The Way of Reading

“If you want to lead, you must read,” wrote historian, world traveler, and President of the United States Teddy Roosevelt. T. R. practiced what he preached, reading on the average a book a day. When scientists and philosophers visited the White House, they were amazed at how this busy man had taken the time to read their works and could converse with them on the latest research. When he passed away, T. R. had a book under his bed. Leaders are readers.

While we may not be a voracious reader like T. R., we can take steps to broaden our reading vision and practice. Reading is energized by exploring new trails rather than remaining on the well-worn paths of Bible topics and popular authors. Oswald Chambers, whose book My Utmost for His Highest has affected countless lives, was a reading leader who chose alternative paths for his reading pleasure.

When a pastor came to him seeking counsel to get out of his mental cul-de-sac, Chambers challenged him with this question: “What do you read?”

“Only the Bible and books directly associated with it,” was his reply.

“That’s the trouble,” Chambers replied. “You have allowed part of your brain to stagnate for want of use.”

Within a few minutes, Chambers scribbled out a list of more than 50 books—philosophical, psychological, and theological—dealing with every phase of current thought. In a follow-up letter to this leader, Oswald wrote: “My strong advice to you is to soak, soak, soak in philosophy and psychology, until you know more of these subjects than ever you need consciously to think. It is ignorance of these subjects on the part of ministers . . . that has brought our evangelistic theology to such a sorry plight. . . . When people refer to a man as a ‘man of one book,’ meaning the Bible, he is generally found to be a man of multitudinous books, which simply isolates the one Book to its proper grandeur. The man who reads only the Bible does not, as rule, know it or human life” (Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God by David McCasland, pp. 158-159).

We need the broad range of vistas that reading gives us so that we can live, think, and minister. “My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others,” wrote C. S. Lewis. As a pastor, The Message translator Eugene Peterson wrote how he made regular appointments with F. D., scribbling the initials in his weekly planner. F. D. was Fyodore Dostoevsky. Peterson found that the novels of this Russian author gave insight into the relationship of grace and sin, opening his eyes to the hearts and struggles of his parishioners.

What habits encourage a leader’s life of reading?

  • Read broadly. My life has been profoundly affected by multiple authors from a diversity of backgrounds. There are thrilling discoveries to be made in novels, offbeat authors, or contemporary works on science or history. Some of my best insights about disciplemaking come from reading books not associated with ministry.
  • Read and record. I underline books. I like the physical act of putting pencil to paper. In fact, I don’t buy books from Amazon if the seller indicates that there are markings in the books. What I underline, I record in my journal of books. This is not a book report nor an analysis but simply a recording of underlined statements. In eight years of journals, I have at my fingertips motivational quotes, pieces of wisdom, and challenging statements that influence my writing, my messages, and my daily life.
  • Read to be challenged. A must read for every leader is The Improvement of the Mind by the eighteenth century pastor and hymn writer Isaac Watts. Watts provocatively wrote: “A dogmatic spirit stops the ear against all further reasoning upon that subject and shuts up the mind from all further improvement of knowledge. . . . A dogmatist in religion is not a great way off from a bigot, and is in high danger of growing up to be a bloody persecutor.” Wow! I read to be challenged, to sink my biblical roots deep through the crucible of debate and mental discussion.
  • Read with a budget. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, expected his ministers to establish a book purchasing budget. “It cannot be that people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. . . . Press [reading] upon them with all your might, and you will soon see the fruit of our labors.” Create a budget to purchase books.

Our home is filled with books of all kinds. Like the nineteenth century preacher Henry Ward Beecher, I believe this is absolutely true: “A home without books is like a room without windows.” I want to follow in the steps of another spiritual hero, Charles Spurgeon, who wrote: “My books are my tools. They also serve as my counsel, my consolation, and my comfort. They are my source of wisdom. . . . They are my friends and my delight.” At the end of his life, Paul asked Timothy to bring the books and parchments (2 Timothy 4:13). We must be leaders who are readers.

Read any good books lately?

Questions for Reflection

  • What things in your schedule hinder reading?
  • Do you think it’s legitimate to schedule a time of reading like you schedule a Bible study?
  • What top five books would you recommend to a growing disciple of Christ or an emerging leader?

This is #3 in the series: The Ways of the Leader: Reflections on Leading in the 21st Century. Free downloads of The Ways of the Leader can be found on Bill’s blog at Check out our new website,