You’re a pastor, aspiring pastor, or church planter, which means you’re busy. Not to go all DeYoung on you, but you’re “crazy busy!” If you’re already pastoring, then you’ve got stuff to do, people to see, sermons to prepare, meetings to attend, hospital visits to make, and counseling sessions to work through. Then there’s home life – you’ve got kids in soccer, a house in need of some serious repair, a lawn so intimidating that your mower won’t start, and a computer on strike. And there’s always the relentless march of Sunday. Sunday is always coming, and you’ve always got to be ready.
The last thing you have time to do is read. Right?
While I can definitely relate, I want to share a small idea that has made a huge difference in the ministry vitality of many a pastor and preacher: You gotta read to lead.
In other words, you need to study. Specifically, you need to read and study books written by other, wise leaders, thinkers, and theologians. Now, make no mistake, Scripture should remain primary when it comes to your reading and study. However, in this post I want to talk specifically about the importance of reading and studying good books. Lots of them.
So, why study? There are several reasons.
1. Study Expresses
When we read and study, it expresses our commitment to godly discipleship. One of the first things I remember learning as a new believer was that the Greek word for ‘disciple’ (mathetes) literally means ‘learner’. To be called to Christ is to be called to learn, grow, and develop, so that we may learn to live in a manner worthy of the gospel (Ephesians 4:1).
The Apostle Paul was a guy with a lot of knowledge. He had studied the Mosaic law under Gamaliel, who was a top dog in the Pharisee school of instruction (Acts 22:3). He also had that whole direct revelation from Jesus Christ thing going for him (Galatians 1:12). And he had even seen visions of heaven itself (2 Corinthians 12:2). But Paul wasn’t content to rest on past study or past learning. In Philippians 3:12, Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul was a man devoted to growing in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus. In the same way, studying and reading is an expression of our devotion to grow, to press onward, to become what we are called to be.
If we are going to be training other men and women to press forward in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, we’ve got to be pressing forward as well. Study expresses that commitment.
2. Study Feeds
We don’t merely read good books, we befriend them. We open our mind to them and grant the gift of influence. As friends, books feed us. It’s what makes them potent. It’s what’s makes them valuable. Just like they were for Paul.
In 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul relays some startling instructions to Timothy:
When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.
You know what makes these words so startling? Paul was in prison and was on the verge of death! If I was in prison, facing certain death, I’d probably be saying, “Hey Timothy! Bring me some decent food! Get me a better lawyer! Pull some strings and get me out of here!” But that’s not what Paul says. He instructs Timothy to bring him books. Books! When a guy on death row is asking for books, you know they feed the soul.
I can’t begin to recount how much reading good books has affected me. It’s not possible to quantify how my companionship with the messages of Charles Spurgeon has lifted me in dark moments of discouragement, or how Thomas Watson has armed me to fight for contentment, or how John Piper has pushed me to treasure God until my last dying breath. As good companions, books feed the soul and expand the mind. They help prevent ministry-lite, which is leadership based upon impulses, impressions, intuitions, and instincts. Spurgeon once said, “You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible”.
Study feeds your ministry. Aspiring pastors and church planters listen up: ministry drains! Every day we’re pouring into communication, counseling, sermon prep, and a host of daily demands. In light of this pace, we must think strategically about how and when we will be replenished. Studying and reading can fill an empty heart.
As to when to read, it’s a dance that each leader must learn. Some find time right before bed, others block out time each morning. John Stott says that, “…one hour a day [of study] is the absolute minimum of study time for busy pastors.” Maybe you can’t do that right now, so you need to shoot for 15 minutes a day. The main point is to crack the book and cultivate the habit.
3. Study Shapes
In Romans 12:2, Paul issues the following command: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This passage is a strong call to meditate on Scripture, and beneath the call to meditate lays some critical assumptions: To meditate we must first memorize. To memorize we must first study. Therefore renewing the mind begins with study. Study shapes our minds. It sparks the transformation.
Above, I called books “companions”. It’s an apt metaphor because who we become as leaders is powerfully shaped by who we spend time with. If entertainment is our primary source of education, information, and soul-formation, our minds will be shaped in very particular ways. In the same vein, if we regularly read godly, Scripture-saturated books, our minds will be particularly shaped in God-oriented ways.
Listen to how John Owen puts it:
The mind is the leading faculty of the soul. When the mind fixes upon an object or course of action, the will and the affections [heart] follow suit. They are incapable of any other consideration…The mind’s office is to guide, to direct, to choose and to lead.
In other words, our minds lead us into the discovery of God’s truth, our wills choose to obey God’s truth, and our hearts then rejoice in that obedient choice. Studying helps shape the mind so that it can, to use Owen’s words, “guide, direct, choose and lead”.
Study also shapes and inspires our innovation. Most of us aren’t creative geniuses. We’re not Steve Jobs or Beethoven or Andrew Lloyd-Webber. We’re just normal guys with normal brains who must pillage the minds of others for great ideas. If we are wise, we’ll recognize that we don’t have to be brilliant to be effective pastors or leaders – we just need to be well studied. The creativity of others can help shape our minds too.
4. Study Protects
In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul wrote, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Paul calls Timothy to keep a close watch on both his life and his doctrine. Why? Because the protection and salvation of those under Timothy’s pastoral care was at stake! We too must guard our lives and doctrine, and diligent study is an important way of doing this.
A calling to ministry is a calling to grow. Our people need our commitment to growth in both holiness and doctrinal clarity. There’s simply too much at stake for us to choose leisure over study! In fact, if I’m reading 1 Timothy 4:16 correctly, there is a direct connection between our growth as pastors and the spiritual maturity, and even ultimate salvation of those we lead. Piper said it well, “…the fight to find time to read is the fight for one’s life [and ministry!].”
It’s easy to become settled in ministry. For the first five to ten years, we’re sharp. We push ourselves because we’re trying to establish our identities and ministries. We want to make our mark in the world of pastoral ministry. But once we start to see fruit and success, a new enemy stalks us: the stagnation of comfort! I’m talking about relying on past growth rather than fighting for future growth.
Listen to the scathing remarks John Wesley issued to a man whom he felt had become stagnant in ministry:
What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is want of study. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Study only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercise. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first, will afterward be pleasant. It is for your like; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any loner. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you.
Wesley’s words should appropriately sober us, without condemning us. May it never be said that with the passing of time we’ve neglected growth in our preaching, or counseling, or worship leading. Study fights stagnation.
Practical Steps for Growing in Study
At this point you may be saying, “Okay Dave, enough already! I get it! I need to read. How should I start?”
- Don’t be afraid to read good books more than once. Sometimes we think that a completed book is an exhausted resource. But good books, particularly classics, are always fresh with insight. Our growth changes what we need from what we read. That’s why an old book you once read can feel very new.
- Consider designing your study regimen under the headings of this article. Which books would best shape me right now? What titles would feed and protect me? Invite your pastor to recommend some selections.
- Don’t choose to read certain books in order to impress someone else. Instead, choose books by how they might shape you.
- Choose to read books written by someone who has built what you want to build. For example, if you’re being called to replant a church, Church Planting is For Wimps by Mike McKinley might be a good go-to resource. If you’re a young pastor looking to build a local church, familiarize yourself with Jared Wilson, Kevin DeYoung, or Daniel Montgomery – all guys who started pastoring as younger men.
- Read books with pen in hand. Interact with what you read. Take notes, markup passages, etc. Books are meant to be used, not kept in pristine condition. I typically place a mark before and after each sentence or paragraph that crisply states a point or summarizes a section. Once I’m done with the book, I ask my administrative assistant to type out all those sections. That rather simplistic approach has yielded me 28 years of rich summaries and quotes from great books.
- Choose one person from history and spend a season of concentrated study on that person. Learn from Newton, Augustine, Bunyan, Simeon, Lloyd-Jones or Hodge. Sit at their feet and peer at your problems through their eyes. Biographies sharpen perspective.
Here’s the heart of the matter: leadership is an inside out kind of thing. The effectiveness of our public leadership is directly tied to our private growth in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ. I think the KJV’s take on 2 Tim 2:15 sums up the whole matter pretty nicely, “Study to show thyself approved unto God.”