Well read or widely read?

You can be a better reader.

Rex D. Edwards, D.Min. is an associate vice president and director of religious studies, Griggs University, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The Rev. Mr. Ingham was a studious New England minister sorely beset with demands upon his schedule. He at tended so many public gatherings that he found himself unable to devote due time to sermons and pastoral work, let alone systematic reading. In desperation he hired a double an ignorant, irascible Irishman who resembled him closely in form and feature. This double he sent in his stead to all the inconsequential and time-consuming meetings he had heretofore felt it advisable to attend.

For a short while all went well. Ingham now had time to prepare his sermons carefully, enjoy his pastoral calls, and even resume his scholarly studies. But alas, one day the Irishman's fiery temper got the better of him. He resorted to most unclerical language, forcing Ingham to leave town promptly and in disgrace.

Edward Everett Hale's satirical tale of more than a century ago, "My Double, and How He Undid Me," illustrates how the image of the pastor has changed. Once the most scholarly and best-read members of the community, nowadays pastors are so burdened with administrative and promotional work that they have little time for intensive reading. Their labor is chiefly with people and programs rather than with books and periodicals. As John Stott reflected: "Many are essentially administrators, whose symbols of ministry are the office rather than the study, and the telephone rather than the Bible."1

Despite the various and sundry demands upon their time, however, pastors must manage to be readers. Output necessitates input. Anyone who gives much mentally and spiritually must first receive much, and reading is the best channel from the hearts and minds of others. Reading is also essential for spiritual renewal, intellectual growth, and for vitality and freshness in preaching. Preachers who fail to read may even draw down upon their heads the censure once passed upon a parson by a caustic attorney, who, on leaving the church after a sermon, re marked to another worshipper, "How do you like skimmed milk?"

Besides reading for their own good and growth, ministers need to read for pure pleasure, since "a bow that is never unstrung loses its spring."

Reading a priority

Writers on pastoral theology emphasize the importance of reading for preachers. One asserts that new books are essential to improvement in the pulpit; the surest "way to prevent mental and sermonic stagnation is a persistent use of fresh literature alongside the permanent literature which is at his command." Another author suggests that wide reading is invaluable for pastors, and those who neglect to read are shutting the door to "greater service and personal efficiency." Yet another writer proposes that finding time to read is more important for pastors than official routine and organizational chores; they must maintain a study, not an office. Still another author asserts that no pastor can be a wise and effective leader without being also a patient learner. And in this process of patient learning, reading occupies a large place.

As James Russell Lowell once re marked, "the better part of our education is the part we give ourselves," that is, after completing formal schooling. This part, he argues, we get largely through reading. Ellen White contended that "our first duty toward God and our fellow human beings ... is self-development."2

Reading habitually

The question naturally arises, How much can the busy pastor be expected to read? John Stott prescribes the minimum amount: "Every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon, or evening; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this it sounds very little. . . . Yet everybody who tries it is surprised to discover how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It totes up to nearly 600 hours in the course of a year."3

Incidentally, a useful device is to keep open on your desk a book you are trying to read, and when you have a fragment of time, plunge quickly into the volume and read for the spare moments at your disposal. Fred Craddock reasons, "The person who has a comfortable chair in a quiet corner beside which is always a book with a marker and who reads 20 minutes after dinner and before retiring will read dozens of books each year."4 It is of primary importance for pastors to be both systematic and regular in their reading habits. Intermittent and desultory reading, only when the spirit moves or when there is nothing else to be done, is never satisfactory.

So how do you get into the mood for reading? First, develop the habit. Reading at the same time and place maintains momentum. George Sweazey reasons, "The rooster salutes the dawn because the recurrence of the expected time makes him feel like crowing."5 Second, simply read. The heartbeat does not pick up until the exercise has started. And what do we do when our minds are reluctant? Paul Scherer lets us glimpse into his study as he advises, "Just do not quit... change your position from desk to the chair... walk up and down, but keep at it.... There is virtue in laying down the law to these recalcitrant selves inside of ours. If they will not agree to your schedule, you stage a sitdown. You say to them, 'No work, no do anything else. We'll see who's who.' "6

Reading intelligently

Another question suggests itself: How can the pastor read to best advantage? Martyn Lloyd-Jones recommends: "A preacher has to be like a squirrel and has to learn to collect and store matter for the future days of winter."7 Every reader of books develops his or her own practice of marking, underlining, or note-taking. Few of us have memories so retentive that we can dispense with written notes. Most commendable was the practice of Ralph Waldo Emerson in scrupulously keeping a notebook or journal. In this journal, which he indexed, he maintained a record of the significant thoughts and observations he had gleaned from his reading, thinking, and travel. When he came to prepare the lyceum lectures, he first chose a topic and then consulted his journal for material already gathered on the subject. So useful did he find this notebook that he called it his "savings bank."

It is essential when making notes to be thorough enough to revive later the thought that prompted it. Otherwise, as Fred Craddock warns, "the note is not only worthless; it haunts the edges of one's mind like an almost-heard conversation in the next room."8 John Stott testifies: "I have found it helpful, while the theme of an important book is fresh in my mind, to make a brief synopsis of its argument. After finishing each book, I also try not to begin another until I have written out...[on 3" x 5" cards], a few of its striking quotations." He keeps two files, "the one running from Genesis to Revelation, and the other from A to Z, and [I] file each card where I think I am most likely to find it again." So persuaded is he with this simple yet flexible system that he con fesses, "If I were to begin my ministry again, I would adopt the same system."9

Reading discriminately

Not all reading requires the same level of concentration. Ordinary prose, it has been said, can be read with a 60 percent attention rate in contrast to scientific, theological, or philosophical prose, which requires a higher level. Newspapers and much fiction need only to be skimmed.

Indeed, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, most books we should read in, not through. Some writers lack the "subtle choice of omission" as well as the admirable conciseness of a Francis Bacon or Abraham Lincoln. I have considerable sympathy for the senior pastor of a multi-staffed congregation who said to one of his former theological professors, "If you run across any new books you think I should read, please tell me of them. But I hope they will be little books."

Many scholarly books are written in a dull, involved style; they fail to live up to the fundamental principle of good writing: "economize your reader's attention." As Craddock comments, they "are experts in subject matter, but only rarely are they masters in the use of language."10

The classic statement on the art of reading is still that of Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be entirely but not curiously [closely]; and some few are to be read wholly and with diligence and attention."

Reading selectively

Now, what books and periodicals should pastors read? Religious magazines will keep them informed about trends. Slavishly reading a daily newspaper consumes time with no adequate return, but glancing at the headlines and scanning its columns and editorials along with re viewing a well-edited weekly will keep one abreast of significant events. Access to a high-grade monthly such as Atlantic Monthly or an excellent quarterly like Yale Review will yield an occasional illuminating article, along with dependable reviews of current books of note. Of these new books pastors can hope to read only a few. They may benefit from Pastor's Book Service, which contains a 10 to 12-page abridged version of current religious books, and also Reader's Digest with its condensed magazine articles.

Pastors might also cultivate the habit of Edgar Allan Poe, who, because of his editorial duties, had little time for general reading. Poe read with intense concentration chewing and digesting some hand book on a certain subject. Thus he gained mastery of the subject equal to that of many who had read much more on it. For to be widely read is not necessarily to be well read. A choice restricted menu of reading is better than an elaborate but indiscriminate diet.

Are there any particular sorts of religious books that pastors should read? Writers on pastoral theology, I find, recommend three kinds. First, biographies of great religious leaders. Learning how God dealt with other Christians in other times and places brings balance, wisdom, and encouragement. Second, volumes of great sermons; these should be read not only for ideas and illustrations but also for points on structure and style. Third and foremost, the Bible. "Be masters of your Bibles, brethren," said Spurgeon to his students "Whatever other works you have not searched, be at home with the writings of the prophets and apostles. 'Let the Word of God dwell in you richly.'11 n Any number of lectionaries will enable you, in a systematic way, to fulfill the counsel of Dr. Lloyd-Jones that "all preachers should read the whole Bible through once every year... that should be the very minimum of the preacher's Bible reading." 12 John Huxtable warns against "making weekly sallies into the Good Book to discover some peg on which to hang some scattered observations about men and affairs." 13 This sporadic and haphazard dipping into the Scriptures, he writes, disqualifies one as a preacher of the Word. The minister who "makes a constant companion of the Word of God," writes Ellen White, "gains an increased ability to labor. Continually advancing in knowledge, he becomes constantly better able to represent Christ. He is strengthened in faith.... The Bible is the best book in the world for giving intellectual culture. Its study taxes the mind, strengthens the memory, and sharpens the intellect more than the study of all the subjects that human philosophy embraces." 14

No wonder Ellen White urged minis ters to "set aside a portion of each day for a study of the Scriptures." 15

The preacher should occasionally read books of immediate relevance, such as Richard J. Foster's Celebration of Discipline, 16 Clark Pinnock's Tracking the Maze,17 John Naisbitt's Megatrends 18, or Carl George's Prepare Your Church for the Future. 19 Once in a while ministers will do well to refresh their preaching by examining some new homiletical methodology (as in Fred Craddock's inductive method in As One Without Authority, 20 or by exploring the' 'preaching as story telling'' method, as in Elizabeth Achtemeier's Creative Preaching. 21 Reading the symposium Handbook for Congregational Studies 22 will lead to increased effectiveness in parish work. Finally, pastors can always read with profit great literature novels, short stories, and poetry. In these classic works of fiction, as in epic poems and dramas, they find moving interpretations of people and life here on earth.

Following this article you will find additional books recommended by some of your colleagues.

Reading contextually

If we are to build bridges into the real world," writes Stott, "and seek to relate the Word of God to the major themes of life and the major issues of the day, then we must take seriously both the biblical text and the contemporary scene. . .. We cannot afford to remain on either side of the cultural divide. To withdraw from the world into the Bible (which is escapism), or from the Bible into the world (which is conformity), will be fatal to our preaching ministry." 23 Pastors' reading, then, should extend to selected secular books. Such exposure will keep them informed about and help them understand the mind-set of the post-Christian West They will grapple with popular modern philosophers and novelists, and struggle with the debates about feminism, abortion, and euthanasia. Such reading from the contemporary perspective will help them discern what answers should be given if the Word is to be contextualized in the world. The pastor who does not keep stimulated by current reading will be seen as an anachronism, still displaying as new ideas what people were talking about a decade ago.

The late Washington Gladden went so far as to assert that ministers should continue studying in the pastorate all the subjects they began studying in the seminary. While this counsel may represent an illusive ideal, ministers cannot afford to become functionally illiterate. Our minds are on display with every word we utter, and a flabby, unexercised mind is a repellent spectacle. There must be a balance, naturally. While bookworms produce pendants who are ill at ease with people, even the practical human-interest types still have to read. Ministers need not be scholars, but they must have respectable minds, working with a range of information that will not make educated members of the congregation feel patronizing.

Francis Bacon long ago pointed out that it is reading that makes a "complete man." It enlarges one's capacities as a creative human being and has a cumulative effect on one's vocabulary, use of language, and power of imagination. And the pastor who can preach week after week, year in and year out, without tedious repetition or discomforting depletion is the pastor who is the reader.

1. John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 124.

2. Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1938), p. 15.

3. Stott, p. 204.

4. Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), p. 79.

5. George Sweazey, Preaching the Good News (New York: Prentice-Hall Pub. Assn., 1976), p. 113.

6. Paul Scherer, For We Have This Treasure (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1944), pp. 181, 182.

7. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), pp. 182, 183.

8. Craddock, p. 83.

9. Stott, pp. 204, 205.

10. Craddock, p. 79

11. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, second series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 25.

12. Lloyd-Jones, p. 172.

13. John Huxtable, The Preacher's Integrity and Other Lectures (London: Epworth Press, Ltd., 1966).

14. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), pp. 99, 100.

15. lbid.,-p. 100.

16. Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1988).

17. Clark Pinnock, Tracking the Maze ( NewYork: Harper and Row Publishers, 1990).

18. John Naisbitt, Megatrends (NewYork: WamerBooks, 1988).

19. Carl George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Old Tappan, N.J.: Flemming H. Revell, 1988).

20. Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979).

21. Elizabeth Achtemeier, Creative Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980).

22. Handbook for Congregational Studies, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William McKinney, eds. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991).

23. Stott, p. 180.

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Rex D. Edwards, D.Min. is an associate vice president and director of religious studies, Griggs University, Silver Spring, Maryland.

October 1992

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