A Feature Review of
The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
I’m a pastor, and I love reading. One on level, this should not be a surprise. After all, pastors are expected to regularly study biblical commentaries and works of theology in preparation for sermons and teaching, but also should be conversant in leadership strategies, organizational management, and current social, political and cultural issues. Regular reading is certainly one of the best methods for staying abreast of all of these topics.
Oh, and don’t forget scripture. Us pastors should be reading scripture too.
So, yes, habitual reading seems like it should be a natural part of the vocation of minister, but if I’m honest, despite my genuine love of it, I have experienced a tortured relationship with reading in my professional life. Questions and doubts plague me. “Is reading really a good use of my limited time and energy, or is it pulling me away from other pressing issues? How do I justify the time spent in something like a novel, or a work of sociology? Do I need to regularly quote and reference the books I’m reading in my sermons, to signal that they are indeed ‘useful,’ or is that pretentious? Certainly there are people in my congregation who would like to have the time to read as I do, so isn’t it a bit ‘unfair’ of me to indulge?” On and on the questions and inner doubts go, generating anxiety and threatening to derail my ability to simply enjoy books as part of my vocation.
So I thank God (literally) that Austin Carty wrote The Pastor’s Bookshelf. It was quite early in the book that I knew that I was going to resonate profoundly with Carty’s perspective and experience as a “pastor-reader” (Carty’s term), when he recounts the anecdote of feeling shame and anxiety at the possibility of a congregant discovering that he was spending his precious office-hours on reading Dostoyevsky. I have been in almost exactly that situation many times (yes, even precisely with Dostoyevsky). The most unexpected, at least for this reviewer, gift of The Pastor’s Bookshelf is solidarity, that healing realization that I am not alone, nor am I crazy! It can indeed be very difficult to hold onto the importance of reading, and especially so in the face of our accelerated, late-modern culture, in which it is all-too-easy to give into pressures to produce “results” and push non-efficient habits like reading off the calendar altogether. Carty’s book is a clear and winsome apologetic for reading, and a call to resist these pressures. Our own lives as ministers, and the lives of our congregations, actually depend on it.
Carty’s book is not simply memoir or personal reflection, though it includes much of both. Rather, his argument is framed and well-informed by current findings from neuroscience and the best writings on spiritual formation, and what we are learning about how commitment to deep reading forms the inner life. Not only is this crucial for the general health of an individual pastor, but leaders that are formed in this way are more and more needed in our fragmented and increasingly-anxious culture.
In fact, I submit that this capacity to remain anchored and poised in the face of an increasingly complicated and anxious world is one of the most vital things a pastor can offer his or her congregation today. And if we want to cultivate such a capacity in ourselves . . . one of the most proven and effective ways to do it is by committing ourselves to a program of wide, regular reading (16, emphasis added).
This is a compelling vision for confidently reclaiming the role of reading in the pastor’s life, and Carty invites the pastor to do so not simply for oneself, but also explicitly for, and on behalf of, those one is pastoring. This way of conceptualizing the practice of reading, not as something I get to have time for that is somehow “unfair” in comparison to the busy lives of my congregants (“not just a luxury,” as Carty writes), but rather as something that I am called to do for them, to be continually formed into the strongest and healthiest spiritual leader I can be, which will overflow into their own ongoing spiritual formation, is a radical and powerful redirection of something that, as alluded to above, typically generates anxiety for me.
If we will approach such reading with the aim of being slowly but gradually formed rather than immediately and usefully informed – then we will more fully and naturally grow into the original model of pastor. That model sees us as loving shepherds, caretakers tasked with guiding our flocks through besetting dangers on both the left and right, less concerned with adding more sheep to our number than with keeping the ones entrusted to our care healthy and safe (39, emphasis added).
Perhaps this is all deeply personal to me, especially as it relates to the personal struggles I have had with reading as enumerated above, but this is a healing balm for my soul. More than just a healing balm, even, it is a positive, forward-looking vision that inspires confidence.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Carty does work around to nuts-and-bolts, practical applications in the final section. In his consistently approachable, relatable style of writing, he guides the reader through a comprehensive list of questions and concerns that inevitably arise: How should one choose the next book to read, among the countless options available? How does one approach reading a perspective you may disagree with in a humble spirit? How does one mark, record, track and file insights and quotes that might be helpful later on? How does one approach reading for sermon preparation, as compared to general leadership or spiritual formation and soul-care? And, of course, how does one approach reading scripture itself? Grounded as it all is in a deeper philosophical and theological framework of inner formation, these practical tips are encouraging and helpful, and very fitting.
The Pastor’s Bookshelf may be a niche book, tailored to a specific subset of readers (like me), but it is a vision that we need, more than ever. If our church culture were populated and led by more “pastor-readers” in the vein of what Carty proposes, we would be all the healthier for it.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com