The Pastor Reader: How Daily Reading Shapes a Practicing Minister


Project and Problem

As a lifelong reader who did not turn to the ministerial vocation until I was thirty years old, I was surprised to find early in my career that many of the ministers I encountered did not take time to read. For a vocation that purports to prize erudition, this struck me as odd; but for a vocation that requires wisdom, empathy, and discernment from its practitioners, this struck me as entirely problematic.

Research has conclusively shown that “deep” reading is a formative act, slowly shaping the reader in numerous meritorious ways. It follows that by not reading widely and regularly, ministers are not simply missing out on useful information; they are instead missing out on the possibility of being formed into more effective practitioners.

Alarmed by how few ministers seemed to be reading, I began to inquire into the reason why. After all, every minister with whom I spoke claimed to love reading. So why, then, were so few actually doing it?

First, I found, most pastors were not taking time to read because they felt like reading—outside the area of sermon preparation—was a personal luxury. Given the busyness of their schedules, they explained, they simply could not justify the time spent.

Second, many pastors claimed that after devoting hours to a book, they soon struggled to remember the majority of what they had just read. To their minds, then, the time they had spent reading—though enjoyable—had been poorly used.

In hearing these explanations, I realized that the problem was not the ministers; the problem was the minister’s misunderstanding of what reading is for.

Or put differently: their misunderstanding of what a commitment to regular reading could do for their ministries.

Knowing that reading is more a formative act than an informative act, and knowing that the formation a minister undergoes directly shapes the self she brings to her vocational practice, I therefore set out to demonstrate how a minister’s commitment to a program of general reading could benefit her in four key areas: preaching, pastoral caregiving, vision-casting, and administration.

To that end, I assembled a group of ten ministers from across the country who committed to deep, regular reading for a full year. The aim was to discern whether this time spent reading would sharpen their ministerial skills in any or all of these four areas.

The short answer is: it did.

Given space limitations I will simply show in this post how a commitment to general reading benefits a minister in one of these key areas: pastoral caregiving.

Thesis and Theory

According to Cornelius Plantinga Jr., “Ignorance of literature is a serious sin of omission.” This might appear to be overstated, but Plantinga proceeds to explain his position by saying: “Identification with others may be partly instinctive, but it is also partly deliberate—and thus dependent upon an educated attempt to stretch our sympathies across circumstantial distance.”[1]

Plantinga is here reminding the minister that we read in order to better understand the world and those in it. Because literature is such a potent resource for helping us understand, we therefore commit a grave transgression by failing to attend to it.

This is amply confirmed by Maryanne Wolf’s empirical research on the cognitive benefits of regular reading. Wolf explains:

“The consistent strengthening of the connections among our analogical, inferential, empathic, and background knowledge processes [through deep reading] generalizes well beyond reading. When we learn to connect these processes over and over in our reading, it becomes easier to apply them to our own lives, teasing apart our motives and intentions, and understanding with even greater perspicacity and wisdom why others think and feel the way they do.”[2]

This capacity to wisely interpret others and situations is, of course, a vital part of pastoral caregiving. When a pastor arrives for a pastoral visit—whether it is a routine visit in the home or a special visit in a locale like a hospital—she is expected to bring comfort, wisdom, and insight to the exchange. Knowing what her interlocutor is really thinking—being able to hear unspoken words beneath the words that are actually being spoken—is a necessary skill, and as Plantinga suggests and as Wolf demonstrates, reading is a key resource for developing this skill.[3]

Reflecting on this, Hulitt Gloer, Professor of Preaching at Baylor University, says: “In seminary I was taught how to exegete texts very well, but not how to exegete people. Reading taught me that.”[4]

Gloer’s words recall Charles V. Gerkin’s concept of the “Living Human Document.” “The self,” Gerkin writes, “maintains its sense of being a self primarily by means of the interpretation of life as a story. Each of us has a story.”

A central thesis of Gerkin’s book is that, while people often know the details of their lives, they do not necessarily see the larger story those details are embedded in. By attending to one’s words and one’s being—and meanwhile, by simultaneously making inferences and drawing connections—a pastoral counselor can help one interpret her life in such a way as to give it a story, thereby providing her lived experience a deeper sense of clarity and purpose.[5]

The ability to discharge such a sophisticated task, Glour contends, is made possible by reading—a point argued persuasively by Keith Oatley in his psychological work surrounding the correlation between fiction and empathy.[6]

In a poignant example of this, Eugene Peterson recalls how reading James Joyce’s Ulysses opened his eyes to the deeper significance of pastoral care. “Pastoral care,” Peterson writes, “was more or less a routine function that I just did… So it was until I read Ulysses, [and] all those routines of pastoral care suddenly were no longer routines.”

Peterson goes on to describe how, under Joyce’s watchful eye, the seemingly mundane details of Leopold Bloom’s life in Ulysses slowly accumulate into something deeply meaningful, and that Joyce’s care for the preciousness of each detail in Bloom’s day caused Peterson to “wake up to the infinity of meaning within the limitations of the ordinary person on an ordinary day.”

This is the pastor’s work,” Peterson concludes. “I wanted to be able to look at each person in my parish with the same imagination, insight, and comprehensiveness with which Joyce looked at Leopold Bloom.”[7]

The capacity to do this—the ability to attend to the particularity of the human being before us—is what pastoral caregiving is essentially about. To be able to see the fullness of the person in our care; to be able to recognize the wonder of her life; to be able to interpret experiences that to her seem inscrutable—this is the pastoral caregiver’s task. To be up to it—to rightly exegete the living human documents they are—therefore requires a willingness on our part, like Peterson, to read widely and regularly.

Test and Testimony

The commitment for those who joined me in the yearlong reading project was very simple: read for a predetermined amount of time every day for a full year (each minister selected the amount of time at the beginning of the project). The explanation for my involvement throughout the year was clear: I would merely check in periodically to ensure that they were still reading; otherwise, I would follow up with them at the year’s end to see whether their commitment to reading had been beneficial to them as practicing ministers and whether they intended to keep reading in this intentional way.

The results were overwhelming.

All ten ministers reported having undergone growth in their sense of vocational self, and all ten claimed that they would continue to read with this same level of commitment moving forward.

In short, they had become “Pastor-Readers.”

Two of those, Kelsey Grissom, pastor of Camp Branch United Methodist Church in Alabaster, Alabama, and Emily Miller, pastor of Greenville Multicultural Church, gave testimony to how their yearlong immersion in reading sharpened their skills as pastoral caregivers.

Grissom writes that fiction, and particularly the classics and children’s literature, “helped me to have more compassion for people in broken situations and better understand people in situations I have not experienced.”

Grissom explains how her notion of personhood has expanded through these encounters with foreign cultures and foreign ideas, and goes on to explain how, counter-intuitively, this broadening of her global awareness has helped her in her small, rural church in Alabama, as it has aided her appreciation for the mystery and complexity of all human beings.

Miller likewise explains that reading—particularly history and biographies—has helped her consider some of the generational trauma those in her multicultural congregation and community have experienced. She explains that, “We have some in our youth ministry who were separated from or left by family who migrated here and have to work through the trauma associated with that.” Reading, she concludes, has helped her capacity to “listen to and give space for people to process these stories.”

These are only two examples.

What Grissom and Miller experienced is that which Eugene Peterson and I have both experienced: that a minister’s immersion in reading helps him or her grow as a pastoral caregiver.

The full scope of the Pastor-Reader project, meanwhile, demonstrates how a commitment to general reading not only helps a minister become a better pastoral caregiver but how it also helps a minister in preaching, vision-casting, and administration as well.

These results demonstrate that reading is not a personal luxury for a minister but is instead a vocational responsibility; to forego reading is not only to forego useful information—it is to forego the formation of our vocational selves.

[1] Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  2013), 7.

[2] Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (New York: HarperCollins), 61.

[3] Wolf writes that through “the very special cognitive space within the reading-brain circuit,” one can increase her “compassionate understanding of another’s mind” (Ibid., 53).

[4] Glour told me this on a telephone call on February 15, 2019.

[5] Charles V. Gerkin, The Living Human Document: Re-Visioning Pastoral Counseling in a Hermeneutical Mode, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984).

[6] Keith Oatley, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction (West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 39.

[7] Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 174-176.

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