Does your pastor read?

Essays, Featured — By on November 16, 2010 at 8:00 am

I couldn’t tell if he was making a confession or if he was bragging.

The man looked up from the computer screen from where he was surfing the net and announced very matter-of-factly, “I manage this bookstore but I don’t read.”

Why would you tell that to an author?

I try my best to be gracious to people. I didn’t cuss out loud.

“Have you never been a reader?” I asked.

“Nope. Never,” he said.

“How is it you came to manage a bookstore if you don’t read?”

“I’m a pastor,” he said as if that explained everything.

I’d like to tell you he’s the first bookstore manager I’ve met this year who doesn’t read. In fact, he’s the third one. All were men. All had backgrounds in retail. And all three of them are running bookstores that cater to the Christian marketplace. I think there’s a message embedded in there somewhere, but I haven’t decoded it yet.

This gnawing in my gut is more than indigestion — it’s the disturbing recognition that far too many pastors have abandoned the spiritual discipline of reading. And I’m not just talking about Bible reading, although I’ve heard my share of sermons this year that I suspect were pre-packaged and downloaded online.

I’m talking about reading a book besides the Bible.

I can count on one hand the number of pastors I’ve sat under in my lifetime that I know were avid readers. I remember them because their preaching had a depth and a substance that all others lacked. One of my favorites, Dr. Herb Anderson, would quote poetry from the pulpit. That was always a magical moment. It helped that Dr. Anderson lived in a university town. He had a lot of professors in his audience. They expected their pastor to be well-read. But out here in rural America where hardy people live and vote, pastors are more likely to quote a bumper sticker than they are to recite a poem they’ve memorized.

A friend made the comment the other day that he thought the reason people liked the assistant pastor at his church better than the senior pastor is because they had no idea what the assistant pastor was saying  but they liked his style of delivery. It’s more flashy than the old guy’s.

That makes me laugh and wince at the same time. The way I did when the bookstore manager who claims he is really a pastor said to me that he doesn’t read.

One of the best writers of our times, Stephen King, says: “People are just too damn lazy to read.”

I don’t know if King is right about that. Maybe people are just too busy to read. Used to be that we had time for stories in our lives. Now if the story takes longer than 140 characters, we don’t have time for it. Pastors, it seems, are particularly prone to the tyranny of the urgent. (That was an obscure reference to a pithy little booklet from another era).

John Wesley was an old preacher guy who lived a long time ago, back when “online” meant a person’s clothes were drying in the sun.  Wesley thought reading was an important spiritual discipline: “It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”

Can a pastor who doesn’t read really lead a people? Or is he more like a blind friend with a map? Pretty ineffective at giving clear direction.

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  • John says:

    Karen, thanks for writing this…I share your grief…I’m afraid the problem is, biblically speaking, legion.

    A fella named Eugene Peterson – pastor, writer, sage – was asked how he would encourage young pastors and he replied ‘I’d tell them to read fiction and poetry, for therein they’ll learn the language of the human heart.’ That discipline takes time and attention, and right now there’s not an app for that…alas.

  • I completely agree with you, Karen, on so many levels. I think there is a mandate for leaders to be well read. The amount of overlap in great works of literature and poetry enhances the power of Biblical content. The great orators of old that are the model for so many pastors today were men who knew their authors and poets.

    I used to be a pastor and tried to incorporate as many extra Biblical sources as possible. The fundamentalist community I helped lead did not have such a broad vision. I didn’t last there and have not returned to the pulpit since.

    Thank you for putting this forward. I completely agree that pastors who are not readers are like the blind leading.

  • Phyllis Tickle talks in her book The Great Emeregence about the emphasis on “sola Scriptura,” that the Bible alone holds everything we might need to know for salvation. Originally, sola Scriptura doctrine demanded any other source to submit to the authority of the Gospel. Now it seems to me there are those in our midst who have swung so far as to boast that the Bible is all they ever need to read, when I have found that reading fiction, poetry, memoir, journalism, is the most effective way I can make connections with the important spiritual matters.

    Karen, I like that you mention Stephen King on reading. He also asserts that anyone given over to writing must read ad infinitum, must forsake the television and movies. I’d wager our pastors should be reading nearly as much as our writers. In more ways than one, I am firmly in King’s camp.

  • Karen, He works at a Christian book store, be thankful he doesn’t read what he sells.

  • Chris Smith says:

    Karen —

    Well said!

    Fact of the matter is that reading is becoming a lost art, for pastors or their parishioners. It is this sad reality that prompted us to start the Englewood Review of Books, to nurture practices both of reading and of discussing meaningful books (poetry, fiction, art, justice, society, etc and not just from the “Christian book market”) not as a highbrow practice reserved for the religious professional or scholar, but for all members of church congregations… We’re hopeful that churches can be communities where these larger societal trends away from reading can be reversed…

    Chris Smith
    The Englewood Review of Books

  • Steph Niko says:

    According to Publishers Weekly, bookstore sales dropped 7.7% in September, making it the worst month of book sales this year:

    Unfortunately, it’s not just pastors who aren’t reading; it’s the general population.

    And, as Karen speculates, that general population of non-readers tends to be male. From what I gather, this is particularly true for children’s books. However, I’m not sure that I would applaud women and girls just yet. Aren’t they the ones making “Twilight” a phenomenon?

    Publishers are catering to a general public that isn’t necessarily reading literary fiction or hard-hitting nonfiction; rather, the books that are selling are fluff, written by celebrities. Take a look at the top five hardcover nonfiction books, according to the NYT:

    1.LIFE, by Keith Richards with James Fox
    2. BROKE, by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe
    3. UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, by Portia de Rossi
    4. EARTH (THE BOOK), by Jon Stewart and others
    5. ME, by Ricky Martin

    Fiction seems to be steeped in Steig Larsson, John Grisham, and Dan Brown.

    Fortunately, I have pastors who read and quote literature. Good literature, both Christian and nonChristian. They use it to illustrate the human condition and to inspire.

  • jeff says:

    On behalf my people, other pastors that is. I would like to take this opportunity to pull my pen from my cheek and respond to this inflammatory; yet evocative question posed by our pew warming friend.

    The decision to enter the pastoral ministry suggests that many of our kind lack the necessary intelligence for said discipline. Surely, a decision to enter a vocation which some fifty-thousand exit each month, is in and of its self, evidence of intellectual want. So perhaps the first question that the laity should be asking is “Can your pastor read?”. A simple reading test administered by a clever deacon feigning the loss of reading glasses during a hymn sing should answer this question.

    If it is established that your pastor can in fact read, then the second question should be: What does your pastor read? Wouk, Hemingway, Osteen, the giants of literature. Or possibly it is the articles in Playboy that catch his attention and tickle his imagination. None the less, the prudent congregant may want to furtively scan the pastors book shelf on their next visit to his humble manse. After of course; examining the contents of their medicine cabinet. Oh yes, the wise congregant must always be on the alert for evidence of intellectual impotence.

    Finally, I would point to my own library as an example for all my ministerial colleagues to follow (Not that many can or will be reading this)
    I have divided my library into three sections. The smallest section is labeled “Books I Have Read” The second, slightly larger section, is labeled “Books I Want To Read” and the Third and by far the largest section is labeled “Books My Critics Have Given Me To Read”.

    Enough for now. Time to download this weeks sermon, find my ivory crook, and lead my congregation into a yawning ditch beside the trailer park.

    • karen says:

      At least you can write.

    • I’m a pastor and your 3rd category made me chuckle. I’ve gotten bold to the point of telling the person up front that I will not read their book. If they insist I promise I’ll toss it. I’m amazed that people still insist. I’ve tossed more “Be a Pissed off Parent for Jesus”,”Jesus Wrote the Constitution”, and “Adam and Eve Rode Dinosaurs” books than I care to count.

  • aaron says:

    did you actually write the line “I’m talking about reading a book besides the Bible.” or did jordan add it to advertise his new book “besides the bible.”

  • karen says:

    I did actually write it but yes, as a contributing author, I was thinking of it in terms of subliminal seduction. Tempted yet?

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