Pastoral life is Busy. Capital B Busy. Sermons to prepare. People to see. Meetings to chair. Plans to draw up. Vision to implement.
It’s just busy.
Often it means that reading becomes a college luxury or else it’s confined to your holiday. There’s no other place to fit it into the schedule without fatally compromising on some other aspect of ministry or family life.
But – I want to suggest – a pastor who does not read will severely impoverish his congregation. It’s not just the pastor that will lose out, it’s ministry in general and – therefore – people in particular.
Now, from the outset I am not making a point about the depth of reading.
There’s an unhealthy kind of pride which means that pastors think reading is only valuable if the books in which they are immersed are either more than 1,000 pages long or more than 300 years old (preferably both). That’s poppycock.
For what it’s worth, reading material needs to make us think. That means it will be different for different people – different lengths, levels and subjects. With that caveat established, let me suggest six ways which reading gospel–centred books benefits both you and your congregation.
1. Reading can help guard against heresy
False teaching is a result of ignorance (1 Tim 1:7), and feeding on the truths of the faith (1 Tim 4:6) is the best antidote to ‘godless myths and old wives’ tales.’
In a world where, increasingly, people believe whatever their itching ears want to hear, pastors who take guarding the flock seriously must be well–read. As with all reading, we start with the Bible, naturally. But books which help us grasp truth are essential to godly leadership.
2. Reading helps us to progress
It’s an age–old truism that standing still is going backwards. However, this is Paul’s contention to Timothy in 1 Tim 4. We must progress. Both in godliness and doctrine.
Progression can, of course, happen in many ways, but a key way that God providentially uses is through books and other resources.
My own testimony is certainly that – I’ve been helped to grapple with particular sins and develop in other ministry areas as I have read.
3. Reading helps develop personal godliness
Closely linked to the idea of progress is Paul’s remarkable statement in 1 Tim 4:16: ‘Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.’
This extraordinary claim really raises the stakes.
What is at risk in your casualness about ministry?
Nothing less than your own salvation and that of your hearers. Good books not only help us keep watch over doctrine; they help us live for Christ and so – humanly speaking – lead to pastoral effectiveness.
4. Reading can help your coaching ministry
Paul’s desire for Timothy to grow other gospel workers is well known (2 Tim 2:2). But notice how this coaching begins with what Timothy himself has grasped and learned. In his case it came from the mouth and life of the Apostle himself.
Similarly, we cannot expect to be effective disciplers without first having a profound grasp (and, I might say, growing grasp) of the gospel in all its breadth.
5. Books can help you deal with hardship
It’s pretty unfashionable to say too much about suffering. But it’s almost impossible to read Paul’s second letter to Timothy without seeing this as a key theme which Paul is anxious to communicate to his young protégé.
At one level, ministry is suffering and by following Paul’s example (e.g. 1 Tim 2:8–10), Timothy himself will be equipped to serve. Where do we learn about such suffering today? This is the special value of Christian biography, a much–neglected part of the Christian book world.
6. A breadth of reading will sharpen your preaching
Our churches are increasingly diverse. A pastor whose experience lies in only certain areas or cultures will find it harder and harder to communicate effectively to his people. It’s not just about what you know, it’s the culture in which it’s set. If we are to be ‘prepared in season and out’ then there must be a breadth and depth to our knowledge. Reading delivers.
So there are six reasons for increasing your reading. But I’m not naïve. God, in his goodness, provides many ways for these to be achieved. My testimony and that of many others is that it is often through reading that good work is really done.
Adrian Reynolds is the Training Director of the FIEC.