Apr 24, 2017
Collegiate Leaders Need to Read
Andy Cimbala makes the case that college ministry leaders need to be skilled readers, prepared for diverse challenges on the college campus.
“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” So said Harry Truman, and it’s been repeated by leaders and writers and readers in countless books and blogs and articles. If you’re a college ministry leader, you need to read. If you love your students, you need to read. If you want to care well for your staff team, you need to read. If you want to grow as a Christian, you need to read. If you want wisdom, you need to read.
Just this week a student leader was wrestling with some intellectual doubts, and asked me, “What are some reasons why you believe Christianity is true?” And as I described different reasons the one that resonated with him the best was our resources for suffering – at the heart of Christianity is Jesus suffering on a Cross to rescue us. This gives suffering meaning, and gives better meaning than other worldviews (especially secularism). This was really helpful for him! Where did I get this from? Reading. Two years ago I read Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain & Suffering, and last semester I read the chapter on suffering from his other book, The Reason for God.
Objections & Obstacles to Reading
“I don’t have time!” – That’s probably the most common and strongest objection. Sure, you think reading is important, but with the breakneck speed of ministry, there’s just no time. But let me challenge you: You make time for what you WANT to make time for. Yes it will be costly to make time to read. But how much will it cost you not to?
When a student has questions about the Trinity, or a skeptical agnostic challenges Jesus’ claim to be the only way to heaven, or when a student leader wonders how God can be sovereign and good when there’s all this evil in the world – how will you respond if you’re hearing those questions for the first time yourself? If you’ve never read about these hard topics, how will you be a source of truth and clarity for others?
“But I’m not a good reader!” – Then start reading, and you’ll get better. Just like playing the trumpet, or riding a bike, or sniping in COD, you start poor and improve with practice. “But I can’t afford to buy books!” Then borrow them! Ask your pastor, other ministry staff, friends & family. “I don’t know what to read?” Keep reading this article, I’ve got a brief list of suggestions to start.
Why should you read?
To summarize: reading trains you for the diverse challenges of ministry.
Reading books in broad categories of biography, Christian ministry, history, and even fiction literature gives you depth of character, trains you in discernment, expands your imagination, and practically provides you with knowledge about diverse topics. If you want to have significant conversations with students in theology, politics, literature, and sin struggles you need to have a basic grasp of those topics. Unlike pastors, many staff in college ministry didn’t attend a seminary to prepare and train them for the work of ministry. That means you will need to self-educate. The rigors of your ministry demand a sharpened mind, and one of the simplest and effective ways to grow is to read. Without reading, you can fake it for the short term, but your ignorance will begin to show.
Reading is a shortcut to wisdom, it allows you to recruit mentors and learn from those who’ve tried things, experienced life & leadership, made mistakes, and written about it. The alternative is you can take the slow road: try things yourself, make your own mistakes, and let the natural pain of life teach you wisdom. I prefer the shortcut: gaining wisdom by reading! Imagine sitting down with John Piper and Tim Keller to learn about preaching and how to help your students grow. By reading books, you sit at the feet of these mentors and allow them to shape you by their wisdom & experience.
One of the best reasons for college ministry leaders to read is so that you are equipped for the work of ministry, and so you can recommend books to students. A few examples: I keep a stack of minibooks on Grief for students who are processing death for the first time. I have extra copies of Just Do Something to loan to students who are wrestling with how to make decisions. We buy a copy of Master Plan of Evangelism for new students that join our Leadership Team. Recently a student was asked to lead a chapel service, but had no training in how to lead a discussion of the Bible, so I met with her and did a crash course on OIA Bible study, giving her a copy of Knowable Word to read.
Consider this profound truth: God wrote a book. Or rather, God inspired 66 unique books, which have been compiled into The Book, the Bible, a library of poetry, history, teaching, and biography. If God wrote a book, that means reading is important. The apostle Paul agrees! When he was stuck in a prison cell in Rome, he writes to Timothy, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:13) Obviously we are called to read the Bible, that’s what trains us to be thoroughly equipped for ministry (2 Timothy 3:16f). But reading outside the Bible also can grow us spiritually. By reading rich theological books you feed your soul, strengthen your faith, and fan into flame your affections for Jesus.
What should I read?
There are millions of options for reading, so maybe a good place to start is Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. As a college ministry leader, here are a few suggestions to read:
- The Bible
Obviously! This is the only book you truly NEED to read. If you need some help, check out this 6-minute YouTube video with tips on Bible reading by Ben Stuart.
- Practical Theology
Students tend to wrestle with common struggles, so prepare yourself to be a helpful mentor. Suggestions: Just Do Something (decision-making), After College (prep for seniors by Collective’s own Erica Young Reitz!), The Discipline of Grace (classic intro to the gospel), When I Don’t Desire God (when feeling spiritually dry and distant), and The Reason for God (apologetics)
- College Ministry Skills
This is your job! Reading books can hone your skills and make you an even better leader. Suggestions: College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture (perspective from our friend Steve Lutz), The Fuel & the Flame (disciple-making), Knowable Word (Bible study), Master Plan of Evangelism (multiplying disciple-making).
Practical Tips on Reading
- When should you read? I suggest setting aside a normal time slot in your day and week. Maybe that’s during an office day, or arrive on campus an hour early and read in the quad. Start with just 30 minutes a day.
- Keep a book with you: inevitably a student will cancel, or a meeting will end early, and you’ll have a few minutes to chill. You could whip out your phone and jump into the mindless scrolling of Facebook…. OR you could enrich your mind by reading a few pages.
- Read stuff you’re excited about, don’t sabotage yourself by trying to read boring books that you’re not motivated to read.
- Put your phone away while you’re reading, don’t be distracted. Reading requires focus.
- Take notes as you read. This helps you understand and retain the information.
- Read with others, share, maybe even teach others, this will help you learn it better and use it later.
- Use summer time for extra reading, college ministry is similar to farming with harvest seasons and “winter” seasons to sharpen tools and prepare for the next harvest. Reading over the summers helps renew your vision and sharpen you for greater effectiveness in the Fall.
If you’re already a big reader, you’re probably just saying “amen” throughout this article! But how can you improve? Consider these: Do you tend to cycle around the same favorite topics? Expand your breadth by reading a category or an author you rarely choose. Is most of what you’ve read been written in the last 100 years? Reach back into the rich history of Christianity and sample some from long-dead classic authors like John Owen. To really stretch yourself, read books from perspectives that you know you disagree with, either on theological points or books written by atheists. It has built my credibility with agnostics and atheists when they learn I have read Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. Finally, remember to worship Jesus, not books. Ecclesiastes 12:12 warns us, “…the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body..”
I’ll leave you with a quote by Charles H. Spurgeon, a famous preacher in the 1800’s, who was reported to have read 6 books a week (!). He counsels us, “Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.”