Pastor’s Reading List and Library for 2020

By Joe LaGuardia

Unlike some other leaders, who propose what they will read for the year, I began a habit last year of only noting–and providing a brief review–of the books I actually read. I pray this will enlighten you and perhaps inspire your own habits of reading.

1. Diary, by St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. This diary of a 20th-century saint is difficult to read for two reasons: St. Maria’s unyielding obedience to Jesus, which keeps readers on their toes and invites a pursuit of their own. And, secondly, because the diary, written in real time of young Maria’s entrance and journey into monastic life, reveals the hardships of life in the convents of old. Unlike today, convents back then did not have the benefit of advanced practices that include therapy and spiritual direction, but were quite medieval in their approach to obedience and submission. This pre-Vatican Council 2 memoir is a reminder why so many people are no longer Catholic, not only because of Catholicism’s neglect of the Bible for churchgoers, but because of the harsh realities of life in Catholic churches and private schools.

2. Planning Sabbaticals, by Robert Saler. This short book is authored by the director of the Clergy Renewal Endowment with the Lily Foundation. I read this because of my own plans to take a sabbatical in late 2021, and am shooting for the very grant that Saler directs. I purchased two copies of this book, for me and the church, because of its clear and concise argument of the necessity and meaning of sabbaticals, along with an explanation of what a sabbatical is not. It also answers common questions pertaining to sabbaticals and how to negotiate them in congregational life and leadership.

3. Sabbaticals 101, by Nancy Matthews. Another book on sabbaticals that express the nuts and bolts of planning a sabbatical. It talks about travel, managing a sabbatical project and time, and traversing issues that often arise.

4. Flowers in the Attic and Petals on the Wind, by V.C. Andrews. A controversial book of fiction that captured the hearts of many middle-school girls when I was growing up, including my older sister. My own attraction to the classic series is due to my “guilty pleasure” of reading Gothic horror fiction (Isak Dinesen anyone?), of which the Flowers in the Attic series squarely sits. Although I realize that the first book (Attic) is controversial, the second in the series (Petals) is more so and contains–warning to readers–more than enough violence towards women to turn the stomach. Although it was a bit much, I can’t help but to order and read the next one–these books are page-turners, and I spent more than one evening reading into the wee hours of the morning.

5. The Living Reminder, by Henri Nouwen. Its been a long time since I read something by my favorite author. In this short book, Nouwen explains how ministers are called to embody memory–in echoing the grand story of the Gospel, in recalling God’s Word made flesh, and encouraging others to consider how memory shapes our shared future. The book was so captivating, I proposed in my sabbatical grant (see above) that my project would consider how memory (origins of Christianity, history of our church, etc.) might inform an intentional program of vision-casting for ministry in the future. Good stuff here, and quite powerful.

6. Honor, Shame, and the Rhetoric of 1 Peter, by Barth Campbell. Again, this is something I haven’t done in a while: read a book related to socio-rhetorical criticism. This book came at the right time, too: During the dog days of the coronavirus, in which my heart brought me back to some of my first loves (like Nouwen and, in this case, honor and shame in the Bible); and also for a sermon series on 1 Peter as prescribed by the lectionary.

First Peter is working out well, too! Peter speaks of living in between the times– between Christ’s resurrection and the Second Coming– and applies nicely to this time of COVID 19, which some journalists have begun calling the time of the “Great Pause.” How nicely that fit God’s word as expressed in Peter’s first letter, penned to encourage disoriented and displaced Christians in Asia Minor who faced social distancing of their own.

7. Guidance in Spiritual Direction, by Hugo Doyle. I admit I didn’t finish this book, but I was impressed with the ability of this book to outline a theological program for spiritual direction. It is technical for that very reason, but I assume is a must for practitioners of spiritual direction in more formal circles.

8. For the Living of These Days: the Autobiography of Harry Emerson Fosdick, by H.E. Fosdick.  This is my second time reading through Fosdick’s moving account of his upbringing, call to ministry, rocky vocation, and founding of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  The biography is attractive for two reasons: It is Fosdick’s apologia for his ministry and theology that defined early 20th-century progressive Christianity, as well as a historic snapshot of the early conflicts in Christianity that led to a splintering of church and the ultimate demise of church attendance and influence.  Church splits are not new, but we can blame both fundamentalists and progressives–caught in their own ideological camps–for the mess we are in today.  There was, as one movie line has it, a “failure to communicate.”

9. Interrupting Silence, by Walter Brueggemann. A friend shipped this book just in time for protests and riots to break out across the nation in the wake of deaths of people of color.  My first reaction to those deaths and the protests that ensued was of silence–not in complicit avoidance, but in reactive trauma.  Brueggemann’s book was timely for this reason: It explores various biblical stories to show how “prophetic interruption” dismantles power, privilege, and status quo.

“The church,” he writes, “has a huge stake in breaking silence, because the God of the Bible characteristically appears at the margins of established power arrangements, whether theological or socioeconomic and political.  The church at its most faithful is allied with artistic expression from the margin that voices alternatives to dominate imagination.”  A short book, Brueggemann’s piece is designed to be a Bible study for lay people.  For that, it is accessible and a good introduction to Brueggemann’s thought and writing.

10. Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas Long. In this monumental–and much-needed book–on the history, theology, and application of funerals, Long gives extensive insight to the relevancy and meaning of funerals.  There are two premises driving Long’s thesis–that, first, funerals are worship services and therefore are a response to God’s grace and gift to life, thus putting our preferences for funerals in its proper place.  Second, that the Gospel, rather than our pop-culture, psyco-lingo, ought to shape a service for the Christ-follower.  He states that the Gospel is the message that reinforces hope in the face of death, opens up a space to protest Death, and provides a backdrop that locates us in the company of saints, both the living and the dead, and our destiny in Christ.

Although I am not as stringent on some things as is Long, I posit that his book is a healthy and robust reminder that funerals are for God and God’s people, not primarily to comfort the living.  We find comfort in the Word and in Christ, in our communion together of which the deceased is a part, not in doing something just because we have lost touch with the importance of formal–and explicit–Order of Worships that recall this fact.

11.  Brother to a Dragonfly, by Will Campbell.  My second book by Brother Will in the past year, this is his memoir of growing up in the segregated South with his brother, Joe.  Will’s storytelling zips us back and forth in time, helping us to see what makes him tick as a Civil Rights activist while holding the white liberal establishment, who were on the forefront of protesting segregation, accountable for its own hypocrisies.

I began reading this book aloud to my 12-year old son before the death of George Floyd.  It was perfect time, because it gives perspective to the goals of protest and race reconciliation while highlighting the pitfalls of radical liberalism, violence, and political partisanship.

12.  Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this powerful memoir, set as a letter to his son, Coates describes what its like to live in a “body” of color.  This is important, because when people say “Black Lives Matter,” they do not mean that other lives do not.  It is not a black life versus, say, a “blue life.”  What people mean is that black bodies matter.  If you are a person of color, the body you inhabit already puts you at a disadvantage–in real estate, banking, healthcare, and in proximity to fear.  That’s what Coates is getting at, and that’s the clarifying message we are missing in the news today when we reference black lives matter.  We have made a plight a political position, and in the words of Coates, politics does not deny that black people have to work “twice as hard to get half as much.”


Top 10 Books on Church Ministry and Leadership

By Joe LaGuardia

Last year, following a mission trip to Cuba, I wrote a lengthy blog series on books that have shaped my ministry, faith, and life.  During this season of COVID-19, I decided to revisit my bookshelf and narrow down, as impossible as it was, the top 10 books that have shaped my ministry and became “game changers” for me.

What is a game changer?  One of those books that hooks you so profoundly, you do not think the same again.  A book so well written and rich that it actually shapes how you see the world, in which the very grammar becomes your first language.

So with that said, I made a video–but also a list the top ten books below:

1. Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen.  Once upon a time, Nouwen’s works, recommended by my grandmother-in-law and spiritual sage, Granny, saved my life from depression.  This book, however, shaped how I view my own vocation as a minister and “priest” to God’s people.  A classic in ministerial identity and writing, Wounded Healer, stresses that ministers ought to recognize their own needs, flaws, and suffering, connect them with Christ, and meet others in the midst of their own needs and suffering, thus connecting them to Christ too.  A beautiful book, though concise, written within the “atomic age” and ecological distress of the late 1970s.

2. Put Down Your Sword, by John Dear.  This book, part Bible study, part memoir, establishes a biblical and theological foundation for non-violent resistance and pacifism.  This book, among a couple of others (at least one other book on this list, Kingdom Ethics), have shaped my thinking about what the sanctity of life–and the implications of what I call a holistic pro-life stance–actually means.

3.  Invitation to a Journey, Robert Mulholland.  Mulholland’s introduction to the field of spiritual formation shows why spirituality is an actual academic discipline, complete with a history of interpretation and application, as well as a theological framework that stretches all the way back to early, third-century monasticism.  This became pivotal in my dissertation–also in the field of spiritual formation–and I know Mulholland’s definition of spirituality by heart: “Spiritual formation is the process by the Holy Spirit of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” Bam!

4.  Kingdom Ethics, by Glen Stassen and David Gushee.  This tome is a monumental work on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and what the Sermon means as both a blueprint for “Kingdom living” and application to contemporary ethics.  The book explores the values and convictions inherent in Jesus’ Sermon, and then applies them to modern day issues, such as the environment and nonviolence.   This book has inspired me to read the entire Bible, forwards and backwards, through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount–the standard by which Jesus demanded his disciples to live.

5.  The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann.  Brueggemann is a popular name in Old Testament studies, but this accessible introduction to his though on the prophets and how to read the Bible from the perspective of justice is a fascinating book.

6.  The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey.  Although I read numerous books on the “historical Jesus,” which I considered my “official” field of study in my bachelor’s degree, Yancey’s book is the best written and accessible book to Jesus and Jesus’ own identity as the Risen Savior.  Yancey explores nuances of Jesus’ life and how those lessons apply to Christ’s Church, as well as those individuals who choose to follow him.

7.  The New Testament World, by Bruce Malina.  When I hit seminary, I moved out of historical Jesus studies and into socio-rhetorical criticism of scripture.  The foundational “introduction” to the field of social sciences is Malina’s work on the first-century world, which explores facets of culture from group-thinking to honor and shame.  This provided the interpretative “grid” by which I read the Bible to this day.

8.  Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Taylor’s memoir follows her from her call to the priesthood to her movement from priest to professor in the North Georgia Mountains.  Her storytelling is concise and sharp, and her observations of ministry–and the inner working of church life–is spot on.  I recommend this book to everyone who is in or is choosing to go into full-time ministry.  It might just save your sanity–I’ve read it three times.

9.  Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, by John Claypool.  Claypool’s collection of sermons spans the time of the initial diagnosis of his daughter’s leukemia to her eventual death.  Claypool’s sermon on Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac, the first sermon he preached upon his return after his daughter’s death, is one of the most powerful and stirring sermons I’ve ever read.  It you read this book, better bring along Kleenex.  You won’t be the same on the other side.

10.  The Hidden Lives of Congregations, by Israel Galindo.  Galindo’s book teaches ministers how to “read” their congregations by assessing various markers of identity.  This book is helpful in letting us know how to minister in the church while avoiding making the church in our own image, and by allowing churches to be whom God called them to be.

These books, for me, span over 25 years of ministry, and still make an impact today.  What about you?  What books have been formative in your ministry through the years?