It is almost a cliché at Saddleback that growing churches require growing leaders. If you don't take in truth, you can't give it out. As ministry leaders we use a lot of different methods to keep growing. We attend conferences. We find mentors. We listen to podcasts. But one of my favorite ways to grow as a leader is to read.
We've got a saying at Saddleback that I frequently tell our staff – every leader is a reader. Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers. If you're going to lead, you've got to be thinking further in advance than the people that you're leading. That means you have to be reading.
Paul understood this. In 2 Timothy, Paul writes to Timothy from prison: "When I was in Troas, I left my coat there with Carpus. So when you come, bring it to me, along with my books, particularly the ones written on parchment." (NCV)
Paul is at the end of his life. He's in prison. He says he wants two things – his coat and his books. C. H. Spurgeon, commenting on this passage, says, "He is inspired, yet he wants books. He has been preaching at least 30 years, yet he wants books. He's seen the Lord, yet he wants books. He's had a wider experience than most men, yet he wants books. He's been caught up to heaven and has heard things that are unlawful to utter, yet he wants books. He's written a major part of the New Testament, yet he wants books."
We should all want to grow like Paul did. And we should value reading like he did. But as ministry leaders, our time is precious. So how do we get the most out of our limited time to read?
Here are seven tips:
1. Analyze your reading habits.
Ask yourself important questions about your reading habits, such as:
Is your reading planned or spasmodic? If you don't plan your reading, you'll end up wasting a lot of time on books that will have limited impact on your ministry. Reading takes time, so choose the books you read carefully. Be intentional.
How many books have I read per year since graduating seminary? I remember reading a book that claimed the average Presbyterian pastor reads only five books a year, and the average Baptist pastor reads only three books a year. It's no wonder our churches aren't growing in the United States.
2. Schedule time for reading.
The schedule is going to vary with each person. You have to decide the time that's best for you – probably when you're uninterrupted. I read primarily at night. There's very little on the television that's worthwhile. If you just set aside 15 minutes a day, you'll read up to two dozen books a year. That means in a normal lifetime, you would read more than 1,000 books. That's equivalent to going through college five times.
3. Balance your reading.
The biggest mistake we make is to concentrate our reading on our own favorite field. You like a certain area, so you tend to read over and over in that area. In a sense that's OK. If you don't read often, that's a good place to get started. But you need to get occasionally outside of your pet subjects. I've read books on birds, astronomy, the heart (where I got all sorts of preaching illustrations), and a medical book on the brain. Read widely so that it makes you a broader person. I want to know just a little bit about every subject, so that I can talk to any person I meet about a subject of interest to him or her. I may not know a lot, but I know just enough to ask the first question – that will get them going in the conversation.
. Don't just read a book; respond to it.
Practice active reading. Mark up your books. I always read with a pencil in my hand. Even when I'm reading magazines, I've got a pencil in my hand. A book only becomes your book when you mark it up. The most important thing about a book is not what it teaches you. It's what it stimulates in you. I'll often read something, then write down its application to our church. A. W. Tozer said, "One of the tests of a really fine book is while you're reading it, you put it down to start thinking."
5. Know what not to read.
The best way to save time in reading is to be discriminating. James Bryce says "Life is too short to spend it reading inferior books." More than 1,000 books are produced around the world each day. Several thousand new religious titles come out every year. The Christian Booksellers Convention is big business. As a result, many Christian books are not worth reading.
6. Make a monthly trip to the library.
Put on your calendar a monthly trip to the library. Why? Not for Christian books, which you'll rarely find at the library. Instead, go to see what's new in other areas. I look for books on management, advertising, human behavior, psychology, and other secular disciplines. But the most important reason I take this monthly trip is to get caught up on the latest magazines. That way I don't have to subscribe to them. (Most of them aren't worth a subscription.) You can cover about 40 magazines in two hours. Flip through them. Once in a while, you'll find a good article, and you can photocopy it. Most of my illustrations come from Time, Newsweek, and other current publications. Why? That's what people are reading.
7. Build your own library.
Every profession has its tools. You can't be a doctor without a stethoscope or a carpenter without hammer and saw. The tools of ministry are books. We're feeding, leading, and communicating.
Books also make a great heritage to pass on to your children. Whether your kids go into ministry or not, you'll be able to give them a library that's invaluable – because you've been collecting the books for years. That's an instant heritage you can pass on.
Reading is an invaluable habit if you want to stay fresh in ministry. Remember, all leaders are readers!
Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and best-known churches. In addition, Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, which was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th Century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for ministers. Copyright 2005 Pastors.com, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.