Here are 5 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 important, I would much rather have you read 1 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 6-7 times reading a book before I start noticing his or her fingerprints on the way I think and act. 50 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 okay. 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 2 new ones till you have read an old one in between.”
That, my friend, is advice worth taking to heart.
3. Only buy hardcopy books, underline the important quotes, turn the corners of the pages, then go back and input those quotes into Evernote for future use.
People are going to tell you that reading electronic books is easier than reading hardcopy books.
Reading is one of the few things in life that you shouldn’t try to make easier.
I’ve tried going “all-electronic” and found my comprehension and internalization of the material decreased. More importantly, I want to disassociate reading from looking at a screen.
While you will no doubt find a rhythm that works for you, here has been my unique approach:
- I only buy hardcopy books.
- I try to read them in one week (shorter deadlines instill sharper focus).
- If I’m not engaged in the first few chapters the book goes into the trash (which makes me much more discriminating for my next purchase).
- I underline quotes that speak to me, then turn the top corner of the page.
- I go back to the book afterward and type out the quotes I underlined into Evernote (Yes, I know, highlighting them in a Kindle and transferring them to Evernote directly would be much faster. Again, I’m going for internalization and mastery with the books I read, not efficiency).
- Then after I read a few more books I’ll go back to those quotes and re-read them, or I’ll go back and re-read the entire book.
Picking the right books, reading fewer of them, reading them more often, storing their best thoughts into an easily retractable form for future sermons and writing, and allowing those books to shape you – this, to me, is a strategy that will serve you well in the coming years.
4. Pick a few authors WHO ARE LIKE YOU in areas of your strength and MASTER their work.
You can waste a lot of time reading books written by people who will gladly tell you what you are doing, thinking, and trying is wrong.
Ignore these people. There’s more than one way to be a Senior Pastor.
Throw away those ridiculous pastoral theology books from seminary written by people who have never actually been Senior Pastors and accept the fact that God created you to be the way you are for a reason.
Find people who are like you, who understand your unique struggles, are wired up the way you are, who have been down the road you are traveling, and let them speak into your life.
I have read every book Warren Bennis has ever written. I have read his book Organizing Genius more times than I can count. When I first heard Bennis talk about being a “reflective practitioner” I knew I found myself in an older man’s body.
For instance, you will no doubt get criticized in your role as a Senior Pastor. It will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to face.
The value of finding your own Warren Bennis is when times like that happen, you can go back and read what they learned after years of getting criticized themselves. It’s one thing to get advice about how to handle criticism. It’s a completely different thing to get advice from a leader who has been ruthlessly criticized and remained optimistic.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the following quote after leading our church through change, getting criticized, and letting my chin drag on the ground for weeks. It emboldens me every time:
“I hope this is clear, because I think it’s terribly important. You cannot personalize the things you’re going to hear, because you can’t do a job as a leader if you’re not going to overthrow the system, if you’re not going to open things up, if you’re not going to rock the boat – and then you have to handle the criticism that such measures invite. I mean, if there’s one thing that’s true of leaders today, it’s that they have to change the system.”
– Warren Bennis and Robert Townsend, Reinventing Leadership (New York, William Morrow and Company, 1995), 37.
One final thought…
Friend, you are about to embark on a lifetime of fulfilling service, interspersed with a few seasons of tremendous suffering.
My encouragement to you is simply to use your time wisely.
In his treatise On the Shortness of Life, Seneca wrote,
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
Spend whatever time you have left here on this earth serving our Lord with everything you have, and make sure you make room for reading good books. You will not regret it.
However, make sure you spend enough time with the same books, so their authors can also read you.
Cheering you on from a distance.