What would you give to attend a conference where bygone giants of the faith — men like Richard Baxter, Charles Bridges, and Charles Spurgeon — spoke about pastoral ministry? The tickets would sell out in just seconds.
We love to consider the coming day when we will meet our favorite long-departed preachers around the throne of the Lamb. But until then, we already enjoy access to their wisdom through the body of writings they have left us. We can trust such faithful men to guide us through the voyage of pastoral ministry, for they never cease to point us to Scripture as they offer precious insights from the past. The classics are classic for a reason.
I am grateful for the wealth of resources that God has provided to aid ministers and theological students in their spiritual growth. During my lifetime, I have read almost every major classic Reformed book on pastoral ministry. If, however, I were to choose only ten books on pastoral theology to have in my library, I would pick the ten listed below.
In this list, I have reluctantly bypassed several excellent books on preaching because I wish to emphasize those works that treat pastoral ministry in general. May the Lord bless you, dear brothers, as you walk with these pastors of days past and lean on them to counsel you in “the old paths” (Jeremiah 6:16 KJV).
1. The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges
The Christian Ministry is my all-time favorite treatise on pastoral ministry. In this exceptional work, Charles Bridges (1794–1869) provides a comprehensive survey of poimenics (pastoral theology) deeply steeped in scriptural faithfulness, conveying a tender fear of God flowing out of personal experience.
In this work, Bridges considers the nature of the ministry, the calling to and the qualifications for ministry, and the difficulties involved. Of particular importance is his treatment of causes for the lack of success in the ministry. He closes with a thorough outline of the minister’s pastoral and preaching labors. This work is outstanding in its biblical faithfulness, experiential warmth, and searching application. He also has an invaluable (and quite rare!) section on experiential (“experimental”) and discriminatory preaching.
No minister of the gospel should bypass this book, for it will immensely aid and enlighten him in both his personal life and his public ministry. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; I would urge you to purchase and read it before any other book on this list.
2. Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon
Charles Spurgeon’s (1834–1892) piety, love for Christ, insights into human nature, intense spirituality, realism, healthy sense of humor, and practical wisdom saturate every lecture in this priceless anthology. For Spurgeon, faithful preaching and pastoral ministry are simply the overflow of vibrant piety and heartfelt spirituality. Spurgeon was an experiential pastor who emphasized the union of head, heart, and hands in the Christian life and stressed vitality over method in pastoral ministry. Here, he deals with some unique topics, like posture and gestures in preaching. Some of his comments are very entertaining, but each is laced with remarkable wisdom. He is weighty and thorough, as always.
Above all, read his lectures on “The Minister’s Self-Watch,” “The Preacher’s Private Prayer,” “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” “The Minister’s Ordinary Conversation,” “The Holy Spirit in Connection with Our Ministry,” and “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.” Every theological student and minister — both young and old — would benefit from reading and rereading these.
While I’m writing about Spurgeon, can I cheat a bit by making this a double selection? If so, I would encourage you to read his All-Round Ministry as well. It is packed with Spurgeonic wisdom (and sprinkled with humor), well-suited even for seasoned pastors.
3. The Christian Pastor’s Manual by John Brown
This collection of pastoral insights from John Brown (1784–1858) is the best compilation I have read on practical pastoral ministry. It features contributions from ministers such as Philip Doddridge, Abraham Booth, Isaac Watts, John Newton, and Thomas Scott. These authors investigate the character, calling, duties, difficulties, and dangers of the Christian minister.
My favorite part of the volume is John Jennings’s chapter on discriminatory and experiential preaching titled “Particular and Experimental Preaching” — a piece that ably reflects the Puritan homiletical tradition. For self-examination, young ministers can profitably peruse Isaac Watts’s “Questions Proper for Young Ministers Frequently to Put to Themselves.” This compilation offers particularly edifying reading for frequently overlooked aspects of pastoral ministry.
4. Pastoral Theology by Albert N. Martin
This magisterial three-volume set emerged from lectures that Albert Martin (1934–) delivered in the late twentieth century (1978–1998) at Trinity Ministerial Academy in New Jersey. After Pastor Martin retired and moved to Michigan, I had the privilege of encouraging him to adapt his recorded lectures into a volume on practical theology. He did even better than I hoped! After having his messages transcribed, he revised them with painstaking detail; then he flew out to New Jersey to deliver his revised and improved lectures for the final time — the sum of which filled three hefty volumes instead of one.
One need not agree with every detail of Martin’s advice to appreciate his seasoned pastoral wisdom. His seven axioms in the first volume are perhaps the best work ever done on the foundations of pastoral ministry. His work in all three volumes is engaging, practical, and comprehensive. In my view, this set is the best twenty-first-century survey of pastoral theology from a practical and historical-theological perspective. With relevance and application to contemporary life and ministry, Martin brilliantly draws from the full range of Reformation-era and Puritan theology on the pastorate. This set will become one of the most definitive pastoral theologies in the Reformed world for many years to come.
5. Lectures in Pastoral Theology by Robert James George
This three-volume set from the pen of Reformed Presbyterian minister Robert James George (1844–1911) is overshadowed perhaps only by Albert Martin’s Pastoral Theology. This work is ideal for those looking for an older, thorough pastoral theology that provides wisdom for every area of ministry. Here, George emphasizes the character, calling, and duties of ministers. He focuses as well on piety, especially in his chapter titled “Personal Acquaintance with God.” In my opinion, this is the best comprehensive work on pastoral theology written in the twentieth century.
6. Hints and Helps in Pastoral Theology by William S. Plumer
Everything of Presbyterian pastor and scholar William S. Plumer (1802–1880) is worth its weight in gold, and this book is no exception. It may not be as thorough as one could wish, but his hints and helps are invaluable to the minister. Plumer discusses topics like piety, ministerial character, evangelism, pastoral duties, assessing one’s call to missions, and what he calls the “matter” and the “manner” of preaching. This book is an excellent read.
7. Pastoral Theology by Thomas Murphy
With comprehensive scope, Thomas Murphy (1823–1900) — the erstwhile pastor of Frankford Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia — analyzes the nature, history, sources, and necessity of poimenics as a discipline. He covers the life of the pastor in the closet, study, and pulpit, as well as in shepherding, leadership, and church ministries. He also stresses the importance of piety, and provides practical directions for cultivating it through the means of grace.
8. The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter
Taking Acts 20:28 as his point of departure, Richard Baxter’s (1615–1691) work is heart-stirring, convicting, and enlightening. He sharply rebukes lukewarmness in the ministry, declaring that “a sleepy preacher will hardly awaken drowsy sinners” and exhorting the pastor to preach “as a dying man to dying men.”
The Reformed Pastor is full of memorable phrases. The last third of the book is an exhortation with practical directions for personally catechizing the congregation in pastoral visits. Above all, Baxter demonstrates that faithful care for the flock begins with the pastor’s consistent walk before God. This work is not only Richard Baxter at his best; it is Puritan poimenics at its best as well.
9. Homiletics and Pastoral Theology by William G.T. Shedd
William G.T. Shedd’s (1820–1894) volume on homiletics and pastoral theology is a historical standard and has been widely used for scores of years. In his discourses on homiletics, Shedd treats matters as varied as style, sermon choice and planning, and extemporaneous preaching. Most importantly, he considers the spiritual, intellectual, and social character of the minister. This is a basic but trustworthy guide to poimenics.
10. Pastoral Theology by Patrick Fairbairn
In my younger years, I read Patrick Fairbairn’s (1805–1874) rather dense tome with great profit. Here, he considers the nature of pastoral ministry, the call to the ministry, the life of the pastor, and the duties of the pastor, such as catechesis and visitation. Find here a timeless work from the height of nineteenth-century Scottish evangelicalism.
Take Up and Read!
Someone might peruse this list and exclaim, “What pastor has time to read ten books on pastoral theology?” As a busy pastor, seminary professor, and conference speaker, I certainly understand time limitations. So, allow me to make a suggestion: Start with just one book for this year — the first one on this list that you haven’t yet read. And then consider making it a goal to read at least one book a year on pastoral theology (aside from your other reading). If God preserves you, you really could read dozens of volumes over the course of a lifetime of ministry.
If God has called us to serve him as a minister of the gospel, we have a responsibility to develop our knowledge and gifts to be the best pastors we can be. Books give us access to the thoughts of some of the best pastors who have ever lived. Let’s take advantage of the wisdom they found in the word of God in their many trials and temptations. Take up and read!