Why Pastors Should Read More
Three reasons to pick up a book
Pastors are busy people. We have a lot going on: running churches, leading Bible studies, discipling people, conducting weddings and funerals. In this post-Christian culture, the harvest is waiting. Growing churches require leaders who are men and women of action, and what we need right now are ways of getting even more done in less time.
The last thing many of us believe we should do is slow down, find a quiet corner, and read a book. But I am here to tell my fellow pastors and ministry leaders that this is exactly what we should do.
Don’t get me wrong. I know some of us are pretty bookish, and nothing would make us happier than to read more. But ministry, we tell ourselves, is about sacrifice. Carving out an afternoon to read a book is selfish and unrealistic. The lost need the gospel. Our churches need pastoring. Our families need their parents and spouses.
So we tell ourselves we will wait until the end of the day to read. But by then our brains are so fried we spend an hour looking at our phones instead until we eventually fall asleep.
As men and women “of the Book,” we may find that beyond our devotions, our sermon prep, and our social media newsfeeds, we really spend very little time reading. Some of us spend almost no time in books. I believe this is an impoverishment to our souls and to our ministries. And I will tell you why.
Reading Gives Perspective
On my last vacation, my family and I walked into a little bookshop in a seaside town. Everyone picked their book, and I grabbed On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by horror and suspense novelist Stephen King. The book is part biography, part writing manual, and part personal philosophy.
After discussing his experience of overcoming alcohol addiction in the book, King tells how he rearranged his writing office. King had once owned a large oak desk. It had been the desk of his dreams. It dominated his office. But in sobriety, King decided to get rid of his desk and change his office into a family space. He put a small desk on one end where he would write, and the rest of the space was for his kids to watch TV and eat pizza.
King offers this advice to writers: “Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Reading novels and biographies can broaden our understanding of the human situation.
Like art, ministry can be an all-consuming passion. It can eat up everything around it, including our families. King learned the value of his family by almost losing it. While by the grace of God I have never found myself in such a situation, it was a poignant reminder to me to keep first things first.
Reading Provides a Distraction
When my dad was in the hospital with a terminal illness, my brother and I made a pact to be with him around the clock until he passed away. We slept in his room, and took turns leaving to stretch our legs and eat.
On one of my walks, I wandered into a bookstore and went to the religion section. To my amazement, among the dizzying variety of titles was a book written by one of my theology professors. I snatched it up and went to the desk, paying full price for the little volume and carrying it back to the hospital. During my shifts sitting next to dad, and while lying on the hospital cot waiting to fall asleep, I devoured the book.
Reading wasn’t just killing time, which is how watching the hospital television or staring at my phone all day would have felt. Reading allowed me to be present while still allowing me to be — on occasion, at least — partially absent in a healthy way. As in life, so in ministry, we need distractions sometimes. Knowing there is a good book near at hand during a tough season can be comforting.
Reading Makes Us Better Preachers
None of us has access to all the experiences of life. None of us can relate fully to every person in our church or every character in the Bible. I once read a study that revealed that when reading the Gospels, pastors tend to relate to Jesus while other Christians relate to the disciples.
Much of our estrangement from “normal folks” is overcome by interacting daily with a variety of people, both inside and outside the church. But reading novels and biographies can also broaden our understanding of the human situation. Reading may even cause us to see, possibly for the first time, that the stories in the Bible are stories, and the people in the Bible are people, not merely raw material waiting to be turned into talking points.
When he was a pastor, Eugene Peterson, made appointments for himself every Thursday afternoon to read Dostoevsky. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., writing to pastors, said, “Wise preachers read to become wiser.”
Imprisoned and facing death, the apostle Paul told his protege Timothy, “Bring my books” (2 Timothy 4:13, NLT).
As Harry S. Truman said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Let’s endeavor to fill our souls with good books, both for ourselves and for our churches.