7 Books for Pastoral Ministry

(This is part of a note I just wrote to the students in Lester Ruth's worship course at Duke Divinity School. The note included remarks about their final projects, the Global Songs for Worship book, and practices of "naming God." It was a long note. I thought I'd share the recommended book list here. It'll be nothing new for most pastors, but perhaps an encouragement for others to pick up a book that looks interesting.)


I realize most of you have enough un-read books on your shelves to last you till Jesus returns in glory. That's good. A healthy pastor is a pastor who keeps learning. Healthy pastors are those who keep themselves humble enough to admit that they are students, rather than experts, till their dying days. Mindful that your night-tables are full and your days short, I'll still recommend to you books that stood me well during my years as a pastor. These are books that I returned to over and over as I sought to shepherd people well. Take them or leave them as you see fit.

1. Dallas WillardRenovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (This is my one-stop shop for discipleship. In it Willard tackles the basic dimensions of human life--will and mind, emotions and sociality, etc. It's heavy lifting at times but immensely rewarding, especially for a small group that's willing to stick with it to the end. If you want a barnstormer, showstopper book on discipleship, read his Divine Conspiracy. It's not for the weak of heart, but this book radically transformed the way I viewed the Christian life.)

2. Larry CrabbUnderstanding People: Why We Long for Relationship (I asked a respected counselor once, If I only had time to read one book on how to counsel people, which would that be? He suggested this one, and the last two chapters, on the evidence and essence of a mature Christian life, are worth the price of admission alone. It's material that I've read and re-read innumerable times).

3. Gerald MayAddiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions (People have them. They have them in abundance--addictions not only to alcohol and power but also to work, sex, performance, attention, and self-preservation, and it's a smart pastor who asks himself [in my case] what his addictions are before he seeks to help diagnose other people's addictions and to bring, by God's grace, healing to those areas of their life).

4. Henri NouwenThe Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (It's hard not to fall in love with Nouwen; it's even harder not to romanticize him a bit. But in fairness to the man's actual life, he didn't come by his insights easily. He came into them by the way of brokenness. In this little gem of a book he outlines three indispensable spiritual disciplines of a healthy pastor: solitude, silence, prayer. If you read this and want more, I heartily recommend In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership and Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society.

5. Eugene PetersonA Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society and Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. Eugene taught me the meaning of slowing down. He also taught me the hard lesson on not giving up too quickly on the people of God, who, as the case may be, might make you want to give up ministry altogether or to move to greener (allegedly more exciting) pastures. He also, by the way, was the first person to inspire me to love the psalms as much as, it appears, Jesus loved them.

6. Richard FosterPrayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (If you ever wondered whether there was a book that confirmed your suspicion that there were in fact more than four ways of praying--adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication--then wonder no more. This is the book. From the "prayer of tears" to the "prayer of relinquishment" to the ordinary prayers and the sacramental prayers--Fosters offers both a tour de force on prayer and a tour through the history of Christian practice of prayer. Deeply moving material.

7. Richard Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (When was the last time you said, "Gosh, I wish I had more time!" or "Where did the time go?" How often have you heard pastors complain about how busy they were? Or how they wish they could slow down, do less, resist manic schedules, enjoy a more measured pace to life? What if I told you it didn't have to be that way? What if I told you that pastors didn't have to live a roiling stressful life? What if I told you that the exhausting, time-crunched pace that pastors keep is, consciously or subconsciously, of their own choosing, that they don't have to live their lives with barely any margin to spare? That's Swenson's thesis and, with a pricked conscience, a very compelling one. While not addressed exclusively to pastors, it's a book that we should move to the top of the pile if we wish not only to tell Christians how to live well but also to model that kind of life ourselves.

While this isn't an exhaustive list and while it doesn't include a single book outside of the 20th century (a crying shame, I confess), it's a collection of books that have indelibly shaped my vocation as a pastor. I'm grateful to the friends who have brought these books to my attention and I pray that they prove of some help to you in your ministry in years to come.

Lastly, it's been a pleasure and an honor being your TA this semester. I look forward to seeing you in the hallways, as the case may be. Perhaps I'll even find myself one day sitting in the pew at the back of your church, listening to you preach and watching you make deft use of things you learned in class. If that happens, don't be surprised if you hear a loud amen erupting in the air. 

Knowing that you're the future of the church gives me great hope.

Easter blessings to you all,



Thanks for this. I've been asking various pastors and professors what books they'd recommend and I'll be sure to add these to potential reads. One that I heard multiple times is Neuahaus's "Freedom for Ministry" so I'm going to start with it.
Tim Stewart said…
If you read bullet 6 above and chuckled at the old mnemonic ACTS, then you might be interested in reading the definition of ACTS in the entry for it in the Dictionary of Christianese.
Jonathan, that's great, and thanks for the heads-up on *Freedom for Ministry*.

Tim, you are absolutely dead on. It's the old ACTS method of prayer, in which I was trained early on and which continues to serve as a helpful framework, though perhaps not the only one. Love your dictionary. :)
Tim Stewart said…
David, that's so gratifying to hear that you're a fan. :-)

I have heard of another prayer mnemonic--PRAY: praise, repent, ask, yield. I'm still researching about that one. It's much newer than ACTS is, possibly even coined as recently as the 1990s.

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