Since I began posting the books I’m reading, and my best 7 or 8 books of the year*, several people have asked me how I read. How do I categorize and 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 or interesting for several of you…
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…
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. 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 sometimes read a commentary front to back, but I usually read other books that will help me be a better, more informed reader of the Bible. 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. You’ll find systematic theologies here, along with specific subjects in theology (e.g. the life of Christ, the Church, soteriology). 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 from readings in early Christian history and Luther’s works.
So this system keeps me from reading only practical theology. Urgent needs could tempt me to stay put in this area. To be clear, these books have been great for me, and they’re more than 1/9th of what I actually read. Almost every book I read with ministry or pastoral teams is a BV book, so I’m always reading one or two on the side.
- BX - Denominational works. Most of my reading here is within the Wesleyan tradition. But I also go to other denominations for a different perspective, on occasion––Baptist history, Presbyterian polity, Roman Catholic theology. I better understand the nuances of our particular faith when I read in the Wesleyan tradition. I better appreciate the wider Christian movement when I read outside my own tradition. The former deepens my understanding, the latter widens my perspective.
- B-BQ - These are any other works that begin with B in the Library of Congress catalog. 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 - My focus this year is 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 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.1
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 this is for systematic broad reading. I get into deeper, specific research when I prepare sermons and write. Some pastoral needs also dictate that kind of in-depth research. That research is usually article-length, not book-length. It comes as questions demand rather than systematically.
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 these books––2,558 at present.
So which book to actually read? My plan here doesn’t have much structure. 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, and the Roosevelt biographies, all as listed above, and Wesley’s Works). So one book per year in each of those categories is pre-determined.
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 guidance I need to be a good pastor, preacher 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 just a nice jump-start to a life of learning for ministry.
- Since writing, I’ve re-worked this some. I still read three books at a time, but rotation 1 is BR, BS, Other B-, Literature. Rotation 2 is BT, BV, BX, Other. Rotation 3 is all wild card, all the time. ↩