Friday, August 06, 2010

Best Books About Being a Pastor

Over the course of the year, I tend to loan interns a few books. Maybe too many books. It occurred to me I should try to narrow the focus to a particular genre that would be especially helpful for interns. It would need to be compelling to read, but also theologically informative and pertinent to the tasks of ministry.

Memoirs and autobiographies are particularly well-suited to this task, and so I offer this Top 15 list of books for supervisors and interns to consider reading together during the course of the year. All of them are rich in wisdom, grace, and faith.

1) Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr: Notes from Niebuhr's early years as a pastor (1915-1928) in urban Detroit, this book has been formative in the careers of at least two generations of pastors.

2) Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discover, Richard Lischer: Before becoming a professor of homiletics, Lischer was the pastor of a small rural congregation in southern Illinois. Open Secrets details his first three years of ministry, witnessing the joys and challenges that come from transitioning from university to parish life.

3) Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, Heidi Neumark: Neumark spent nearly 20 years serving a Lutheran congregation in the South Bronx, and this book details that incredible journey of faithful ministry in a challenging urban setting.

4) The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor: These are Taylor's early reflections on ministry as an Episcopalian priest, followed by 13 sample sermons from her exemplary career as a literate and thoughtful preacher.

5) The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third Culture Church, Dave Gibbons: Although not strictly a memoir, Gibbons weaves enough of his own story into the text that you get a powerful sense of what it means to be a missional pastor in the 21st century.

6) A Pioneer Churchman, J.W.C. Dietrichson in Wisconsin 1844-1850: I'm probably biased, because this is the founding pastor of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, where I currently serve, but this travel narrative gives a profound sense of the early immigrant church and the role of the pastor in that context.

7) Under the Unpredictable Planet, Eugene Peterson: Peterson weaves his own story into many of his books, and he has written lots of wonderful books on the pastoral ministry, but this may be the most refreshing, especially for pastors learning to self-differentiate.

8) The Pastor: A Spirituality, Gordon Lathrop: Again, although not strictly a memoir, this book arises out of Lathrop's long wise look at the pastoral ministry from the perspective of liturgy and the catechism.

9) The Country Parson, George Herbert: This is the the classic of the genre, and though it is sometimes difficult and very distant in time and tone, it is worth the time.

10) Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: More a memoir and theological treatise on Christian community than the life of the pastor per se, this book about the underground life of the seminary Bonhoeffer led during the Third Reich is seminal, and worth reading many, many times over.

11) Hannah's Child by Stanley Hauerwas and A Broad Place by Jurgen Moltmann: Two of our greatest living theologians have written wonderful autobiographies, and they help place the work of a a theologian in the context of life in a way that will bear fruit for thoughtful readers who care about theology.

12) This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver: This is probably the most recent book published under the genre of "pastoral memoir", and it is unique in weaving the story of two pastors together, chapter after chapter. This is a really creative way to team-author a book.

13) Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry: Ok, this isn't a memoir, it's a novel, and it isn't about a pastor, it's about a barber. But I'm telling you, you might learn more about being a pastor from this book than any other book on the list.

14) Gilead, Marilynne Robinson: This is a novel, but it actually is about a pastor, or more properly, it's letters from an aging pastor to his young son.

15) Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Will Willimon: This is kind of like the comprehensive handbook for pastors, and the accompanying volume, a reader, is worth acquiring and reading together with Willimon's textbook.

I'm sure many internship supervisors would list others (when I was in seminary, a big one was The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz), and I'd love to hear what they are. In the meantime, I imagine anyone can find at least one book on this list that is worth digging into and living with this next year of ministry and study, and I would love to hear what you learn as you do so!


  1. Nice selection, especially George Herbert.

    I've never supervised an intern, and my own suoervisor didn't recommend reading. But while I was in seminary, and for years afterward, I made a point of reading fiction about the clergy, less in hope of learning anything than for recreation. But I did learn things on the way. Here are some novels that I would recommend:

    1) JF Powers, "Morte D'Urban" and, especially, :The Wheat That Springeth Green." Astonishing.

    2) Susan Howatch's "Starbridge" series. They're deeper than they look at first, and they make clerical life look like a grand adventure. Which it is.

    3) Anthony Trollope, "Framley Parsonage." The Barsetshire books are fun, but don't really give much insight into the lives of the clergy. Except this one! Both Josiah Crawley and Mark Roberts are the sort of people you actually meet, and the sort of pastors whose personalities get them into terrible trouble.

    4) Phil Rickman's novels about Merrily Watkins. On the surface, these are the silliest of all -- mystery novels about a CofE exorcist. But Rickman's characters are beatifully rendered, including the internal life of his heroine.

  2. I knew quite a few, but not all, of these books. I'm putting Jayber Crow (?) anyway, Wendell Berry's book, on the list, and am also planning on the new one that Lillian Daniel co-authors.

    I second Father Anonymous' recommendation of "Wheat that Springeth Green."

    I also recommend Father Melancholy's Daughter, by Gail Godwin. About an Episcopal priest and his young daughter. The priest suffers from bouts of depression, hence the title.

  3. Gail Goodwin also has a novel about that daughter all grown up; Evensong. It is a novel I read again and again.

  4. I notice most of these additions and recommendations are novels, for which I'm thankful. Great novels are rich psychologically and theologically in ways that can fund pastoral and homiletical imagination. Thank you.