Seminary is a valuable piece of pastoral training. But it’s only a piece.
The church needs more pastors with seminary training, but seminary can’t give you everything you need. It provides critical instruction in systematic theology, Old and New Testament exegesis, hermeneutics, preaching, and church history. But pastoring requires far more than these. And some of the best pastoral training comes from books you won’t be required to read in seminary.
So, seminarian, before you take your first church, commit to more than just earning a degree. Go above and beyond to prepare for the difficult work of shepherding. Below are ten categories you should make a habit of reading before you pastor a church.
There are a number of classic pastoral resources those in the ministry have cherished for generations. Lectures to My Students by C. H. Spurgeon and The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter are among them. Commit to reading and re-reading classics like these before and during your pastoral ministry.
Hopefully your seminary training includes classes in pastoral counseling. The reality is, your time in the office with infertile couples, the physically and emotionally unwell, parents with wayward daughters and sons, and deeply depressed women and men will far outweigh your time in the pulpit. The Bible and prayer are your best resources for these conversations, but God uses other Bible-filled tools to equip the pastor for counseling. The Pastor and Counseling by Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju and How People Change by Timothy Lane are helpful in this regard.
The pastor is not above personal evangelism and disciple-making. If you don’t make it a habit to share the gospel with the lost and to come alongside other believers in their growth (a habit so many lose in seminary), don’t expect your church members to do so. The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman and Discipling by Mark Dever are helpful resources to keep you focused, not only on teaching others to make disciples, but on doing so personally.
Two kinds of leadership books are required for those in pastoral ministry: books that get at the nuts and bolts of leadership and books that address the heart behind Christian leadership. Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck’s Designed to Lead is a great blend of the two categories, providing a framework for the structural that is informed by the spiritual. Books like Scott Sauls’ From Weakness to Strength, Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus, and Jack Miller’s The Heart of a Servant Leader all address the heart-level needs of those in pastoral ministry.
Find a book on personal finance that is easy to understand and practical to apply. Art Rainer’s The Money Challenge fits this bill. Many pastors have a healthy theology of money but fail to understand how to apply the wise financial principles that will keep their families and churches afloat and healthy. This is a must for pastors-to-be.
Subscribe to a local newspaper, then pick up a few books—by believers and by unbelievers—that shed light on the cultural realities around you. Divided by Faith (Smith and Emerson) and Disunity in Christ (Cleveland) are both helpful books on the realities of racial and cultural division in the church. Onward by Russell Moore is perhaps the most acclaimed cultural analysis written for the church in the past decade. Books by non-Christians like Hillbilly Elegy and Between the World and Me pulled back the curtain on how many around us look at the cultural realities of America in the twenty-first century. If you want to shepherd your people and reach your community well, learn what’s going on in their hearts and minds relative to cultural and social realities.
Pastoral ministry as a theological exercise is fun. Pastoral ministry in real life is hard. Any time a group of sinners—even redeemed sinners—comes together, expect conflict. Expect the good, the bad, and the awkward. Classics like Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and newer works like Jonathan Leeman’s Church Membership provide much-needed insight into the Christian life not just as individuals, but as congregations, in and amidst the realities of sin and brokenness.
Burnout. Every pastor and pastor-to-be has heard this word ad nauseam in the past decade, and too many have experienced long seasons of suffering and frustration as their pastors have, seemingly out of nowhere, stepped away from the pastorate because of depression, exhaustion, or moral failure. Pastor-to-be, take care of yourself. Don’t serve the church at the expense of your personal or family health. A few helpful books in this regard are Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero, Reset by David Murray, and Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp.
Charles Spurgeon argued that pastors would be unsuccessful unless they spent more time in the prayer closet than in the study. Pray for your own sanctification. Pray for your family. Pray for your congregation. Pray for the nations. Pray for God’s glory. Without a deep, habitual prayer life, your ministry may appear fruitful, but it will not be faithful. Paul Miller’s A Praying Life and Timothy Keller’s Prayer have been helpful for many. Use these resources and others to cultivate a habit of prayer, not only for the sake of your ministry, but for the sake of your soul.
Seminary students and pastors love reading theology, history, biography, and even cultural commentary; but how many love reading fiction? It seems unfruitful. It seems unproductive. But one of the best things you can do for your ministry is to read fiction, for at least two reasons. First, reading great fiction will improve your writing, both for sermons and any other form of writing ministry you utilize. Second, reading great fiction will help you understand people. It’s been said that people are far more honest when they write fiction than non-fiction. This seems true. There are far too many great novels to only recommend a few, but here’s a tip: read something old (Dickens, Austen, Dostoyevsky) and read something new (Marilynne Robinson, Amor Towles). It may seem unproductive at the time, but you’ll be glad you did.
“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). These were some of the Apostle Paul’s closing words to the elders at Ephesus, and, pastor-to-be, the Holy Spirit is speaking these words to you 2,000 years later.
Don’t ever forget the enormity and gravity of your task: to shepherd the flock that God purchased with his blood. This requires sound, faithful, biblical doctrine—the kind you learn in seminary, and the kind you remain a student of for the rest of your life. But it requires even more. Don’t be the young pastor told of in horror stories who just knows he can “fix” his church in a few months with amazing preaching and sound theology. Be a pastor who tenderly, graciously shepherds the flock over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you. Reading in these categories will help you do so.