If there is one thing that accumulates during seminary, it is books. I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, and I came to seminary with several bookshelves already comfortably full. By the time I left, the shelves were stacked two layers deep in places, and piles of books that didn’t find a place on the shelf decorated the corners of my living room.
When I graduated from seminary, most of those books migrated onto my church office shelves. But as time passed, only a few are read and reread with any regularity. And they aren’t necessarily the ones I expected.
Eight years into pastoral ministry, here are the kinds of books that have a permanent spot within reach of my desk (beside the Bible and the hymnal!):
Annotated bibliographies, and books with extensive topical bibliographies included. No matter how widely I read during seminary, I could never have prepared for every topic on which I would teach and preach in the local church. Nor do I have time (in the midst of hospital visits and committee meetings and all the rest) to read the wealth of commentaries, theological texts, and practical ministry guides available on any given subject matter.
That’s why I find annotated bibliographies like David Bauer’s An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry (Wipf & Stock, 2011) to be invaluable. Guides like this one – or the “Building a Library” series here on the Catalyst website – provide a quick overview of available resources, alert me to relevant theological and textual concerns, and help me select the resources that will best meet my needs at the moment. A few moments spent reviewing the literature in advance will save hours (and dollars!) later.
Collections of sermons. On all but the worst of weeks (the ones with four funerals in five days!), I’ve done my exegetical work early in the week. I’ve prayed through the text, read the commentaries, and studied the pericope in context. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve found my preaching points. The path from exegetical study to preached sermon isn’t always a straight line.
When I struggle to find my way into a text, the best thing I can do is read someone else’s sermon and let it speak to my heart. With luck, I can find a sermon in my collection on the same – or a parallel – text. If not, I can usually find one on a similar topic, at least. Even better, I can find two or three written by different preachers in different contexts.
Reading sermons expands my understanding of the text in intuitive ways that an academic commentary may not. Seeing how another preacher connected the text to their own context helps me to connect it to mine. Hearing what they highlight in the passage opens me up to nuances I might have missed. My own preaching of the text may sound nothing like theirs in the end, but reading their sermons invariably strengthens my own.
My favorites range from historical sermons – Augustine, Luther, and Wesley top my list – to contemporary preachers like Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Fleming Rutledge. Whether I agree with the preacher on every theological point is far less important than whether they stir my heart and mind.
Theological books written in simple, straightforward language. The books I loved in seminary (and still love today!) were the deep, nuanced texts that challenged my convictions and stretched my understanding. I need these books – they keep me thinking, and learning, and growing in discipleship. But the books I reach for more often these days are the ones that address theological questions in simple, everyday language, the ones I can pull off my shelf and hand to a parishioner, or recommend to a deep-thinking teenager. They may be written by pastors rather than academics (Adam Hamilton is a current favorite), or be collections of essays, prayers, or even devotionals. They are practical, readable, and usually under 100 pages. There is a simplicity to these books, but the more I read them, the more I realize that engaging deeply theological questions in simple ways can be more profound than doing so in the complex and technical language of the academy.
Books that feed my soul. There are certain books that become traveling companions through life, and they deserve a special shelf where they won’t get crowded out by the rest. For me, this shelf contains a collection of women’s prayers, memoirs and novels, and even a few children’s books. They are there not because they are valuable to my ministry (though I do sometimes quote from them!), but because they keep me healthy in the midst of ministry. They are the books that spark my imagination, lift my spirits, and open my heart to beauty and longing. They are worth keeping close.