“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 us ministry leaders who are in the business of ongoing personal growth and development. We know that to ensure our long-term success in ministry, we must be students that are continually growing in both our understanding and our experience of God. We are keenly aware that yesterday’s study won’t carry us forever.
One of the primary ways that we pursue this ongoing growth is through the avenue of reading. Ask nearly any pastor, and they will tell you about a stack of books by their nightstand that they’re dutifully working their way through. We’ve 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 vastness of the 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. 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’re looking for in our reading.
Here is a simply reading rhythm to help us that end:
Narrow the scope of our reading. Pastor Bill Hybels encourages pastors and ministry leaders to read more narrowly, suggesting that a sharper focus in our reading increases the impact of our reading, versus general, broad reading that decreases depth and retention rates.
Never read a good book if you can read a better book. Since we’re all limited in how many books we can read in a given year, we can’t afford to read indiscriminately–we need to be selective, intentional readers that make every book count.
Read one dead guy for every living guy. As a writer myself, I’m counting on people buying, reading, and recommending 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. 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 element of timing in reading. It’s amazing how books tend to have a precise timing attached to them. I’m sure you’ve experienced the phenomena 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 present moment. Never feel pressure to read a book immediately–trust this sovereign timing element.
Simplify your study resources. In a recent “school of pastoral nurture” Pastor Jack Hayford exhorted those of us in attendance to streamline and simplify our study resources. Instead of getting bogged down in volumes of commentary, he suggested that we learn to master the use of accurate, but simple study tools in our research and sermon preparation.
And finally, leave a little room for a good John Grisham novel!