Interview with LeRoy Lawson

By Brad Dupray

As the author of 29 published books, Roy Lawson knows a thing or two about what should go on the printed page. His monthly column “From My Bookshelf” in Christian Standard chronicles some of his latest reading material and serves as a guide to church leaders for tools they can use to sharpen their edge. Roy’s storied biography ranges from Christian college professor and president, to board member of several ministries within the Christian church, to president of the North American Christian Convention (1982), to church planter, to senior pastor of fast-growing churches, to his current role as international consultant for Christian Missionary Fellowship International. Roy and his wife of 48 years, Joy, reside in Payson, Arizona, which Joy refers to as well-traveled Roy’s “point of departure.”

Why read?

For me, reading is an ongoing series of conversations with interesting persons with interesting information or ideas that can expand my horizons, challenge my prejudices, feed my hunger for knowledge and insight, and better equip me to function thoughtfully in an increasingly fascinating and confusing world. Besides, it’s enjoyable!

What do you like to read?

I read widely, but I don’t read best-sellers, I don’t read many mysteries. Most of the stuff most people read I don’t read. A recent book that has helped me think through the whole issue of leadership is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. I’m an old “lit” teacher so I read Dickens and Faulkner and Twain and Dostoyevsky, but I can’t say any is a real favorite. If I get stuck on an author, like Dickens, I’ll try to reread one of his books every year. I read literature, history, biography, and some Christian books. In more recent years I have read a lot of science, because I’m weak in science. I read just as a layman.

How many books do you read in a year?

Oh, I’d say 150—about three a week.

How do you have the time to read that many books?

You know the “Swiss cheese method?” You stuff the holes in your schedule. There’s always a book nearby, and I fly a lot, so I use my flying time for reading. I do some reading every day.

Do you watch TV?

<Lawson grins> I hardly watch TV at all. The commercials make me too nervous! <laughs> Your question reminds me of a cartoon I once saw. A man and a woman were watching television. She asks him, “Did you ever notice how no one on TV is ever watching TV?”

Reading is your sports, your TV, your entertainment?

Yes, along with motorcycling.

But you seem to have a working knowledge of movies.

I do co-teach a course at Emmanuel [School of Religion], “Theology and the Cinema,” with Bob Wetzel. So I had to do a lot of catch-up on my knowledge of movies.

What’s the difference between a good book and a good movie?

With movies you immerse yourself in a totally absorbing environment, whereas with books you’re limited to the printed page and your own imagination (as well as the author’s imagination). It’s probably easier to say how they are similar.

OK, how are they similar?

In both cases you are entering into a world created by the author or the auteur (in the case of movies), but the good movies and the good books all challenge you to think. They invite you into the dialogue. When you walk away you’re still pondering what you’ve experienced. You get that from both genres.

What about reading magazines or the Internet? Does it have to be books?

No it doesn’t. Magazine articles are shorter, and the Internet is cheaper. No, it doesn’t have to be books. However, the conversations between author and reader are longer, the immersion in another environment more compelling, and in the case of nonfiction books (which are what I mostly read now), the arguments and supporting evidence can be more convincingly presented.

I like being challenged. I like reading books that make me wish the conversation were a little longer so we could clarify a few points. So I’m often reading out of my comfort zone. It’s like friends. You have friends with whom you agree on the whole and after awhile you’re kind of bored. Other friends might have differences of perspective, and those differences make the friend more interesting, or more of a challenge to you. That’s what a good book should be.

How does reading help you write?

Both writing and preaching, at their best, come from the overflow. So I really believe the more I read, the better I can write, and the better I can speak.

Aside from the obvious, how is reading different from writing?

Red Smith, the sports columnist, said of writing, “You just sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”

Is it worth the pain?

When I made up my list of what I wanted to do when I retired, writing didn’t make the list. I felt that at that point I had said what I wanted to say. I was glad not to be put under that discipline again. As my column proves, I’m back at it again.

How do you decide what to read?

By deciding not to decide, I guess. It’s the curse (and blessing) of a curious mind. When I was a kid I read the cereal boxes at the breakfast table. I couldn’t stop reading. Still can’t. I’m an addict, I guess.

Do you read for enjoyment or to achieve specific goals?

Mostly I read for enjoyment, but occasionally I have learning targets. That was especially true in my preaching and teaching years. When I began teaching, I was one night ahead of my students. When I began preaching, I had a nearly overwhelming fear that the congregation would find out how ill-prepared I was. So my reading was targeted; it was my life preserver. But even in undergraduate college, on my daily to-do list was always one book that wasn’t required by my professors. I needed one I didn’t have to read but just wanted to.

How do you balance reading books about the Bible with simply reading the Bible?

I’m afraid of the person who knows the Bible but nothing else. The Bible was written in living contexts, dealing with real people and real problems in real societies. The apostle Paul, for example, wrote to troubled churches. His letters are chock-full of evidence of his scholarship and his cultural awareness. We need his insights, of course, but we also need insights into our own human context. So I advocate a steady diet of Scripture and books about Scripture and books reflective of our world.

Is there a most important style of book for a church leader to read?

No, but there is one style the church leader can read too much of: books on leadership. Just as I believe teachers need to get beyond books on how to teach I believe church leaders must get beyond books on how to lead. Effective church leading is not about methods or programs or panaceas. It’s about being somebody other people want to follow to accomplish something they believe is worth doing.

So what should a leader look for in a book?

I would encourage reading that helps leaders to fill their souls, to make them more interesting persons, to understand more fully what they want their lives and their churches to become.

What difference did reading make in your ministries?

All the difference. I established a church when I was only 21. What did I know? Why should the congregation believe me? I preached with great enthusiasm, but when I was out of my depth I hid behind the Bible and the authors I was reading. (C. S. Lewis was a great protector. If Lewis said it, I thought it must be so.)

Do you still “hide behind others?”

The problem with living a long time is that you accumulate many stories. But I still work hard in my sermon preparation. I’m reading, researching, and assimilating, so anything I preach is a combination of reading, Scriptures, other resources, and my own personal experience. To this day I still quote or allude to my reading regularly. I don’t want to be guilty of plagiarism, so I try to give credit where credit is due, hoping it doesn’t sound as if I’m showing off. I want people to know I’m not just blowing smoke.

Those other sources give you a broader scope of reference.

I’m not original enough to think of everything on my own and I know I can’t feed people a steady diet of stories from my own life. Those stories aren’t enough to sustain people seeking life’s answers, either. I’ve sometimes wondered if some preachers I’ve heard didn’t have children what else they’d have to talk about!

Aren’t there communicators out there who are simply so good that they don’t need a lot of background reading?


What are your concerns (if any) for preachers you hear who don’t do a lot of reading (or none at all)?

I’m afraid they’ll dry up in their 40s. They’ll grow shallow, disillusioned, and disappointing. They’ll cease to be interesting. They’ll be like the professors we used to make fun of who taught the same thing year after year from yellowed lecture notes. Their classes were good for their students’ sleep.

How does a nonreader become a reader? Or are some people just cut out to read and others aren’t?

A nonreader becomes a reader by starting to read and not stopping. Our daughter had trouble learning to read in the second grade. We engaged a reading specialist. Her advice? Let her read whatever she wants to read. She’ll become a reader. Good advice.

But some people simply find it very hard to immerse themselves in a book.

Obviously it’s easier for some than for others. It’s a skill—like others. We like to do what we’re good at—which is why I don’t repair automobiles or build houses. I could if I had to, but I don’t like to. So I understand people who find reading difficult and don’t want to do it. I don’t think less of them. But if they’re going to teach or preach, reading is a skill they should try to develop if they want to be at their best. And they can.

Did you find that you would change your reading patterns based on the different leadership role you were tackling?

Not really, because my reading has been directed by two impulses. First, the need to feel that I haven’t started to go to seed intellectually, and second, the need to become more informed on subjects that my leadership roles have proven me inadequate to manage on my own. So while the specific fields of inquiry have changed from time to time, there’s been a steady devotion to wide-ranged reading that doesn’t have any apparent immediate application. It is good for the mind!

Is reading a substitute for personal mentoring?

It’s not either–or, it’s both–and. I have been blessed in my mentors. Dr. Scott Peck, of The Road Less Traveled, said in another of his books that most of his mentors did not know they were mentoring him. That made me think of mine. I picked them out as persons of substance who had something to teach me. I was able to learn from them because of their own accomplishments. The essence of mentoring is a good thing that we want to promote, but unfortunately we program it and formalize it and raise unrealistic expectations.

What can be done to encourage young ministers to become habitual readers?

Start where you are, gradually raising the bar, and disciplining yourself to read on a schedule. Don’t start with the encyclopedia. Read what’s fun to begin with. For that matter, I still read what’s fun. I guess what I’m saying to young ministers is, “Start now.” You’ll preach better and longer if you do. I correspond regularly with a preacher in his 30s who has just begun. He wanted to start with the literary classics, so I gave him some suggestions. His most recent e-mail thanks me and adds, “The reading is paying dividends.” It is still paying them for me, too.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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