Great leaders are usually disciplined readers. Reading widely and reading well serve the mind as good nutrition and aerobic exercise serve the body. Too many church leaders have flabby brains. As Os Guinness says, we have fit bodies but fat minds. The primary remedy for our mental obesity is deliberate reading, which involves deliberate choices as to when, what, and how we read.
Deliberately Choosing When to Read
Reading, for many, is like exercise: something we know we should do but simply have not made a priority. The best solution to this is to schedule time to read.
For starters, one might follow John Piper’s suggestion to schedule 20-minute segments for reading. By scheduling 1 such block of time each day for 6 days a week, a person reading only 250 words per minute could read 15 average-length books each year.
John Stott’s plan is a bit more ambitious, but still doable for many fulltime ministers. "What I have suggested . . . seems to be to be an absolute minimum of time for study, which even the busiest pastors should be able to manage . . . every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon, or evening; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this, it sounds very little. Indeed, it is too little. Yet everybody who tries it is surprised to discover how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It tots up to nearly 600 hours in the course of a year." Remember that Stott has in mind reading not directly related to sermon preparation!
Still another idea is to simply buy up the “nickels and dimes” of time throughout the day. I have found it helpful to always have a book nearby. If I arrive early or a friend arrives late for a lunch appointment, I use the extra time for reading. I also read when sitting in the doctor’s office or while waiting for a haircut.
Deliberately Choosing What to Read
We should also be deliberate in choosing what we will read. Quality is more important than quantity. Care must be given to read the best but also a wide variety of books.
Here are several categories of books to consider:
1. Obviously, Scripture should take first place in our reading priorities.
When a pastor reads Scripture only for sermon preparation, he is well on his way to burn-out or fall-out. Years ago I was challenged to never let a day go by without reading something from Scripture. With very rare exceptions, I’ve been able to keep that commitment, although my plan over the years has varied.
2. Next, we should give attention to reading books that nourish the spiritual life.
Notice which authors and books consistently foster your hunger for the Word, intensify your love for Christ, and deepen your hatred of sin, and then read those books repeatedly. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, and Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections are among the most helpful books I’ve read, and ones to which I find myself returning. I’ve also greatly benefited from books by more contemporary authors such as A. W. Tozer, C. S. Lewis, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, Donald Whitney, and Eugene Peterson. I’m currently reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way, which give me a nice blend of old and new.
3. Pastors, especially, will do well to read biographies and church history.
These books benefit me in three ways. First, I am informed about the church of by-gone ages as I gain a broader historical perspective. I am also encouraged by the stories of God’s triumphant grace in the lives of saints and sinners who faced trials and struggles similar to my own. Finally, I am humbled as I consider the staggering achievements of God’s grace through these same saints and sinners.
I’ve especially benefited from biographies on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, C. H. Spurgeon, George Whitefield, Robert Murray McCheyne, David Brainerd, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton. Also immensely instructive and encouraging are the books on revival and church history by Iain Murray.
4. I think it’s also important for us to regularly read contemporary books on hermeneutics, biblical studies, and theology.
These are more difficult and require more discipline, yet they especially sharpen our exegetical skills, challenge our presuppositions, and stretch our thinking.
Among the most helpful books in these categories that I’ve read are David Wells’ God in the Wastelands, D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, Ardel Caneday and Thomas Schreiner’s The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance, Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, and Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics. It is critical that we not limit our reading to authors with whom we always agree. Read widely but with all your powers for critical thinking engaged. Don’t let book reviews do your thinking for you.
5. To stay abreast of current issues, read an assortment of best-selling, non-fiction books.
I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and have been dipping into Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. This kind of reading keeps my feet firmly planted in the terra firma of my own cultural and historical context. Regular reading of good blogs and periodicals like World magazine are also helpful.
6. Neither should we neglect books which stimulate our imagination and keep us in touch with the general reading public.
In recent years I’ve read The Da Vinci Code, the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, and a number of John Grisham’s bestsellers. Recently I borrowed the Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor and anthologies of poetry by William Blake and George Herbert. I did not read completely through any of these, but just sampling them was stimulating and helpful.
C. S. Lewis once advised that persons never stop reading solely for pleasure. After about ten years of reading no fiction, I found this advice liberating, and now I occasionally enjoy losing myself in a novel. On my last vacation I read Chaim Potock’s The Chosen, one of the truly “re-creational” parts of my time away from the normal rhythms of study. Be aware of the wide array of books vying for your attention, and then deliberately choose what you will read. Something that helps me track my reading and stay balanced is to keep a running list of books, subdivided into several categories, to read during the year.
Deliberately Choosing How to Read
All books are not created equal, and we should keep this in mind. Some books deserve little more than a skim or some spot-reading. Frankly, most popular “Christian living” books fall into this category. While many are good, most are not going to significantly add to other and better books.
With other books, I read with a highlighter in hand, underlining and starring as I go. This slows my pace but increases my comprehension. It also makes the book more useful once finished, since I can always return to the book and get a quotation or re-read the most insightful parts. Sometimes I even annotate a book by creating my own index in the blank pages at the back. This helps me quickly locate the parts I most want to remember.
A few books are worth studying. As Spurgeon advised the students in his pastors’ college, “A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed.”
So, occasionally, I will read a book three or four times, sometimes outlining the contents and taking more extensive notes. These are the books that help me the most, but only a few books can be read at this level in one lifetime. Choose these books carefully, and then master their contents.
 Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994).
 John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002) 66-67.
 John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982) 204.
 C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1990 reprint, Four Volumes in One) 1:193.