned, some filing is a judgment call. I did three SS lessons on atheism this summer and yes, I had to pull a number of files including debates, atheists in their own words, and apologetic responses. But they sat on my desk and I knew which ones to look in for each particular item. I also had a file "Humanism" which was relevant. I didn't have to do a lot of fresh research because I had collected and organized. I estimate this saved about 5-6 hours or original work on Atheism. Some stuff I used was old work, other time was used doing some new work/reading. As my files grow, I have "Evolution" and "Creation" and even a generic "Science". Atheists have written things in some of these but not necessarily defenses of atheism. I read a lot, I collect, and when I needed it, I could find it. Imagine if you could cut out 5-6 hours in SS or sermon prep in order to reinvest it deeper prep--that's my goal but I can't say I always hit it.

Fourth, one thing I have done for a while is keep a "Misc." file. If I find one article, I put it here. So I collected an essay on economics. It sat there for a while until I found another essay I wanted to keep. Then economics got it's own file. Whenever I file a group of essays, I pull "Misc." and review it. There are something that will probably never get out of there--like a bulletin from my grandmother's funeral--it's been there since college. I use the Misc. to keep my topics from getting to precise too quick.

I generally keep a stack of papers on my desk until the end of the week until I file things. This allows me to file a bunch at once and better organize groups because chances are I didn't just read one essay on a topic. If you file something too quick it may get lost in some obscure label--at least that's how it happens for me. This may not be as effect or organized as I could be--but it does keep the files organized when they do go away. This, along with my habit of pulling 5-10 files at once, is also why my desks goes from cluttered to clean and back again.

Fifth, you have to review your files periodically. For example, I had an unorganized file on the contemporary church that had essays critiquing trends. I had to break this down--even throw some of the files into other issues. "Contemporary Church" overlapped to much with other topics. I wasn't working from general to specific--instead I had a bizzare catch all where I could find nothing. I have other files that are still a bit unruly and need subcategories but as a rule I try to wait until I am using them. I don't want to spend 20+ hours and go organize stuff into subcategories--for now I know where it is if I file new stuff in a disorganized file or if I pull stuff, I'll take about 10 minutes and break it down. To my mind, this is more organized and effective.

Sixth, one last thing: I have several people that just have there own files. I don't do this too much because you want to find a topic not a person. My exceptions: Carl Trueman, I save a number of his witty essays from Ref 21. Dr. Mohler has some essays that get under topics but I have a few odd ball ones under his name. I have some collections of Horton essays. Mostly Mohler and Horton are being refiled under topics because that's where I look for them most. Every now and then when I go through Mohler's and Horton's work and I go 'this should be in that topic because I missed it'. Trueman's British wit--well that just retains its own category. Only on important issue does something get filed by name only. But this usually creates a mess of unsearchable files. So Book review of favorite authors go there. Essays by emerging church guys or critique go first under "Emerging Church" although I have collects of essays and responses by key figures with their own subcategories.

Online journals like Themelios or 9Marks e-journal gets printed as a bundle and filed that way in my hanging files, just like I file JETS or WTJ on my shelf.

Conclusion: Let's RECAP.
General to specific. Organize by area: (1)Biblical; (2) Topic; (3) Church. Collect in one topic until you have enough to break it down. Label it as subfolders. Make sure the main topics are memorable. Like: Apologetics, Church, Ethics, Pauline Studies, etc.** Do what works for you but what is explainable. There will always be a 'judgment call' in your filing. Don't fret, just label it and file it as best you can at the time.***

By now, your probably think that this isn't all that organized. It is pretty complex but I have almost two full standing file drawer with just topics. I need to be able to access them and I want my work to be in the actual study not the busy work of finding things. I know this works for me. How? Because I wrote this entire post from home. The only thing I didn't remember: 1 of the Pauline folders, four of the ten specific statistics I was keeping, and the actual list of "Apologetics" subfolders--wrote the paragraph as is from home, but added the actual list when I got to the office. In other words, I missed a few details but the general flow of my information was unchanged--I knew what I had on hand and generally where it was. This is what has worked for me, although I am refining things more as things grow.

Part of writing this series is that if forces me to make things explainable and I can catch inconsistencies that arise from areas where I just filed things without thinking.

My filing has helped me. In fact, as I added the list on apologetics, I realized I have a thorough chapter-by-chapter critique of Hitchen's God is Not Great. I read the critique in 2007 when it was post on Doug Wilson's blog. Right now I am getting through the book on my own. My files pointed me to resource I didn't even know I had--but will be an asset. Instead of reading it and forgetting about it, I read it and filed it and not it will be of use to me two years later. Ten seconds of wondering and then checking what besides the Christianity Today debate was making that file so thick produced a pleasant surprise. This, in my mind, is an effective mark of organization. You'll never remember everything, you just have to remember where you filed it--or have labels that say "Hi there, here I am filed, you might need me". What a surprise to me.

And please dear astute reader, don't ask me why this wasn't filled under "Book Review: Hitchens." I save book reviews and enough reviews on a particular author or book or a series on a book (as is this case) usually get a "Book Review:" with an "X, Y, Z" subcategory. Hey, it was a judgment call, I thought I'd get more use out of such essays in "Apologetics"--in this case I was right, I was working on apologetics stuff not review my book review list. Judgment calls need to be intuitive to the way you work and what your needs were, mine certainly was. I rolled the dice, filed and it paid off.

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*This might not be the best example. I have three versions of it. (1) I have the book. (2) When my exegesis class in college went through Philippians, I filled it under Philippians; (3) Somewhere, probably a Christology class taught by the same professor, I acquired another copy that got filed in Christology. My point is: if I only had one copy I would know where it was: Biblical Files.

**I do have a number of less specific ones like "humility" which has examples, quotes, and essays. Some like "Elders" could have been "Church: Elders" but I just never went that way with it. It didn't work for me at the time. Subsequently I have some of general "Leadership", some of "Elders" not only on qualifications, training, etc. as subfolders and then one on "Church Leadership". This have been specific to my needs. A study on leadership would pull the areas--but training the elders might only pull one or two. It works for me and I can explain it--sort of.

***Occasionally when I have a hard to file item, I will put it under a topic with a sticky note on it saying "This essay is about X", so I know what it made it where it did. This allows me to see what the essay is when I scan the files.

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