The apostle Paul instructed the young preacher Timothy to give himself to reading. In the ancient world, reading was normally done aloud, and it was often a public activity. Books were scarce, and if you were going to read aloud anyway, why shouldn’t others benefit from hearing?
Paul thought that a young preacher needed to develop the habit of reading. This sensibility has been echoed through much of the history of the church. For example, the Anabaptists who drafted the Schleitheim Confession made reading the first duty of a pastor. Periods when pastors did not read have invariably been times of spiritual darkness for those who name the name of Christ.
Reading continues to be one of the most important duties of a pastor. Pastors are responsible to do the work of the mind, and their minds must have something with which to work. Reading is the door, and texts are the workmen through which the furniture of ideas enters the mind and organizes a pastor’s ministry.
How much should a pastor read? The answer to this question is determined by the nature of the ministry. A pastor needs to read enough, and enough of the right stuff, to be growing intellectually and to meet the demands of ministry in the world in which he lives.
Most of us minister to people who are familiar with sophisticated ideas in the fields of politics, jurisprudence, ethics, philosophy, and religion. For the most part, these ideas are mediated to our people through channels that are hostile to Christian orthodoxy and morality. Reading widely and thinking well is the only way for a pastor to help his people out of their bad thinking. I do not see how a pastor can expect to meet the challenges of contemporary ministry if his goal is to read less than approximately one book every week.
What should a pastor read? The short answer is, “All sorts of things.” Besides reading his Bible and reading for sermon preparation, a pastor should have a reading plan that he tries to implement consistently. Of course, his planned reading will be interrupted by necessary reading, but the plan gives some shape to his reading agenda.
Since graduating from seminary, I have found it useful to try to read by topic. I have a list of half-a-dozen general categories of reading. I try to rotate books from these categories.
The first category consists of books devoted to biblical studies. These may be introductions or surveys. They may be books on biblical backgrounds. They may be commentaries (reading through commentaries is a discipline that pastors should develop). They may be books that deal with specific interpretive problems. In this category I also include books on biblical interpretation or hermeneutics. Reading about critical problems also comes here — for example, I read books dealing with the synoptic problem or the historical Jesus.