the shape of leadership

Becoming Pastor-Readers

Review of 'The Pastor's Bookshelf' by Austin Carty

George P Wood on April 5, 2022


As executive editor of AG Publications, I get paid to read books. I read them to identify potential authors, topics, and reviews for Influence and Called to Serve, as well as to prepare for interviews on the Influence Podcast. Were it not for publishers willing to send me a steady stream of new books, I couldn’t do my job.

I’d read even if I weren’t an editor, however. After a long, hard day of reading at work, I like to go home and read some more. Sometimes, the books are ministry related. Other times, they’re not. Regardless, I feel the same way about reading that Eric Liddell felt about running: “God made me literate. And when I read, I feel His pleasure.”

Austin Carty argues in The Pastor’s Bookshelf that there is more to reading than professional duty or personal delight. He differentiates between “a pastor who reads simply in search of information” (or leisure) and a “pastor-reader.” For the latter, reading is formational. It “not only makes us better pastors but also makes us better people.”

This point seems obvious when it comes to reading Scripture, but Carty focuses on the formational power of reading books other than the Bible, whether nonfiction or fiction. Reading forms us in at least two ways:

First, Carty writes, “a commitment to wide, regular reading exposes us to so many new people and places and ideas and ideologies that — slowly, quietly, and continually — it enlarges our sense of the world and what is possible.” Call this reading’s widening effect.

Second, he notes that “numerous empirical studies have found that ‘deep reading’ forms neural pathways that correspond with greater capacities for empathy, patience, critical thinking, and tolerance of ambiguity.” Call this reading’s deepening effect.

Some ministers may feel threatened by these two effects. These effects feel like a mushy liberalism that transgresses the boundaries of orthodoxy or builds on a foundation other than the bedrock of Scripture. There’s a lot of truth to the proverb, “If you’re too open-minded, your brains will fall out.”

Reading helps ministers develop appropriate width and depth. In short, it forms wisdom in us.

By the same token, though, there are spiritual dangers to a narrow, shallow version of faith. This is especially true on social media, whose algorithms lump us only with like-minded people, feeding us a steady diet of information that merely confirms our preexisting opinions.

Reading helps ministers develop appropriate width and depth. In short, it forms wisdom in us. Carty describes wisdom as “one’s capacity to discern the bigger picture; to see beyond the present moment with its immediate concerns and anxieties; to parse the difference between what seems to matter and what really matters; to distinguish between an impulsive reaction and a measured response.”

I’m sure you can see how this wisdom derived from reading would be valuable in your day-to-day work as a minister. Carty provides numerous examples of how it has helped (or corrected) his preaching, pastoral care, vision casting, and leadership. Ministers read for spiritual formation, to be sure, but spiritual formation has organizational benefits.

So, how can we move from “pastors who read for information” to “pastor-readers”? Carty suggests five ways:

First, schedule reading during office hours as if it were a “pastoral visit.” He suggests you start reading one hour daily outside of your personal devotions or sermon preparation.

Second, think of reading as a “spiritual discipline.” Carty recommends classic spiritual discipline books by Richard J. Foster and Dallas Willard, but he faults them for excluding reading beyond the Bible. If reading forms us in wisdom, however, then it is a spiritual discipline, too, alongside prayer, Bible study, corporate worship, and the like.

Third, read with a “proper spirit,” that is, with “humility, charity, and hospitality.” Carty quotes Neal Plantinga to great effect: “Reading is no doubt imperative for the pastor, but so too is a spirit of receptivity. . . . Without the proper spirit, reading will not occasion the kind of moral and spiritual formation we are talking about.”

Fourth, read “for whatever reason” you like. Carty describes his reading philosophy as “a pneumatology of reading” because “the Holy Spirit plays a central (though intrinsically mysterious) role in directing us as pastor-readers toward what — and when, and why — to read.” Carty is Baptist, but that remark is thoroughly Pentecostal.

Fifth, develop a system to “mark and file what you’ve read.” We forget about 90% of what we read, so your system should help you recall the most helpful insights and quotations.

I close with Paul’s request to Timothy: “Bring . . . the books” (2 Timothy 4:13, ESV). After reading The Pastor’s Bookshelf, you’ll know why this should be a life verse of every pastor-reader.


Book Reviewed

Austin Carty, The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022).

This review appeared in the spring 2022 issue of Called to Serve.

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