Bring the Books! |Dr Darren Iselin

31st March 2023

Reflections on the Importance of Reading for Leaders.

“When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers” – 2 Timothy 4:13 NLT


This often overlooked and ignored verse from Second Timothy reveals so much about the life, legacy and leadership of the Apostle Paul. With his death imminent, and confined to a prison cell, he makes this specific request to Timothy, his young protégé. Impending death has a way of focusing our attention on what really matters and Timothy is being taught a valuable lesson by Paul:  No matter our age, our experience, our accomplishments or our situation in life, the reading of books is of great importance.

The ESV Study Bible suggests that “although Paul is expecting to die soon, he is still concerned about getting his ‘books and parchments,’ so that he can continue to work for the sake of the gospel.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the leaders of the second evangelical awakening in the mid-nineteenth century and who many called the prince of preachers provided an erudite exposition of this verse in Second Timothy. Spurgeon declared:
“He [Paul] is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher [leader], ‘Give thyself unto reading”.[1]

The picture displayed was taken in January during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The library is a stunning collection of over 400,000 items and is the largest public art history research library in the Netherlands. It reminded me afresh of the importance of the books we read as teachers and leaders.  How they powerfully shape our own story and how they become a fundamental and important part of our formation – both as leaders and as Christians.

The vast array of reading options available to us in this virtual age is literally endless. Such diversity enables us to both read within our vocational spheres (like the library in these pictures from Amsterdam!) as well as cultivating diverse interests in books that have nothing to do with our jobs or workplaces. Such cultivation of reading that is wide and diverse creates what Italians call “retro-terra”... a rich hinterland of ideas, learning and influences that forms and informs our lives.

Kathleen Noonan provides wonderful insight into the importance of hinterland by identifying: “Hinterland is cultivated with the intellectual and mental pursuits outside your job or career. It refers to someone’s depth and breadth of knowledge of other matters – especially of cultural, academic, artistic, literary and scientific pursuits”.[2]
She concludes her cogent and punchy article with a none too veiled swipe at what many of us in educational leadership and teaching can readily identify with: “Certain professions, especially when you are busy, can become insular and narrow. You read the same things, attend the same conferences, and talk to the same people, about the same topics. Often, cramped for time, we can fall into the trap of spending our leisure time doing something we can use for work. This is a mistake, it confines us to a cow path. And cow paths make for bovine boredom”.[3]
Cornelius Plantinga contends that for leaders (like me!), “without the greatest natural gifts and empathies, a program of general reading is very likely to improve us in excellent ways.”[4] In the frenetic and ever changing maelstrom that confronts us all as leaders in contemporary schools and organisational contexts, we would do well to cultivate our hinterland and to learn from the apostle Paul and Spurgeon regarding the vital importance of reading: for our vocations, our wellbeing, our spiritual growth, our research endeavours and our flourishing.
For Christian leaders, Spurgeon also provided an important balance for our desire for hinterland and the reading of a diverse array of books when he exhorted:  “Visit many good books, but live in the Bible… All human books grow stale after a time–but with the Word of God the desire to study it increases, while the more you know of it the less you think you know. The Book grows upon you: as you dive into its depths you have a fuller perception of the infinity which remains to be explored. You are still sighing to enjoy more of that which it is your bliss to taste.”[5]
Spurgeon went on to conclude: “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read”.[6]
So as leaders who desire to grow both personally and professionally in 2023 - can I encourage you to “bring the books” and to imitate the Apostle Paul in cultivating a hinterland of the heart and mind that is lush and rich; diverse and fruitful; and always overflowing with life, learning, wisdom and wonder.

Books to Inspire!

To further inspire you, here are a range of recommended books for 2023 from key international Christian school association leaders who were part of the recent conference and study tour that Daniel and I attended in the United Kingdom. They have provided a very short recommendation of the book they are currently reading. Enjoy cultivating your hinterland! Thanks to Becki Rust from ACSI for compiling this list from these International Christian leaders!

Turning the Flywheel: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great by Jim Collins (2019, Harper Business)—“The Good to Great book is a gem for anyone in leadership positions. One reason I am focusing on one aspect of this book, Turning the Flywheel, is because of our commitment to remain focused and disciplined as an organization. It is so easy to dilute an organization’s effectiveness by chasing ‘good ideas’ at the expense of a flywheel that never reaches maximum potential.”

From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur Brooks (2022, Portfolio)—“I’ve recommended this book to all of my friends who are Gen-X leaders like me. Brooks uses neuroscience to examine how our brains change over time and what that means in terms of shifting our careers and leadership. We can find flourishing during the second half of our careers if we are intentionally generative through mentorship, collegiality, and collaboration.”

Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy by Henry Kissinger (2022, Penguin Press) – “This book is a brilliant introduction on models of leadership followed by six histories that underscore the enduring models.”

How to Hear God: A Simple Guide for Normal People by Peter Greig (2022, Zondervan)—“Profoundly simple. Simply profound.”

You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News by Kelly M. Kapic (2022, Brazos Press)—“For over-achievers (most leaders in schools!), our limits are something negative that we strive to overcome. But at the end of the day, we realize we can’t do it all—and that’s actually a good (or a God!) thing. This book shifts our thinking in important ways, reframing our limits as blessings from God to His created beings, so long as we allow them to increase our dependence on God and our recognition that we need each other.”

Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith by Adam Neder (2019, Baker Academic)—“While geared towards those who teach theology at the graduate level, this book helped me understand the role of the teacher in bringing students into the presence of God. One of his most salient points is that our students are bored with us and our classes simply because we are boring. While our subject excites us, we too often neglect to ground our classes in the reality that we are bringing our students into the throne room of God. We are teaching our students about Christ more often than teaching our students in Christ. Neder did well in explaining the importance of an incarnational approach to teaching, which applies to Christian teachers of all subjects and grade levels.”

And my own 2023 reading recommendation (with my endorsement included) would be:

Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture by Chris Watkin (2022, Zondervan Academic)—“Because of their extraordinary richness, clear insight, and remarkable depth of analysis, some books must be read very slowly, every chapter requiring time and reflection to be thoughtfully processed and distilled. This is such a book. Watkin has crafted an utterly compelling and captivating book that expertly interweaves the Biblical story with important themes in philosophy and contemporary culture and provides the reader with a unique perspective to better understand and discern our current cultural moment. An exceptional book!”

[1] Paul—his Cloak and His Books no. 542 (sermon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, England, Nov. 29, 1863),
[3] Ibid
[4] Cornelius Plantinga as cited in
[5] Paul—his Cloak and His Books no. 542 (sermon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, England, Nov. 29, 1863),
[6] Ibid

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