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Pastors’ Picks: What Preachers Are Reading

By Jackson W. Carroll

How often do clergy read? And what are they reading? In a project commissioned
by Pulpit & Pew, clergy from eight denominations reported spending
an average of four hours a week reading beyond the reading done for a
sermon or teaching lesson. Episcopal clergy were highest at five hours
per week; Nazarenes were lowest at two hours. Just over 10 percent of
all clergy reported that they spend one hour or less.

The telephone survey was commissioned in 2001 by Duke Divinity School’s
Pulpit & Pew project, and conducted by the National Opinion Research
Center at the University of Chicago (NORC). A random sample of Catholic
and Protestant clergy were asked not only how often they read, but what
they read: "Other than the Bible what three authors do you read most
often in your work as a pastor?" Of the 1,231 clergy invited to participate,
72 percent responded, for a total of 833 clergy from 80 different denominations.

We supplemented the telephone interviews with surveys mailed to selected
samples of Protestant clergy in eight mainline and conservative denominations.
In the written survey, we asked the above question and two others: "Please
list the last three books you read on any subject " and "What
journals do you most often read?" (up to three). Just under 2,500
clergy completed the mailed survey. Although they represent random samples
of clergy of their denominations, Episcopal and Presbyterian clergy are
slightly overrepresented in the mainline group. Because there were too
few clergy to do analysis by specific denominations, we grouped the respondents
into two traditions; mainline and conservative.

The following table lists the top 12 authors named by Catholic, mainline
Protestant and conservative Protestant clergy. There is little overlap
among the three. C. S. Lewis is the only author who made all three lists.
Both Catholics and mainline Protestants listed Henri J. M. Nouwen, while
both conservative and mainline Protestants listed Max Lucado, Eugene Peterson,
John C. Maxwell, and Philip Yancey. Three of these four come from conservative
Protestantism, the exception being Peterson.


Top Three Authors (aggregated) by Denominational Tradition (NORC

Catholics Mainline Protestants Conservative Protestants
Henri J. M. Nouwen Henri J. M. Nouwen Max Lucado
John Paul II William Willimon John C. Maxwell
Raymond Brown Frederick Buechner Charles Swindoll
William J. Bausch Max Lucado John MacArthur
Walter J. Burghardt Eugene Peterson Warren Wiersbe
Scott Hahn C. S. Lewis Philip Yancey
Anthony de Mello Marcus Borg Rick Warren
William Barclay John C. Maxwell C. S. Lewis
Richard P. McBrien Lyle E. Schaller Matthew Henry
Karl Rahner Philip Yancey Charles Spurgeon
C. S. Lewis Walter Brueggemann T. D. Jakes
Mark Link Barbara Brown Taylor Eugene Peterson


Although there were a few additional crossover authors farther down the
list—primarily between the two Protestant groups—the comparison suggests
that clergy from the three traditions live in distinct intellectual and
cultural worlds, at least when it comes to the authors they most often
read. The Protestant mainliners make an exception in their reading of
conservative authors who write about leadership, church growth or spirituality.
Few conservatives read mainline Protestant or Catholic authors.

Women authors do not fare well on the lists. The lone woman author among
the top 12 is Barbara Brown Taylor, and she appears only on the mainline
Protestant list. Other women authors appear further down that list—Kathleen
Norris, Marva Dawn, Elizabeth Achtemeier, Roberta Bondi, Sue Bender, and
Annie Dillard. Below the top dozen on the Catholic list one finds Dianne
Bergant, Joan Chittister, Joyce Rupp and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Not
a single woman made the author list of conservative Protestant clergy.

The authors included most of then are those who write about ministry
(including the theology of ministry), spirituality (especially pastoral
spirituality) and church leadership. Biblical scholars and interpreters
are popular in all three groups. No historian or social scientist is in
the top 12, although Martin Marty and Robert Wuthnow are mentioned by
mainline Protestants. Catholic priests are most likely to name theologians,
and they put Richard McBrien and Karl Rahner in the Catholic top 12; not
far behind them are St. Augustine, Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Hans Kung.
Mainline Protestants include Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther.

Conservative Protestants list no one who might be considered a professional
theologian. Instead, they choose popular authors (some of them successful
pastors) who write about ministry and spirituality, albeit often from
a theological perspective. Conservatives also read books by biblical interpreters
and writers on leadership and church growth. Although a degree of pragmatism
characterizes all of the lists, conservative Protestants show the most
marked tendency to read about the practice of ministry.

As for the most recently read books and the most frequently read journals
and magazines, the supplemental samples gives some clues. Showing the
three most recently read books (aggregated), the following table lists
the top 12 for each group. The list is time bound—clergy are likely to
have read books that were "hot" or popular at the time of the


Most Recently Read Books for Mainline and Conservative Protestant
Clergy (Spring 2001)

Mainline Protestants Conservative Protestants
Harry Potter Series (J. K. Rowling) The Prayer of Jabez (Bruce Wilkinson)
The Prayer of Jabez (Bruce Wilkinson) Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire (Jim Cymbala)
The Mitford Series (Jan Karon) The Left Behind Series (Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins)
The Poisonwood Bible (B. Kingsolver) Fresh Faith (Jim Cymbala)
The Left Behind Series (Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins) The Purpose Driven Church (Rick Warren)
The Purpose Driven Church (Rick Warren) 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (John Maxwell)
A Painted House (John Grisham) How Now Shall We Live? (Charles Colson)
Who Moved My Cheese? (Spencer Johnson) Natural Church Development (Christian Schwarz)
Death in Holy Orders (P. D. James) Fresh Powers (Jim Cymbala)
The Red Tent (Anita Diamant) The God Chasers (Tommy Tenney)
What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Philip Yancey) Exploding the Israel Deception (Steve Wohlberg)
Amazing Grace (Kathleen Norris) The Jesus I Never Knew (Philip Yancey)


Again a limited number of books appear on both lists. Bruce Wilkinson’s
The Prayer of Jabez is first for conservative Protestants and second
for mainliners, while the Left Behind series is near the
top of both lists. The only other jointly listed books among the top 12
is The Purpose Driven Church, a book on church growth based on
author Rick Warren’s experience as a pastor of Saddleback Community Church
in California. Philip Yancey made both lists, but with different books.

The mainline list includes almost no books on biblical interpretation,
formal theology or historical and social analysis. Popular novels dominate
the list (several by women authors). The exceptions are The Prayer
of Jabez
, Warren’s book on church leadership, Spencer Johnson’s book
on change, and Yancey’s and Norris’s books on grace.

In contrast, conservative Protestants listed few novels in their top
12—except for the Left Behind series. Books on pastoral leadership
and popular spirituality dominate the list. There are three books by Brooklyn
pastor Jim Cymbala, and the types of books change little through the list.
Interestingly, the book by Steve Wohlberg, a Christian convert from Judaism,
argues from a scripture against the kind of popular apocalyptic thinking
about the place of Israel that is central to the Left Behind series.

As for journal and magazine reading, denominational publications were
near the top on each groups’ list, but we omitted them from the list unless
they are magazines read across denominations. The top 12 journals are
shown in the table below.


Top Twelve Journals Read by Mainline and Conservative Protestant Clergy

Mainline Protestants Conservative Protestants
Christian Century Leadership
Leadership Christianity Today
Net Results Pulpit Helps
Clergy Journal Newsweek
Christianity Today Proclaim
Weavings U. S. News and World Report
Interpretation Readers Digest
Newsweek Discipleship Journal
Homiletics AFA Journal
Time Time
Pulpit Resource Focus on the Family
Congregations Growing Churches


Again, the lists contain some crossovers. Leadership, published
by Christianity Today as "a practical journal for church leaders,"
makes both lists, as do Newsweek and Time. Both lists emphasize
preaching, and both reflect clergy concern with church leadership and
church growth. But mainline and conservative clergy use different sources.
Mainline clergy read Weavings, a journal focusing on Christian
spirituality, and Interpretation, a journal of current biblical
and theological interpretation. Family and sexuality concerns, interpreted
from a conservative Protestant perspective, are reflected in the AFA
, published by the American Family Association, and Focus
on the Family
magazine, published by James Dobson’s organization.

The survey tells us that most clergy spend at least four hours a week
reading. This is not insignificant. But what they read is more important,
and these lists reflect a strong focus on the practical concerns of preaching,
church leadership and church growth. These areas not only occupy much
of the clergy’s time; they are also the areas in which many say they feel
ill prepared. Also important are authors who write about spirituality,
especially pastoral spirituality, and who can help clergy reflect on their

Fiction is strongly represented in mainline Protestants’ recently read
books (less so for conservatives). Although much of this may be recreational
reading, it is also a way of staying alert to cultural trends (as is the
penchant for reading popular magazines) and expanding one’s pastoral imagination.
This is important if clergy are to interpret the faith in today’s world.

Unfortunately, these preferences leave out works of serious theology,
biblical interpretation, history and social analysis. Although one hesitates
to pass judgement on pastors with busy lives and constant interruptions,
the overall impression is that clergy do not read very deeply. Although
they may read regularly, what they read seems to be relatively light fare
and pragmatically focused.

There are exceptions. Several of the most influential authors listed
are substantial thinkers and provide significant resources for reflecting
on one’s ministry. What seems to characterize these authors is their ability
to write works of substance in a style that captures clergy’s attention
and addresses problems they face. Otherwise, the research might lead one
to agree with English social historian G. M. Trevelyan, who says that
"education…..has produced a vast population [in this case a number
of American clergy] able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth

Jackson W. Carroll is Project Director of Pulpit & Pew.

Copyright 2003 Christian Century Foundation. Reproduced
by permission from the August 23, 2003 issue of the Christian Century.
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