“The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12)
These are important words for anyone who is passionate about ongoing personal growth and development. We church leaders especially understand that long-term ministry success requires us to continually grow in both our understanding and our experience of God. We are keenly aware that yesterday’s study will not carry us forever.
One of the primary ways that we pursue this ongoing growth is through reading. Ask nearly any pastor, and they will tell you about a stack of books by their nightstand that they are dutifully ploughing through. We have been marked by the adage, “leaders are readers,” and we attempt to read regularly and widely, knowing that if the well of our life ever runs dry, our ministry will suffer and eventually stall out.
One of the challenges we encounter; however, is the vast ocean of books that beckon for our attention. Thousands of new books are published every year in America in Christian living and leadership genres, and it can be overwhelming to try to keep up with the latest and greatest publications out there.
Fortunately, according to Solomon, we shouldn’t try to keep up. According to the wisest man who ever lived, we should actually narrow the scope of our reading in order to increase the effectiveness of our reading. He rightly warns us that, “excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body,” and he encourages us to give the bulk of our reading time to the words of the “wise men.” Instead of getting swallowed up in the endless stream of new books and publications, we should pay attention to the “masters” whose words are “goads” and “nails” for us. Goads guide us, correct us, motivate us, and prod us on to action; nails anchor us securely in place. That is what we are looking for in our reading.
Here is a simple reading rhythm to help us to that end:
Narrow the scope of our reading. It is okay to read generally and broadly as long as we have a few key areas where we intentionally go deep. Narrower, focused reading naturally increases our understanding and retention rates.
Never read a good book if you can read a better book. Since we are all limited in how many books we can read in a given year, we cannot afford to read indiscriminately–we need to be selective, intentional readers that make every book count. I recently determined to tackle a famous Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, and a friend sagely directed me away from my intended novel to a better one. He said, “Read The Brothers Karamazov first. You will finish this book and declare that it is the best novel that has ever been written.”
Read one dead guy for every living guy. As a writer myself, I am hoping people will buy, read, and recommend new books; however, to maximize our personal growth and development, we need to employ the wisdom and resource of the spiritual giants who went before us. E. Stanley Jones, A.W. Tozer, and C.S. Lewis are just as relevant today as when they wrote in their own generations. Wise students will learn from the past as well as the present.
Mastering one leadership book is better than perusing (and then forgetting the content of) dozens of others.
Trust the sovereign timing element in your reading. It is amazing how books tend to have a precise timing attached to them. I’m sure you have experienced the phenomenon where you purchased or were given a book, but never got around to reading it until perhaps a year later when you finally picked it up and found it to be exactly what you needed in that specific moment. Never feel pressure to read a book immediately–trust this sovereign timing element.
Simplify your study resources. In a pastoral training class, Pastor Jack Hayford exhorted church leaders to streamline and simplify their study resources. Instead of getting bogged down in many volumes of commentary, he suggested that we learn to master the use of accurate, but simple study tools in our research and sermon preparation. Simplification is a quicker pathway to mastery.
And finally, always leave a little room for a good John Grisham novel!