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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Building Libraries

We had a couple of book questions come in, and with many matriarchs busy with the beginning of Lent and winter storms and travel, we didn't get as much input this week. But that's OK, it's Valentine's Day, so instead of trading chocolates and stuffed animals, why don't we trade book recommendations? The matriarchs will get us started. Here are the two questions:

1. Recommended reading for Christianity 101

A man slightly connected to our church is married to a woman who grew up unchurched (not negative about Christianity, just totally unknowing except for what she has seen in the media). He would like to get more involved but it is not on her radar; are there any books or resources that you have found that are Christianity 101-- interesting and challenging and inviting? They have a toddler who received a
nativity book for Christmas and the dad would like the child to have some interaction with church.

2. Recommended reading for the newly ordained

What one book (besides the scriptures) should every new clergy read in the first year? Why?

Earthchick writes:

The only two that come to mind for Christianity are: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. I'm sad to say that's all I've got; I'll be interested to see what others recommend.

For the second question: Hands-down my top pick would be Eugene Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor. I read this early in my first pastorate and found that it really helped ground me in what is most important for my ministry. All these years later, I am still aware of how much it shaped/shapes how I think of my ministry, and I find I refer to his concepts. I especially like to go back and read the chapter called "The Subversive Pastor." I think it ought to be required reading for all pastors - and maybe their congregations, too!

Peripatetic Polar Bear notes that reading just one book may fall well short:
The one book besides the scripture I recommend new clergy read is.............I can't. I cannot recommend one book. Here's what I recommend: read some novels, some poetry. Dip into a memoir. Read some blogs, and some magazines. Roll around with words that are beautiful and funny and joyful and sad. Wrap yourself into books that will entertain you, that will challenge you, and that will feed all the other parts of your brain that have been STARVING during those 3 (or more) years of seminary. I mean, Barth is great and all, but my guess is you've been reading the theology and ethics and haven't had a lot of time for everything else.

You have plenty going on in your first year of ministry: lots of adjustments, lots to learn on the job. Cut yourself a break, read for joy. Take the first year out to formulate the questions: and once you know what it is that you don't know, then go in search of books (or better yet--continuing education opportunities) to address those questions.

Want another reason? The best writers are insatiable readers. The more time you spend with words,conventional wisdom goes, the greater your skill in using them to create prose that is lively and fluid. Wouldn't the same advice apply to preachers?

Do you have any books you would recommend for these two groups of people? Share them in the comments! And feel free to submit your questions about your ministry to

And happy St. Valentine's Day to everyone!


  1. These have been formative for me.

    a. The Art of Pastoring: Contemplative Reflections by William C. Martin

    b. The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need by Gerald May

    c. A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer

  2. I love ppb's answer. Reading novels, after several years of purely academic reading, was a great joy to me in my first parish. I even started a book group, and this got me reading fiction regularly, at least one book per month. It re-opened my horizons of heart and mind!

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  4. Sorry I didn't get these in fast enough to include on the post.

    I liked "Letters to a Skeptic" by Greg Boyd. It is a series of letters from Boyd's unbelieving father, and corresponding (ha, no pun intended) letters from Boyd.

    It is an apologetic, of sorts, but because it is taken from real letters comes off quite readable and layperson friendly--even though Greg Boyd is one brilliant individual..

  5. I totally agree about the novels and poems.

    Though, I just saw a book in the Westminster John Knox catalog called the Presbyterian Handbook for Pastors. It appears to be a real nuts and bolts book, but funny and playful. I haven't read it but it contains lots of practical topics, from "Ten Things They Didn't Teach You in Seminary" to "How to Respond When you Forget a Parishioner's Name."

    Probably some non-presbies would find it useful too.

  6. I would also add magazines to the novels and poetry etc.--but not Christian Century or Homiletics Digest. Well, those if you want--but what I mean is titles like The New Yorker, The Economist, Time/McLeans/Newsweek/name your newsweekly--things that make you think, tell you about the world in general, that open your mind beyond the local church, church concerns and the place you live. I especially like The New Yorker for that because the articles include humour, current political events, history, biography, poetry, book and movie reviews--just a bit of everything.

  7. I'd like to weigh in on the first question--as a teacher and not a pastor, I don't have much to say about the second one.

    Mere Christianity is great, but some people don't relate to it very well, since it is a very rational/logical look at Christianity. I haven't read Celebration of Discipline, but from experience with Foster's Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home I would guess that it balances out Lewis' rational approach.

    Some great authors include Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier, who both start from the anthropological perspective: who am I, and how do I relate to the world and God? Vanier's Becoming Human is beautiful in this way.

    Personally, I enjoy historical pictures of great Christians. A good book that speaks of great women in the history of Christianity is Carol Lee Flinders Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics.

  8. FOr new/exploring faithful:
    GOd for Beginners is one option that comes to mind.

    Another is Christianity for Beginners by the smae author.

    Ralph has a relaxed, easy to access style (with a bit of irreverance mixed in at times)

  9. There is also a "Lutheran Handbook for Pastors" and may even be a "Christian Handbook for Pastors."

    (There's actually a whole Lutheran series--Lutheran Handbook, Lutheran Handbook Two, Lutheran Handbook for Pastors, and a Lutheran Handbook on Marriage--all set up like reverendmother says about the Presbyterian ones.)

    These are light-hearted and fun, with some practical things included.

  10. I like what PPB says about novels, poetry, etc. and agree with that. Especially with regard to preaching in a narrative style, rather than in an academic style. (this is NOT the same as reading for sermon illustrations).

    I loved all of Gerhard Frost's books even before I was a pastor, and find myself coming back to them again and again. Unfortunately, most of them are out of print. I like: Bless My Growing, Homing in the Presence, Seasons of a Lifetime, Journey of the Heart.

    I also like The Competent Pastor, although I didn't know it when I was starting in ministry.

    As for Beginner's (Bible 101) books, wow, good question. I think we need something like this.

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  13. I ordered "The Presbyterian Handbook for Pastors" the other day. The first one, "The Presbyterian Handbook" is just like what reverend mother says about the pastor's version. Informative and fun.

    For first-year pastors, especially if preaching regularly, I highly recommend Barbara Brown Taylor's "The Preaching Life" and Jana Childer's "Birthing the Sermon."

  14. I am quite a fan of Gordon Lathrop's "The Pastor: A Spirituality" (
    - there are excerpts on google books, if you google it.
    Of course, I am not yet a pastor, only a seminarian, but it is a book I look forward to reading and re-reading.

  15. OH my -
    PPB you must have done a brain scan on me!!!

    I am so SOOoooo tired of dry as a dog biscuit theological tomes.

    But I also put all those other books on my wish list so that my beloved spouse can shop with confidence. (What can I say? wish lists are for a reason!!!)

    thanks, all

  16. New to Christianity: (1) "30 Days to Understanding the Bible" by Max E. Anders, and (2) "What the Bible is All About" by Henrietta C. Mears

  17. Christianity 101 - Christian Believing - Westerhoff and Holmes - can still find used copies - incarnational faith

    Carl Dudley- Making the Small Church Effective- old but good - basic premise is love them

  18. ditto PPB.

    And for an intro to Christianity that is more on the liberal end of things, I really recommend The Phoenix Affirmations.

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  20. Oh, and for the kiddo. I have a short bibliography called "Books to Encourage & Celebrate Your Preschooler’s Spirituality" that I put together a couple of years ago. If you want a copy of it, email me at psalm46bestill at gmail dot com.

  21. As an intro to Christianity how about a copy of Eugene Petersons The Message- making the Bible come alive, or Brian McLarens two new books, A search for what makes sense, and A search for what is real.

  22. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N.T. Wright. An appealing basic book, though I don't think it would convince anyone who isn't already open to the possibility that Christianity does make sense.

  23. Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg.

  24. love what PPB advised us :)

    I've started reading novels again this year (last year of seminary) ... next year I'll be studying hard again - so this has been a lot of fun and I've felt like I've used parts of my brain I haven't accessed for a while!

  25. Arriving late here...for a church "returnee" who is attracted to Christianity but encumbered by rhetorical baggage from past encounters with the church I'd recommend Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris, which tackles various words and phrases of "Christianese" in a fresh way. I am also a big fan of that 60's chestnut The Gospel According to Peanuts by Robert Short -- a very good introduction to Christian theology, using the "Peanuts" comic strip. For newbies a little afraid of the Bible and unsure about beginning a devotional life I'd recommend Kelly Fryer's No Experience Necessary.


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