My mom, an avid reader who often is in the middle of four books at the same time, once passed on some counsel to me: Don’t read good books, only great ones. The advice is both challenging and inherently futile; for how can you know if a book is great—or only good—without reading it? Adding to the challenge is the fact that as a seminary student, you will be expected to read dozens of books; and quite frankly, few of those will be truly great ones, even if they prove helpful in both your current studies and your future ministry.
Still, the counsel is worthy of being passed on. Remember it for that future day when you are once again able to make your own choices about what to read: don’t waste your time with all the latest good books that publishers push your way; wait for the great ones. Or as Pastor Eugene Peterson challenges: “Pastoral work gathers expertise not by acquiring new knowledge but by assimilating old wisdom, not by reading the latest books but by digesting the oldest ones.” [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, p. 10]
I can think of two books I was assigned during seminary that I actually thanked my professors for assigning. (And by the way, that’s not a bad habit. You may write good comments on a class evaluation form each term, but if a particular book or assignment has been especially noteworthy, take the time to thank the professor personally.) One other book has had such a lasting impact that I have often referred back to it or recommended it to others. Out of fifty or sixty required books, just three have had that level of influence. I want to share those with you here, and then I want to recommend a couple others that I think pastors, seminary students, or others considering ministry need to read.
Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, Andrew Purves. For most of us, I suspect, classical texts—such as the ones Eugene Peterson would suggest—are difficult to read. And so we don’t; and in not reading them, we lose touch with the church’s theological heritage. This short (144 pages) volume offers something of a Cliffs Notes look at the lives and writings of five pastors from the 3rd through the 18th century: Gregory Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Martin Bucer, and Richard Baxter. One of the first books I read in seminary, what stood out in my mind was that two of these men initially fled from ministry because of the greatness and gravity of its calling. This book ought to be required reading before seminary.
Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change, Paul David Tripp. As little as thirty years ago, personal counseling was an expected part of most pastors’ work. Today, both churches and seminaries have largely segregated the work of counseling from the work of pastoring. Seminaries train pastors to preach and lead far more than they train them to walk alongside broken, hurting people. Tripp’s book offers a reminder to pastors of this fundamental aspect of ministry—yet without calling pastors to be the sole or even primary givers of care. Rather, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands challenges and encourages us to equip our churches in the ministry of caring and helping: “how to get to know people, and how to lovingly speak truth to them” (from the back cover).
I recently began reading another book by Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Tripp confronts the reality that church culture is inherently hazardous to pastors, and therefore to the congregations they are called to lead. The book was recommended by the chairman of a pastoral search committee at a church I applied to, which bodes well for the church and its relationship with its next pastor. I’m not far enough in to talk about the remedies Tripp offers, but I can already see that this is one of those books that ought to be read early on in a pastor’s seminary training, and again later with a church’s leadership teams.
Thick, heavy, and laden with big, important-sounding words you’ll rarely use in pastoral ministry, theology texts are the backbone of seminary training. One or two systematic theologies will be required and they will invariably end up at the bottom of a pastor’s bookshelf—perhaps for no other reason than to provide ballast in an earthquake. But I think the first text I ever thanked a professor for was Timothy C. Tennent’s Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology. I recall telling my professor that the introduction alone was worth the $25 cover price. This is not a systematic theology text per se, but rather an insight into how other cultures around the world approach theology. For example, the chapter on eschatology is entitled, “Jonathan Edwards and the Chinese Back to Jerusalem Movement;” pneumatology considers “The Holy Spirit in Latin American Pentecostalism.” This intriguing and very readable volume opened my eyes and heart to the need in western Christianity to listen to and learn from our brothers and sisters around the world.
One last suggestion: If I ever had the chance to lead a ministry practicum, one of the books I would assign would be Stories I Couldn’t Tell While I Was A Pastor, by Bruce McIver. This is a light-hearted look at ministry from a man who pastored one church for thirty years, experiencing everything from dating to single-parenting; from drunk dogs to pregnant wedding coordinators. In this age when pastors are ridiculed by the world, beaten down by the church, and burned out by their own messiah-complexes, McIver helps us find humor in our calling and our work.
Now it’s your turn. What books were you assigned in seminary that were so good you thanked your professor? What have you read that you think is a must-read for every seminarian or would-be pastor? What is one book you would assign if you were teaching a seminary course?
About the Author
Randy Ehle graduated from Western Seminary in 2014 with a Master of Arts in Ministry and Leadership. After a five-year stint as Executive Pastor in northern California, he is currently seeking a Lead Pastor role. He is married, has an adult son and two teenage daughters, and blogs at The Rushed Contemplative (randehle.com) about ministry, pastoral search committees, and life in general.