April 13 2022
In Defense of Lots of Books
Something that the pandemic launched were lots of videos from pastors posted on the Internet, along with lots of Zoom interactions with people in ministry. That led to a spike in discussions about the bookshelves often spotted behind those ministry leaders during their videos.
Some folks noted that a good many preachers seemed to have expensive-looking hardwood bookshelves in their study space, while others noted that many also had nice leather-bound volumes lined up behind them like they were in a classical library. In turn, I’ve seen some discussions across social media about pastors and showing off books and bookshelves. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
First, the bookshelves should be addressed: many of those videos were shot in offices and studies that belong to either a church or an educational institution. Probably those bookshelves are hardwood, handcrafted years ago by a church member who does woodworking and you’re right: on the open market, if you could pry them out of the church, they would be expensive. But they aren’t necessarily a flaunting of wealth. After all, they belong to the church (or school), not the speaker. The bookshelves are built solid because they are built to last as long as the building. Does that mean it would be good for a church to spend thousands upon thousands now to build those kind of shelves? That’s a different discussion…but I’ve served a church where I had lovely built-in hardwood shelves all around me. They were about 80 years old and had been built in a different time.
Second, the books. Now, I can’t speak about having the rows upon rows of leather-bound, museum-grade books. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of those visuals are books that again belong to an institution that are just there for show—which to me is not a good thing—but I don’t know that. It may also be their hobby to collect vintage books. (And something that’s interesting is to see people rant about another person’s monetary spending from a $1000 phone, but that’s another show.)
It is worth noting, though, that many folks in ministry are working not only with their own books but a hand-me-down collection of books from other ministers. I’ve been the recipient of boxes of books from a church that shut down its library, and many of the older books have that nice, leather-look and old binding. So that is where some of them come from. (Why not sell them and give the proceeds to the poor? First issue: you have to find a market for them. If we all sold every copy of Matthew Henry’s Commentary, we’d flood the market like a pollen dealer in the South and they’d be worthless.)
The rest of those books?
Why keep them? Why have them?
We tend to keep the books that we acquire along the way, which means the more schooling you’ve done, the more books you have on hand. Pastors who pursue the traditional ministry education have done a BA of some sort (120-140 College hours) and then a Master of Divinity (90 or so Graduate-level hours). That’s a lot of classes to buy books for and many of those classes call for more than one! Then you pick up one or two for this study or that purpose, and the collection grows. You attend a conference and see a recommendation and decide to learn more by reading about it.
You might find a hole in your understanding—I’m currently trying to read up on “Cultural Intelligence” from Michigan State University to strengthen my understanding of dealing with people not like me—and the better path is to read up on the deficit before you track down someone to pepper with questions. Those stay.
That’s why I have lots of books: because the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. That’s most pastors I know, because to a great degree, our work is the work of a teacher for a class that sees a constant stream of individuals promote, graduate, transfer out, transfer in, and repeat the subjects. So we are always in need of learning for ourselves so that we can enable learning for others.
Now, do some pastors have stacks of books to try to make themselves look smart or fancy? Sure. There are posers in every vocation, so the ministerial vocation is no different.
But if we expect ministers to have a hefty helping of humility (and we should!), then we should expect them to know their need for learning. And that’s where the books come in.
All told: you should have lots of books. Even if you don't read them all in your lifetime.
(Plus, there should be books you read for fun. I have books I read for fun. I’ve never seen someone more aghast at a book, though, than when they saw fiction on my shelf. I’ve got primary sources on cults—the cult’s own writings. I’ve got conspiracy theory books. Liberal books. Fundamentalist books. But more people have been bothered by Star Wars books…go figure.)