You won’t hear me say this very often: It’s possible to read too much. If it is, I have been the chief of sinners. If you know me very well personally, you know how much I love to read. I also affirm that “leaders are readers,” generally. However, I’ve come to believe too much reading can actually hinder ministry and spiritual growth. How is that, exactly? Let me suggest two possibilities:
Excessive reading sometimes becomes a substitute for thinking for ourselves or taking action.
In his classic work, Cannery Row, John Steinbeck offers a ministry gem hidden in a conversation between Doc and Hazel. As they sit there, shelling oysters, Hazel brings us a man by the name of Henri who seems to be constantly working on his boat but never finishes it:
“But that boat—” he cried. “He’s been building that boat for seven years that I know of. The blocks rotted out and he made concrete blocks. Every time he gets it nearly finished he changes it and starts over again. I think he’s nuts. Seven years on a boat.” Doc was sitting on the ground pulling off his rubber boots. “You don’t understand,” he said gently. “Henri loves boats but he’s afraid of the ocean.” “What’s he want a boat for then?” Hazel demanded. “He likes boats,” said Doc. “But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water?’ Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat—so he doesn’t ever have to launch it.”
We aren’t called just to fiddle with boats. Boats are made for the water.
Books, conferences, etc., sometimes provide a lovely facade for not having to do original thinking. It’s the rich man’s version of downloading and preaching another’s sermon. I borrow your thinking, rather than using it to spur thinking of my own. Certainly, my opinions continue to be shaped by what I’ve learned from others. That’s the beauty of reading. However, one can reach a point when one develops intellectual laziness under the guise of intellectual rigor.
Einstein himself once said, “Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” Is it possible that some of the best insights on the text, some of the best new ideas, and some of the freshest insights we might have never come to fruition because we are too busy reading about what others have done or said? I’m not suggesting we stop learning from others. I’m not suggesting we stop reading. I’m suggesting we not let reading become a cover for intellectual and creative laziness.
I believe my ministry improved noticeably as I balanced better time spent reading others with time spent applying what I’d read and looking for some open frontier. It used to be 90-10 reading others. Now it’s about 30-70. I read Scripture, the news for 15 minutes in the morning and skim news tweets throughout the day. I read key books in the fields of theology, biblical studies and leadership. I read blog feeds before bed. During the day, I do my own work. Now, my day is like a conversation where reading begins the day, I respond mentally throughout the day, and my thinking is brought into dialogue with others in the evening. I still love reading, and it remains an essential part of my ongoing personal development.
I don’t read a book a week anymore. I read roughly 20 a year, plus the materials I mention above. I think my ministry is better off for it. At that pace, authors remain trusted mentors, not cartographers or surrogate thinkers for me. I learn from them, but I don’t let them draw the maps and say whether the earth is flat or round. I want to check that out in a boat of my own. After all, that’s how New World’s get discovered.
Any true mentor wouldn’t have it any other way.
Do you believe it’s possible to read too much?