Practices of Reading for Leading

August 15, 2012

A colleague tweeted this blog connecting leadership with reading, and, to be honest, I was overjoyed to read it. It’s worth taking the time to review what Coleman has to say here.

I’ve long advocated reading to my colleagues. Coleman does a good job of recapitulating much of what I’ve endorsed and encouraged my friends and colleagues to take on board when it comes to reading.

The challenge that repeatedly arises is communicating to my friends and colleagues “how to read a book.” Far too many of my younger colleagues have- let me be blunt- a misguided and an unrealistic expectation: If you pick up a book, you have to read every page from cover-to-cover.

I’m not sure where that presumption comes from. Leaving that aside, I’m a big fan of Mortimer Adler, Bobby Clinton, and Chuck Van Engen when it comes to reading. The last two, Fuller faculty, draw heavily upon Adler, but have modified his approach to address the realities of being involved in ministry, academic research, and sometimes both. Contact me if you want further details.

I mention the trio above for this reason: one of the first matters that all three are in agreement on is this: very few books are worthy of your sustained attention from cover-to-cover. I believe it was either Adler or Van Engen (maybe both?) who proposed that perhaps in anyone’s lifetime, there are probably 4 or 5 books that are worth reading all the way through. Most likely, you will read them several times from cover-to-cover.

The other matter that all three are in agreement on is this: You only need 10 to 20 minutes to inspect a book to decide if it is worth reading further. And all of the PhD students reading right now said, “Amen.” But, you don’t have to be in graduate school, the university, or even the church to recognize the wisdom of this advice. While each of the three nuances how you make the decision to read further, they are unanimous: you need a strategy to determine if a book is worthy of further attention and energy on your part.

One other practice that none of the above, to my knowledge, promotes but would likely bless unreservedly: is the practice of a reading club/group. Prior to moving to Pasadena, I was in reading club of two: Tim P and myself. For approximately two years, we read off of a list of titles that Fuller was using for the Qualifying Exam for the SIS-PhD Admissions Requirement. We read about a book a month, but because we were both committed to reading broadly in missiology, we read some books that were flat-out boring and dry. That comes with the territory for those taking classes, right? Some texts are required reading, so you grab your bootstraps, and read. But, that practice, of reading closely, asking questions, and then engaging in the discussion with Tim, really expanded my understanding of mission, of Christ, and of what God was doing on campus. Even if we were reading about translation or ecclesiology, that practice began to expand my thinking, and subsequently, my practices for serving the staff in Houston. The reading club/group idea spilled over to life at Fuller during the last year, as I entered into a community of scholars, for whom, discussions on what we’re reading were already part of the social DNA, and encouraged by the faculty.

Moving away from strategies and practices- for, really, that is what the above is about: reading practices- I would return to what Coleman has emphasized in his post: leadership must be informed by reading. For my younger colleagues, some of their disappointment (and despair) in ministry comes from a lack of influence on campus among undergraduates. In part- not in total- this can be attributed to under-developed reading practices.

If we would have influence in the name of Jesus, we would do well to be like him: become readers, even wise readers: of Scripture, of a variety of disciplines, of a variety of types of literature: these practices will cultivate our hearts, our energy, our relationships, and our imagination for leadership. Stories connected to those practices are always worth reading.