Read this first

April 20, 2014

“If you had to choose one book to help a person embarking on pastoral ministry, what would it be?” We posed that question to some pastors and professors. Here are their choices:

Samuel Wells

Katherine Willis Pershey

L. Gregory Jones

Martin B. Copenhaver

Debbie Blue

Greg Carey

Stephanie Paulsell

Brian McLaren

Laura Truax

Kyle Childress

Thomas G. Long


What One Book Do Pastors Need to Read

I don't know how to record my reaction to the recommendations above without sounding like my mother sometimes did when I was growing up. Occasionally she would look at me with those serious brown eyes of hers, full of dissapointment and concern and say, "Mark, I just don't know what will become of you." I know. It didn't feel any better to me, either.

To be truthful I felt deflated and disappointed to see a list of titles recommended by eleven prominent ministers, which either have nothing to do with the pastor's life and ministry or if they do, were not written in the 21st century (well, 2 of the eleven were written in the current century).

What about Barbara Brown Taylor, Gordon Atkinson ( the book), Eugene Peterson (ok, I know that The Contemplative Pastor was written in 1989, but at least it was the latter half of the twentieth century), Marilynne Robinson (Gilead! My God, GILEAD!), Barbara Kingsolver and far too many other gifted writers to name?

nothing to do with the pastor's life and ministry?

Fair enough. It was interesting to see that several of my colleagues also responded at a bit of a slant, not suggesting the more obvious choices. Of course the writers you mentioned are also invaluable for the new pastor. I'd also add Martin Copenhaver and Lillian Daniel's This Odd and Wondrous Calling, which I read just a couple years into ministry and wished I'd encountered sooner.

That said, I disagree with you that these books have nothing to do with the pastor's life and ministry. The odd and wondrous thing about the pastor's life and ministry is that practically everything has something to do with it if we are paying attention. We are generalists. We need to read widely and well.

I guess I presumed that these theoretical new pastors would naturally get around to the obvious choices, and wanted to take the opportunity to recommend not only a book that I do truly believe is of great value for clergy, but also to recommend a way of reading - a philosophy that one needn't be reading about a pastor's life to have one's understanding of a pastor's life be enriched. (I'm reading Plantiga's Reading for Preaching right now and he certainly affirms this philosophy.)

Besides, after I graduated from seminary I was desperate for fiction, which I hadn't much time to read in school. I was delighted to see so many novels on this list.

Point Well Taken

Dear Pastor Pershey: I kind of went on a tear there, didn't I? On the one hand, lists like this invite spirited debate in the same way that lists of the 10 best books in any other genre might. On the other hand, your reply reminded me that I treated this list as though it was by a committee of people charged with coming up with the eleven definitive books for young ministers. These books came one at a time as individual responses to an impossible question.

And of all the people who might have replied, it turns out to be from someone who made a choice that I agreed with wholeheartedly. John Green's is one of those remarkable books that would be of great benefit to ministers young and old, indeed, as you say, a book that has the potential to deepen the humanity of any human being. For that matter, of the books I know on this list- Graham Greene, Dostoevsky, even Chaucer and Woolf, are not bad books. And I agree with you about the importance of fiction for the life of the minister, which is why Gilead (in addition to being Pulitzer prize material) is one that I would recommend.

At any rate, thank you for your thoughtful engagement with my rant. My best to you and yours.

One book I'd recommend

I'm very surprised that "Living on the Border of the Holy" by William Countryman isn't on this list. Maybe a good article idea would be to ask lay people / students for the one book they wish their pastors / professors would read with them.

for ministry or desert island

Ellen F. Davis' theology and literary classic Getting Involved with God would be my first choice along with the Bible for a desert island. For professor or pastor in the midst of ministry, it has a remarkable orienting quality. How to read, how to bring your other studies into service with understanding and outreach are part of the book's offering.Her eight books (and many articles) form a Davis library; they speak in almost any area and with poetic clarity.