Here are five pieces of advice about books and reading I would love to share with every senior pastor starting their very first pastorate…
I want to congratulate you on your very first day of becoming a senior pastor. You will find, as I have, that being a senior pastor is the greatest job in the world. Occasionally, though, it can be quite lonely. You’ll find that outside of your family and a few close friends that stick closer than a brother, that books will be your one constant companion. And since you will no doubt hear conflicting advice about how to welcome their influence into your daily rhythm, I felt that it might be helpful to hear a few counter-intuitive lessons from a friend in the trenches. As with anything I write—eat the meat and throw away the bones.
1. Make it your goal to read 1 book 50 times, not 50 books once.
Occasionally you’re going to run into the church leader that brags about how many books they read each year. Do not be impressed by their self-flattery. First off, I rarely believe them. For over time, they surely would have read a book about how braggadocios talk is unbecoming of kingdom leaders. But more importantly, I would much rather have you read one book 50 times than skimming 50 books once.
The great stoic philosopher Epictetus remarked,
“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”
It takes me about six to seven times reading a book before I start noticing his or her fingerprints on the way I think and act. Fifty times before the author’s thinking becomes my own.
One such well trod book is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the journal of the great Roman emperor that, not coincidentally, was never meant for publication. I have a copy next to my bed stand, and one in my car, and one in my laptop bag. His thoughts on disciplined thinking, humility in leadership and decisive action never cease to inspire me.
2. Only buy books that have been in print for more than two years (or better yet, only buy books written by dead authors).
You will save yourself a lot of time, and money, if you get into the habit of only buying books AFTER their initial marketing wave has subsided.
Time has a way of helping us weed through the number one enemy of effective ministry: fads. Yes, you will feel left out not being able to talk about the latest and greatest book with your ministry friends. But that’s OK. If you read well, your reading habits won’t be the only thing that makes you stand out.
A few years ago, I created the “dead guy book club.” For one year, our staff team only read books together that were written by dead people. I did this because nothing unmasks comfortable heresies, both of omission and commission, like someone from another generation.
For instance, I introduced powerful Christian thought leaders to my team like Elton Trueblood, whose books have gone out of print without the continual push of a media-savvy megachurch platform.
Just listen to a few lines from his book Alternative to Futility and tell me you wouldn’t benefit from spending time at this guy’s feet…
“Once a church was a brave and revolutionary fellowship, changing the course of history by the introduction of discordant ideas; today it is a place where people go and sit on comfortable benches, waiting patiently until time to go home to their Sunday dinners.
Many have refused to join the Church, not because the Church has demanded too much, but because it has demanded too little. Their criticism is not that the Church is too different from the world, but that it is too much like the world. The humiliating truth is that no Christian fellowship has ever truly challenged them.”
– Elton Trueblood, Alternative To Futility (USA: Harper & Brothers, 1948), 31, 112-113.
It was C.S. Lewis who said, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another two new ones till you have read an old one in between.”
That, my friend, is advice worth taking to heart.