A pastor’s reading plan

Since I began posting the books I’m reading, and my best 8 books of the year*, several people have asked about my plan for reading, or how I choose what to read. In an email last week, someone just finishing seminary asked:

“There are so many categories and so much I have saved, it is overwhelming. How do you categorize, organize, decide (whatever it is) what to read after seminary and in ministry?”

I thought an answer to this question might be helpful/interesting for several of you…

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So many books to read, so little time...

So many books to read, so little time…

That’s a great question!

Seminary was a good introduction to theological study for me. It gave me some critical tools for reading well and a great bibliography to work on. That has made post-seminary study a lot of fun. We do better when we think of seminary as the beginning of our theological education rather than the end of it.

You’ve opened up a pretty deep rabbit hole here. I’ll take you part of the way down…

Categories

I read in nine categories. I use Library of Congress classifications for those (you can find these at catalog.loc.gov and usually on the book’s copyright page). No category system is perfect, but I’m content with this one. It provides quick, broad categories. I asked myself what a well-rounded reading plan would be for my needs as a pastor, and these were the nine categories I chose… 

  • BR books, as classified by Library of Congress. This includes some general Christian works and especially focuses on Christian history. It’s where you’ll find most of the writings from the first 1500 years of Christian history. The last thing I read in this category was a book of Augustine’s sermons. The next one I plan to read is a history of the development of Christianity in 18th and 19th century America.
  • BS – Books about the Bible. I’ll occasionally read a commentary front to back, but I usually read broader BS books. I just finished a book of essays on the Psalms. I’m working through N. T. Wright’s monumental series, one volume per year.
  • BT – Doctrinal theology. This is where you’ll find systematic theologies and most specialized works in theology or the history of Christian doctrine. I’m about to start Pelikan’s big series on the Christian Tradition.
  • BV - Practical theology. This includes most any book you read on the practice of ministry and most spiritual formation books. This can be the natural area for post-seminary pastors to spend all of their time. It’s the practical tools that immediately apply. Most of the other categories are slower to application. (How do you apply a history of Christian thought to your ministry this week?) My reading in those other areas is important, but not urgent. It shapes me in ways that affect everything over time, but not much immediately. Our catechesis groups were born, in large part, out of my reading from early Christian history and Martin Luther’s works.

    So this system keeps me from reading only practical theology when I might be tempted to always go to urgent needs. To be clear, these books have been great for me, and they’re more than 1/9th of what I actually read because almost every book I read with ministry or pastoral teams is a BV book.

  • BX – Denominational works. Most of my reading here is within the Wesleyan tradition, but this gives me some occasion to read books on Baptist history, Presbyterian polity, or Roman Catholic theology. Reading in the Wesleyan tradition has helped me understand the nuances of our particular faith expression. Reading in the other traditions has given me a greater appreciation for them and a helpful, different perspective. 
  • B-BQ - These are any other works that begin with B. They get you into philosophy, psychology, ethics, and other religions. Right now, I’m reading Malcolm X’s autobiography (filed under BP for Islamic studies). Next I think I’ll be reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis (under BJ for ethics). It’s a broad category!
  • Special Focus category - This year it’s social sciences––any works categorized under H. I wanted to give some extra time to works on leadership, management, and global social issues. I’ll probably change this category next year (considering a focus on biographies or devotional classics). 
  • Other - If it doesn’t fit any category above, it’s “other.” These books keep me reading something outside of my typical “pet categories.” I’m planning to start a 3-volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt soon.
  • Wild Card – My ninth category isn’t really a category, but freedom to spend extra time somewhere. I use this to fill my most immediate needs or interests.

I keep these all in three rotations. 

Rotation 1: BT, BV, BX

Rotation 2: BR, BS, Other B-

Rotation 3: Special Focus, Other, Wild Card

So I have three books that I’m reading at any time. One from each rotation.

This doesn’t include fiction. I have a separate reading schedule for that. It also doesn’t account for any Bible/prayer book/devotional reading

All of this is for systematic broad reading. I get into deeper, more specific research through sermon preparation, writing, and other issues as they present themselves. That research tends to be article-length reading, not book-length, and comes as questions demand rather than systematically.

Selection

I compile my bibliography from a variety of sources. If a source I trust recommends a book, or if I see a book referenced enough times, I put it on my bibliography. If I then see any of those books available for cheap, I buy them. (ereaderiq.com is great for this with Kindle books.) The bibliography can be overwhelming. Mine makes me sad because I know I’ll never make it to all of these books––2,558 at present.

So which book to actually read? My plan here isn’t very systematic. When each category comes up in the rotation, I choose what most fills a current need or interest. Or I choose that book I know I should have read by now. The one systematic aspect to it is a few multi-volume series that I’m reading, one volume per year (Wright, Pelikan, the Roosevelt biographies, and Wesley’s Works). So one book per year in each of those categories is pre-determined.

Actually Reading

I try to protect one hour of my daily schedule for reading. That’s not as much as I’d like, but it’s as much as I can manage, and sometimes I don’t get that. John Wesley scolded any  preachers who weren’t reading enough. He said they were starving their souls and would be “petty, superficial preachers.” I understand why he said that. If I’m not reading, I’m not getting the ongoing education and challenge I need to be a good pastor, preacher, teacher, or leader. 

So welcome to my neurotic rabbit-hole. I doubt this system could work, as it is, for anyone else. But I hope it provides some helpful insight for creating your own.

I’m glad you’re thinking about a post-seminary reading plan. Though the formal education may be over, it’s really just a nice jump-start to a life of learning for ministry.

“What are you passionate about?”

passion

“What are you passionate about?”

It’s a common question, at least in church world. And it’s a good question. You should do what you’re passionate about. (There are bounds to this, but we’ll leave them alone for now.)

But it’s also not the only question to ask… or perhaps it’s too narrow a question.

Some needs exceed the passion to fill them. For instance, chairs that need to be set up present a regular need, but rarely ignite a passion. Same for dishes that need to be cleaned. In most places, I’ve seen that the number of children who need to be cared for exceeds the number of adults passionate about caring for them. (That one is a sad reality to me. I get it––it’s taxing, and for many, intimidating. But I still hope for a day that our passion for kids exceeds any need.)

For some necessary things, we may need to supplement passion with sacrifice––people who do something not because they wake up excited to do it, but because it’s important and needs doing.

This is where we might broaden our questions about passion. Someone may not be passionate about washing dishes, but she’s passionate about community meals. And she’s willing to wash the dishes to make it happen. Someone may not be passionate about leading children’s ministry, but he’s passionate about children being ministered to, so he volunteers.

Whatever church community you’re a part of, let me urge you to do two things:

1 - Ask yourself what you’re passionate about. And be sure the leaders in your community know. Ask if there are ways for you to give in one of those areas.

(Also be aware that there are some areas where passion exceeds need. These tend to be the more visible roles. Don’t be disappointed if there’s not as much opportunity to serve in those areas of passion as you’d like.)

2 - Dedicate yourself to one thing that’s a need, even though it’s not a passion.

Look around and see what areas of need you can identify. If you can’t find them, ask the leaders in your community, “Where are the places you could really use more help? If you could have someone show up regularly and faithfully to do something, what would you ask for?” They’ll be able to answer those questions with ease.

Find one of these things and do it on a regular, scheduled, disciplined basis. When you do this, it’s not because you love doing it (though maybe a love could grow for it), it’s because you’re passionate about the larger mission of the church. And that small act of service is essential to the bigger mission.

Occasionally #1 and #2 go together. That’s the person who truly has a passion for setting up chairs (have I met you??) and does it faithfully. If that’s you, I hope you know how special you are to the community. Same to that children’s Sunday School teacher who has been doing it for 20 years and loves it.

“I don’t have time to do both,” you say. “Do I serve in the area of need, or passion?”

Let’s start with a question: Is the thing you’re passionate about something where passion exceeds need in your community (i.e. if you gave up your spot, people would rush to fill it)? If so, I’d recommend you stop doing the passion thing for a time and only fill the need.

Otherwise, you’re leading in a coveted role without demonstrating the servant leadership of also leading in a needed role. Also, when you stay away from that area of passion until your time frees up, you’re likely to find a way to free some time.

 

Every great movement is a mix of passion and sacrifice. People do things they love, and they’re excited to be part of a great cause. People also make sacrifices to do less-interesting things, because they know those things are part of the larger mission.

The church can and should be the greatest movement on earth––the greatest mixture of passion and sacrifice that our world sees.

To the many, many, many of you who already exemplify that––thank you! Those small things may not seem like much, but that chair you set up, or that diaper you change, is what makes it possible for the rest of this great mission to happen.

To any of you who wouldn’t yet be described as a model of passion and sacrifice in your community, there’s still time to sign up.

“We’ve always done it that way” –– a phrase to celebrate

Done-it-this-way2

What if this didn’t have to be a bad phrase?

 

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? By the end of the year, research says there will be an 8% chance you’ve kept it.

Eight percent!

Why so low?

Because objects in motion stay in motion. Objects at rest stay at rest. To change their course or get them going, you need external force. And the bigger something is, the more force it requires. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever tried to push a car.

The same is true of your resolutions. They require change, a new force, willpower. And that means working against nature, working against what you’ve become accustomed to.

They say one of the best times to change a habit is when you move. Why? Because you’re already undergoing major, unavoidable change. While everything is in motion, you can get that new habit in motion, as well. It’s a natural new start. And it’s easier to start that way, than to try to change later.

That’s an important general truth––it’s easier to start that way. Changing later is hard.

“Because we’ve always done it that way” is a common phrase in corporate culture and church culture. It’s usually derided as a bad answer. But it’s also human nature. When we start doing things from the beginning, we’re likely to continue doing them.

How to use “we’ve always done it that way” for good

While we usually sneer at “we’ve always done it that way” as an uncritical, unreflective response, it can be just the opposite. Whenever you start something new, you have a great opportunity. Ask yourself this question:

Ten years from now, what do we want to look at and say, “We’ve always done it that way”?

Let’s take generosity as an extended example. I’m going to start with a thought about churches and then say something about families and individuals.

NEW CHURCHES & GENEROSITY

Several years ago, I was with the leader of a new church start in another state. They were about two years old at the time. He talked about how they were still trying to get established and hoped to start giving to missions and our denomination’s ministry fund (called apportionments) soon. They weren’t yet giving anything externally. Actually, they were receiving external funds.

That’s not unusual. They were two years old and still trying to get their feet under them.

About five years later, that new church start was still going. They had grown and hired multiple staff. I saw their pastor and asked how they were doing. Not well, it turned out. They had just learned they were losing their external funding, and they weren’t sure how they could survive without it. They were still giving nothing to missions or the denominational fund and still relying on external support.

How does that happen? They had grown and looked to be thriving! But from the beginning they had required every penny for themselves––plus some outside funding. And when their resources grew, their internal need grew equally. So that great ideal of starting to give some away remained just an ideal.

For new church starts, a wild and unusual suggestion––ask yourselves how you want to be giving ten years from now, and then start giving like that on day one. Because if you choose to use everything internally until there’s “enough to spare,” you’re likely to find yourselves ten years later with still nothing to spare. And if you choose to give generously from day one, in year ten you’ll be able to say, “we’ve just always done it this way.”

I’m going to take a moment and celebrate the church and community I have the privilege to be a part of. First UMC has always been a generous church, and a few years ago, they decided to automate it––no questions asked about whether to be generous, in lean years or good years. The church puts 12% of every dollar given immediately into a fund for missions and puts another 13% immediately toward our denominational fund––which goes to support important missions locally and around the globe. That’s 25% out the door to support missions external to us. It’s automatic, immediate, no questions asked.

As my community at First Church (called Offerings) has looked to move from our Downtown campus, our leaders have never wavered on this. 25% goes out the door from the very first day. They want extravagant generosity to part of our identity, and they don’t want to start that later. If you think you’ll start later, you may never get around to it. They want to say, “We’ve just always done it that way.”

To be certain, this involves sacrifice. If we kept that extra $20,000, I can tell you quickly how we would use it. If we had an extra $40,000, I can tell you how we’d use it. But isn’t that always the case? There’s always something more. Always something more we would like or could use or even think we need. And that’s why if you don’t start giving generously from the beginning, it’s likely you never will. Changing that pattern doesn’t get easier when you get bigger. Remember trying to push that car from stand-still?

FOR INDIVIDUALS

The same goes for individuals. So you’re just getting started at your first job, just barely scraping by? You couldn’t possibly be generous now. That’s for when you have more.

As your resources grow, so will your appetite. If you don’t set a pattern for generosity now, on that just-out-of-college budget, you’ll be shocked that you have just as little to spare on a nice 6-figure salary later. Even more, if you find that right now you need 110% just to get by (i.e. what you’re making isn’t quite enough to sustain, so you take on a bit of debt…), you’re likely to need 110% to get by, even when you’re making 6 figures.

Whether you’re just starting out, or just got a new job or raise… take advantage of anything new and ask whether you can start a new pattern now.

A big challenge for any of you who want extravagant generosity to be part of your identity… It’s 2015. What if you resolved to give away 15% of your income this year? And made it 16% next year? You see where this is going… If that’s impossible for you (ask yourself if it’s really impossible), then set your own numbers.

Years from now, someone may ask how you––as a church, or a family, or an individual––can be so generous. And I hope you might be able to say, “I don’t know. We’ve just always done it that way.”