The Spiritual Discipline of Reading

I couldn’t tell if he was making a confession or if he was bragging.

The man looked up from the computer screen from where he was surfing the net and announced very matter-of-factly, “I manage this bookstore but I don’t read.”

Why would you tell that to an author?

I try my best to be gracious to people. I didn’t cuss out loud.

“Have you never been a reader?” I asked.

“Nope. Never,” he said.

“How is it you came to manage a bookstore if you don’t read?”

“I’m a pastor,” he said as if that explained everything.  

I’d like to tell you he’s the first bookstore manager I’ve met this year who doesn’t read. In fact, he’s the third one. All were men. All had backgrounds in retail. And all three of them are running bookstores that cater to the Christian marketplace. I think there’s a message embedded in there somewhere but I haven’t decoded it yet.

This gnawing in my gut is more than indigestion — it’s the disturbing recognition that far too many pastors have abandoned the spiritual discipline of reading. And I’m not just talking about Bible reading, although I’ve heard my share of sermons this year that I suspect were pre-packaged and downloaded online.

I’m talking about reading a book besides the Bible.

I can count on one hand the number of pastors I’ve sat under in my lifetime that I know were avid readers. I remember them because their preaching had a depth and a substance that all others lacked. One of my favorites, Dr. Herb Anderson, would quote poetry from the pulpit. That was always a magical moment. It helped that Dr. Anderson lived in a university town. He had a lot of professors in his audience. They expected their pastor to be well-read. But out here in rural America where hardy people live and vote, pastors are more likely to quote a bumper sticker than they are to recite a poem they’ve memorized.  

A friend made the comment the other day that he thought the reason people liked the assistant pastor at his church better than the senior pastor is because they had no idea what the assistant pastor was saying  but they liked his style of delivery. It’s more flashy than the old guy’s.

That makes me laugh and wince at the same time. The way I did when the bookstore manager who claims he is really a pastor said to me that he doesn’t read.

One of the best writers of our times, Stephen King says: “People are just too damn lazy to read.”

I don’t know if King is right about that. Maybe people are just too busy to read. Used to be that we had time for stories in our lives. Now if the story takes longer than 140 characters, we don’t have time for it. Pastors, it seems, are particularly prone to the tyranny of the urgent. (That was an obscure reference to a pithy little booklet from another era).

John Wesley was an old preacher guy who lived a long time ago, back when online meant a person’s clothes were drying in the sun.  Wesley thought reading was an important spiritual discipline: “It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”

Can a pastor who doesn’t read really lead a people? Or is he more like a blind friend with a map? Pretty ineffective at giving clear direction.

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  • Scott Eaton

    I’d agree with Stephen King. Most people think it’s just easier to watch television than to read and I suppose they are right. But they just don’t know what they are missing.

    As for pastors who don’t read, well, that’s kind of like being a NASCAR driver who never makes a pitstop.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      As someone who speaks to a lot of different audiences, I simply don’t understand how a person has anything of merit to say when they don’t read. The human experience has to be put into context. That’s not possible if you don’t have a working knowledge of context.

      • Following up this comment about being too busy, reading also requires thinking and for many people anymore, thinking can be too much work… they’d rather veg in front of the TV or internet checking Facebook. No wonder our country is in trouble.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          I hear ya. And yes, our own biggest enemy resides in our own homes.

  • As a former bookstore owner and manager myself, I can testify that there are more than a few bookstore owners and managers who don’t read regularly. If there were one thing that I could have done that would have made me a more effective bookstore owner/manager, it would have been to read even more. There is nothing better that I could offer my customer that to be extremely well-read and knowledgeable about current and classic literature. That’s also true for other bookstore staff. It’s true that bookstore managers must be skilled retailers in a myriad of areas in this highly competitive and challenging market but if they are not well-read, they sacrifice their credibility with their reading customer.

    I’ve heard all the excuses for not reading more and have used a few of them myself but the bottom line is that those in the bookstore industry should be avid readers, if nothing else.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Ken: I know you completely understand the pressures upon bookstore folks and upon pastors. So you’ve shared valuable insights to this discussion. The thing that always suprises me, and maybe this is because I am the granddaughter of men who could not read, is this sort of smug elitist attitude that accompanies such a confession. As if it’s hip to not be well-read.

  • Can’t find anything requiring an apology here. Love this: “Now if the story takes longer than 140 characters, we don’t have time for it.” Makes me sad. Love the part about reading a variety and POETRY. That’s why “Catcher in the Rye,” “Evolving in Monkeytown,” and “Three Cups of Tea” are what I’m reading now. I keep my anthology of Robert Frost nearby, too. Thanks for the courage to shout this out! 🙂

  • Diane

    I’d be more concerned about a pastor that doesn’t read than a bookstore owner…though I’d prefer they be readers also. Heck, I’d prefer everyone read more…but then I’m a biased avid reader.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Diane: Good for you.

  • Michael

    Amy, you have more than good insight on the importance of reading for the health of your spirit. Paulo Coelho was a favorite of mine for many years because you utilized the wisdom found in the book of Proverbs and the Psalms and incorporated it into his writings, “The Alchemist” brought many people to tears. I am glad you are reading Robert Frost, he is a favorite poet of mine “Fire and Ice” is my favorite. I wanted you to read something by Jonathan Edwards it is the Duty and Calling of Christians to Charity for the Poor, you can find it here:

    What can we do to help those in their time of need? Did not Christ say “Give to him who asks, and from him who asks, do not turn away.”? Would you be willing to help me raise money for a Christian benefit concert for the poor? Christian worship bands are willing to invest their time and talent to help for the cause, I would like a good writer and to find an organization to finance the worship project. Are you wiling to Help?
    Blessings to you in all your work.


    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Amy: Uh..this one appears to be addressed to you, girlfriend.

  • As a pastor, one of my urgent responsibilities is to present fresh and helpful ideas to my congregation in order that they might look more like and be in a better relationship Jesus this week than last. I hamstring my efforts if I do not read what others have said. Even when I produce a fresh perspective from my own noggin, it would not have happened without first reading what others have said on the subject. Reading turns on my brain.

    The pastors who have preached for thirty years and yet are not disciplined enough to read (or even worse, only read the people with whom they fervently agree) have not earned their chronological label of experience.

    The difference is between a pastor with thirty years experience and a pastor with one year of experience repeated twenty-nine times over.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Good point about the reading only people they agree with.

      I wish more pastors would read just read good literature. More Flannery or Willie Morris or more articles out of The New Yorker or the Atlantic.

  • Clay Knick

    Karen, This is one of my pet peeves. I have colleagues in ministry who do not read and one even told me he had read nothing since theological school. We would not tolerate this in a surgeon who tells us all he learned in med. school was to amputate a limb rather than saving it. But we will tolerate this in pastors? Thanks for writing. Love the blog.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thanks for your thoughts. For several years while raising kids my husband and I attended a church where the bulk of the sermons came from the last TV show pastor watched. We stayed because there was a great youth pastor, who was far more literate.
      I don’t think this is a problem just in rural America. Finding people who read for good pleasure is becoming more and more difficult. Everybody wants information. Less are willing to venture into a good tale.
      I want a pastor who loves to read and as a result is a terrific storyteller.
      Storytelling was the model Jesus employed time and time again when teaching. I suspect because it’s effective.

      • Clay Knick

        Yes and amen! We pastors say we are busy, but busy doing what? It is not hard to carve out time for reading at all. We have a lot of freedom in our schedules. Some minutes here and there, blocks of time here and there, and before you know it a book has been read. I love your connection with reading and storytelling. I think you are spot on.

  • Great thoughts, Karen.

  • As I read your thoughts I remembered this verse from Acts 4:

    “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”

    I guess my thinking is that God uses a wide variety of people for his purposes – some highly educated and some not so much. I think that the main criteria for being used in the kingdom in any capacity is that we know Jesus.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Bob: No one is suggesting that you can’t be used by God, educated or otherwise. This post is about a pastor’s ability to led others.You may feel otherwise but I don’t want to sit under a pastor who does not read good literature as well as studies the Bible.