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People of the Book

Which way does the pastor’s bookshelf lean?

“I spent years in seminary being taught book learning,” an older pastor once told me. “When I got into church ministry, I realized it was mostly about managing people.”

Pastoral ministry is actually first of all about God and his kingdom. But Christians have been called “people of the book” because of their central focus on the world’s longest-running bestseller, the Bible. Surrounding the Bible are commentaries, theological volumes, worship resources, homiletics, apologetics, social criticism, church history and the biographies of the saints. Ideally, all point back to the divine presence, his promises and his people.

 
  

Some pastors have extensive libraries, with beautiful wood shelving and carefully organized sections (even Dewey-decimal-system arranged!). They treasure their budgeted book allowance. Others have a few shelves where they keep personal classics and current reading while other books remain in moving boxes for years. But all pastors contend with books.

To find out more personally the role a pastor’s library played in his or her ministry, I sent out 10 questions to 36 pastors for whom I had email addresses. I got 10 responses back, from nine males and one female – all CRC pastors in Canada from ages in low 30s to mid-50s. This included pastors from sea to shining sea – including B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Interestingly, some identified theologically as “conservative,” “creative” and even as “a Biblically orthodox progressive conservative liberal emerging Christian.” One wrote that CRC stands for “Culturally Relevant Christian” and another said he was a “spacious centre CRC.”

There was a wide range in the size of their libraries – from 300 to 3,000 books. Some mentioned they have a considerable number of digital books that ought to be included. Some were quick to add they read a lot of fiction, too. But does the pastor’s bookshelf lean towards people or away from them?

Books Are Friends
None of them saw their books as a distraction from ministry, or as an idol (although one admitted they were a way to fake people out when they visit, “more a way of making me feel smarter than I actually am”). Reading can provide an edifying sabbath from people. “Books are a place where I rest from personattention,” said a pastor. “For good or ill, when I’m with a person, I’m in ‘attention & care’ more for the other; when I’m with a book, it’s more like ‘care’ mode for myself.”

That self-care, however, is a means to fruitful ministry. Almost all agreed that “my books are what give my ministry direction, depth and dependable Spiritled discretion.” All agreed that “my books are my toolbox.”

Many also checked the option that “books are also my friends.” “It’s a way of ensuring that my congregation is drawing on more wisdom than my own,” said one pastor. “It’s the ‘cloud of witnesses’ surrounding me,” added another. In fact, books are a way to start conversations and build relationships: “books are a doorway to conversation – or sometimes a whole ‘room’ to meet in together.”

Their libraries are not only tools and friends, but teachers. One pastor wrote: “My library reminds me to have a teachable heart.” A couple of ministers said that their books were their professional development or continuing education – only in the company of mentors who happen to be physically distant.

Books Equip the Saints
I asked if they intentionally “read Canadian.” Many did not seem passionate about this. A few track Canada Reads, a Canadian novel or two, and maybe the regional news. In terms of favourite or indispensable books, none included apologetics, although some had favourite commentaries and named The Worship Sourcebook (2nd ed). It appears that story grips better than propositional texts, as one pastor confessed: “I am less ‘moved’ by theologically oriented books than I am by memoirs.”

In summary, I suppose a pastor may use books to avoid people or to intimidate them, but their intended purpose is to equip pastors so they can in turn equip the saints for service. Pastors are managers, counsellors, preachers and teachers, and all these roles require the posture of an eternal student.

One might yet ask: in this electronic age, are books still valuable for Christian formation? “I’m increasingly getting information online,” said one. “I fear that in our increasingly fast-paced, digital age that [books] will fade into the background as info-consumers seek quick hits from online media.” But this does not apply to everyone. It has been said that “readers will be leaders” and this holds true for many pastors.

“I am deeply shaped by books,” said one. Concluded another: “Books make me feel at home.”

From this short survey, it appears that to pit books against people in pastoral ministry may not be necessary. Books can help pastors connect with people, and offer them wisdom beyond their own experience and ability. Ultimately, Christianity is not a “religion of the book” but a religion of love – a posture that leans other-wise for healing and hope. In short, books help, as we believe that word can become flesh, and thus be a vehicle of love and redemption in God’s hurt and hope-starved world.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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