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Whenever I talk about reading I try to throw in a lot of disclaimers. Reading is my “thing.” It’s what comes easily to me (more easily than, say, personal evangelism). So I always want to be careful that I don’t impose my passions on everyone else.

But even with that caveat, I encourage pastors to regularly read over their heads. This will mean different things to different men, but what I have in mind is the reading of academic writing. Well-meaning people sometimes call me a leading theologian or a scholar, but I’m not anything close to either. I write books, and hopefully my theology is pretty careful and pretty sound, but none of this means I do what real scholars do.

Very, very, very (did I say “very”) few pastors are called to engage in the highest levels of scholarship at the same time as pastoring a congregation. It’s just not possible, at least not for very long. But most pastors should still make it a point to jump into the deep end of the pool and get in over their heads once in awhile.

Let me give you a few reasons why.

  1. Reading scholarly stuff keeps you learning and learning keeps you fresh. Most Christian books are fairly derivative. This isn’t necessarily bad. It just means that if you read nothing but the new releases on your Christian bookstore, you may not be challenged with new insights and new ideas on old topics and old truths.
  2. Reading scholarly stuff keeps you humble. Granted, there is garbage in the academic world as much as there is garbage anywhere. But if you read an excellent scholarly work, like Richard Muller on Post-Reformation Reformed Theology or Scott Manetsch’s new book on Calvin’s Company of Pastors, you’ll realize that you don’t know nearly as much as you thought. This can make you jealous or make you despair. Or it can make you humble and thankful. Even those of us who think we are well read, could be outpaced by an earnest grad student in most areas within a couple weeks.
  3. Reading scholarly stuff keeps you hungry. When I read bad academic work I want to laugh, then cry, then ask for my money back. But when I read excellent work, I get excited to fill in the gaps of my knowledge and make connections I’ve never made before. Good pastors are voraciously curious—about people, about history, about the Bible, and about knowledge. Stay thirsty, my friends.
  4. Reading scholarly stuff keeps you balanced. Again, I’m thinking of the fine academic work, not esoteric gibberish. When you read excellent scholarship you realize two important things: One, some of the sound bites and catch phrases that pass for good thinking and exegetical insights do not deserve to be taken seriously. And two, some of the confident assertions we make deserve to be more nuanced.
  5. Reading scholarly stuff keeps you edified. We live in a place and in a time with an incredible wealth of Christian resources. We have many fine scholars teaching in our schools and seminaries. Most of them genuinely want to serve the church and further the cause of Christ. They have done us a tremendous favor by learning foreign languages, digging around in the desert, or hunkering down in archives, or committing years of their lives to a single person, place, or idea. Let’s take advantage of the best of their labors.

What does this mean for you as a pastor? I can’t say for sure. But consider subscribing to a good journal like JETS or WTJ. Don’t dismiss every book that costs more than you think it’s worth. Plow through a book on your shelf that only makes sense half of the time. Find an area or a person you are really interested in and take a few months to read as much as you can. Try to peruse at least one scholarly monograph each year. And best of all, don’t be afraid to read the old, big books that these men and women are writing about.

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44 thoughts on “Why Pastors Should Read Over Their Heads”

  1. Aaron Morgan says:

    By WTJ, I assume you mean Westminster Theological Journal right? I just ordered my subscription and appreciate this challenge. Thank you.

  2. Don Hartness says:

    Perhaps pastor’s, in an effort to keep on top of scholarly literature in the midst of crushing responsibilities, could employ gifted scholars in the congregation to screen and filter the bad from the good, offering up choice fruits for consideration?

  3. Stephen George says:

    I recommend the theological Journal series from logos. One of the best resources I have ever purchased.

  4. Leon Merrell says:

    Thanks Kevin.
    I read. Reading is my thing too.
    I’ve made it a point to read works “well above my head” for the past few years and have been both blessed and humbled in doing so. I will check out the journals and the books you listed. One thing I have discovered-and to God goes the glory-that since I’ve practised reading above my head what is now above my head is different, even further above my head than a couple of years ago. I pray that is a good thing.
    Thanks again.

  5. Adam says:

    I imagine many seminaries let alumni access a version of ATLA where you can obtain scholarly theological journal articles.

  6. I think you’re right about reading above one’s pay grade, so to speak. I think a pastor’s reading should cause them to exert effort on greater works. One the other hand (not incompatible with your advice here) is that a pastor should also be reading good lower shelf stuff too. I find I need to stretch myself in reading but also read for the sake of my flock, so that I can recommend stuff that would help them.

    I’m a normal, work-a-day pastor but for example right now I’m reading:

    ‘Exclusion and Embrace’ by Miroslav Volf (a stretching exercise for me!)


    ‘The Heart of Evangelism’ by Jerram Barrs (simple but great book I could pass on to almost anyone)

  7. Jonathon Woodyard says:


    Great words. The post reminds me of Herman Bavinck who said, “Always be reading or studying at least one thing that is too hard for you to understand.”

    That has been a helpful reminder and guide over the years.


  8. Joe says:

    Books & Culture Magazine, First Things

  9. This explains the vast majority of my reading list and time aside from regular pastoral duties. My students know that I read books about stuff I’ll probably never preach on, but they still benefit from the fact that I’m reading it. Books on the doctrine of impassibility enrich my soul.

  10. Josh Brown says:

    I couldn’t agree more, and appreciate you taking the time to encourage pastors to engage in this task!

    A little while back, I posted something similar about the benefits of reading deeply, as I called it. Here’s the link:

  11. Along with Biblical Scholars, I read as widely as possible in other disciplines — fearing no perspective. Many years ago, I started listening to Mars Hill Audio with Ken Myers and purchased most of the books he featured on his audio journal. This has been invaluable.

  12. James says:

    I’m always wondering – how do pastors and scholars know what the good books are? Is there some source out there that lists the best new books everyone is reading?

    Is there something out there like Mike Allen’s Playbook that tells of the current ‘stories’ going on in the ‘Christian world?’ How do pastors and scholars keep up with the current news going on?

  13. Joey Cochran says:

    Kevin, thank you for this affirming and encouraging post. My passion for reading is very akin to yours and I love the academic as much as I enjoy and am edified by the popular Christian writings. Keep on writing for the Church. Your ministry is a joy to watch.

  14. Faithworks says:

    What I never hear my pastor talk about are the lies of evolution, homosexuality, alcohol, Catholicism, divorce, social Justice.-you know, the stuff that real people are dealing with.

  15. Tim Shaw says:

    Kevin, I read this post earlier today and then this afternoon as I was reading Thomas Scott’s “The Force of Truth” I found this great link between the two. After Scott succumbs to the idea that he was a religious novice he writes, “From this time I have been enabled to consider those persons, in whom knowledge has been ripened by years, experience, and observation, as fathers and instructors, to take pleasure in their company, to value their counsels, and with pleasure to attend their ministry.”

  16. JohnM says:

    I heartily agree. It doesn’t have to be only scholarly works or even only Christian books either, though I agree the pastor’s reading list should those. Frankly speaking, I’m not sure a man who doesn’t like to read at all has the “right stuff” to be a pastor in the first place.

  17. JohnM says:

    “should include those”. I suppose pastor’s should proofread too. Lucky I’m not one. :)

  18. Excellent encouragement. I would only add encouragement to read the great stuff, the time-tested old books. They are mature and balanced. Their blind spots are not ours, and so they can keep us from being married to the spirit of the age.

    How realistic is this? Reading a page or two a day, we can work through large amounts of material in a thoughtful way.

  19. Justin says:


    I’m totally with you that pastors should be readers (see also chp 12 of Dr. Mohler’s new book on leadership). But how does one, specifically you, fit it in the schedule to truly read over your head. I know it looks different for everyone, but what does it look like practically speaking? Any advice and/or ideas would be much appreciated.


  20. Also peruse the WSJ (esp. on Fridays), the NYT, LT, AJ, WP, etc.. I keep links to these sources in one place, see:

  21. Darren Blair says:

    Among those of us within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a key “academic” work is Talmage’s “Jesus The Christ”:

    A geologist by trade, Talmage sought to analyze the Gospels and the LDS teachings on Jesus through the eyes of both a theologian (at the time, he was one of the top authorities in the church) *and* a scientist in an effort to develop a fuller picture of the theology and the history surrounding Jesus’ life and death.

    If it tells you anything, the work has (to my knowledge) not gone out of print since it was first published in *1915*.

    I’ll warn you, though. The edition I have (the one in the link) comes in at around 800 pages including the index. But at the same time, although the work is not a part of the body of accepted materials pretty much any Mormon who does any sort of apologetic work has likely read it at least once.

  22. Darren Blair says:

    Justin –

    What I’ve taken to doing is keeping a book by the TV set.

    I can usually get 1 – 3 pages of a written book or 10 pages of a graphic novel read over the course of the average commercial break.

  23. Eric Gambardella says:

    This is a much more nuanced way of saying, “it’s better to choke on steak once in a while than to have a permanent diet of hamburger meat.”

  24. Paul Janssen says:

    Agreed, agreed……but one must avoid the temptation to let the reading over your head turn into preaching TOO far over the congregation’s heads. A little far is ok….too far, not so much.

  25. John says:

    Doesn’t this post also imply that while I have an unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in one hand, I should have a Dos Equis in the other?

  26. I’m currently struggling through Leithart’s Athanaius, so your blog came at the right time! It is over my head, extremely scholarly, yet I am getting something out of it.

  27. Jon says:

    You hit the nail on the head and drove it flush with one blow, lol

  28. Jaclyn says:

    Could either the title of this post be changed to “Why Everyone Should Read Over His or Hear Head”…

    …Or, could I sign up to be one of Don Hartness’ literature-previewing scholars? I’ll read and recommend for minimum wage, or the equivalent in any combination of organic produce and dark chocolate.

    Can start ASAP.

  29. James M. says:

    I haven’t asked my pastor lately what he is reading. Thanks for the reminder…

  30. Dan says:

    I think it’s beneficial for ANYONE to read over their heads!

    How else do we learn?

  31. Darren Blair says:

    Dan –

    Truth be told though, every so often it can be worth it to read “below” one’s head.

    In my case, people may rag on me for reading comic books… until I point out to them that I also read the corporate info and editorial pages. As an MBA, I pay attention to things like that, and in time I can pick up on trends and reconstruct events within comicdom.

    For example, when I did the TF entry on writer & editor Jim Salicrup – – most of the information came from a profile that Marvel printed back in ’87, followed up by the creative credits from a couple of different comics; I only needed his Comic Book Database profile to see what he’s done since leaving Topps Comics.

  32. serwis says:

    although websites we backlink to beneath are considerably not connected to ours, we really feel they’re basically really worth a go through, so have a look

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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