mhatup6This week’s question is about a subject that we hold dear: How to manage all those books! Hear this RevGal’s challenge:

Dear Matriarchs:

I find myself in need of a book-purge, as I’ll be moving soon and can’t take them all with me. Even when I pull out the ones I don’t use much, it’s still a LOT more books than I can take. a

How do I decide which books to keep and which to get rid of? 

What do you wish you’d kept, or wish you’d left behind earlier? 

And — I just need to ask! — what books are on your Christmas wish list?

Pastor Bookworm

Our Matriarchs hear your cry and they have some strategies for dealing with books:

Dear Pastor Bookworm,

 What a wonderfully daunting task – getting rid of books!  I would have a difficult time purging my books also!

If I were purging my books (and I definitely need to purge them), I would set some simple guideline rules for my purging.

  1. I have several books which I theologically don’t agree with because they were gifted to me or because I have grown in my understanding of theology.  I would definitely purge those books.
  2. I have double copies of several books which could be gifted to a younger minister to use in their ministry.  I would give those books away.
  3. I have several sets of commentaries which were given to me by beloved retired pastors who were mentors for me. I will eventually gift those sets of commentaries to a younger pastor for their ministry.
  4. I have several books which I have not read or have not looked at for over twenty years!   Depending upon their genre and content, I would purge some of those. 

Some of my most beloved authors are anything by Henri Nouwen, Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederick Buechner, and Walter Brueggemann.  I would hold onto all of my liturgical resources such as Feasting on the Word: Worship Companions, Worship resources by Ruth C. Duck, Maren C. Tirabassi, and Diane Karay.

And I would definitely keep my sets of commentaries which I use: Feasting on the Word, Interpretation, and Women’s Bible Commentary.

It is a huge task to decide which to keep and which to give away!  Blessings on your purging.

 Rev. Kelley Wehmeyer Shin
Centerville, Ohio

Dear Pastor BW, never never ask me what books are on any of my wish lists, because the answer is “all of them.”

I would say that only you can possibly decide which to keep and which to shed; but shedding is easier if you are giving them away to particular recipients (also allows for emergency retrieval in the future!!)… I suppose it would also be a good idea to let go of the ones you NEVER read; or the ones that you can access electronically; or the ones you can find in a handy nearby theological library (pause while we all laugh heartily at that one).

Beyond that I can’t advise you as my attitude to my own books is hopelessly skewed.

Have you thought of simply inviting clergy colleagues to come and help themselves?

all blessings on your move, and on your book-purge…

Crimson Rambler

Dear Pastor Bookworm,

I undertook a huge purge four years ago when I was making a move. I started with the books I hadn’t looked at since graduating from seminary ten years earlier. If my only contact with the book had been to move it from one bookshelf/office to another, I let it go. The harder call came with books I found useful at one time but hadn’t referred to recently. In the end I kept most of the ones that had a direct relationship to the Bible and some works of non-lectionary liturgy. Books of any popular interest I donated to my church’s book sale, and books that seemed helpful to a new pastor I offered to a colleague in her first call. (True confession: there are some weeks I wish I still had my set of three Lavon Bayler’s RCL-based liturgies, especially as I moved to a more liturgical region for my denomination, but at the time it wasn’t clear I would be serving a church regularly again.)

Now I’m moving out of the office at a church I have served for a long interim period, and all my books are coming home with me. I need to pick through my books again and let go of two dozen or so titles. I’m prepared to release books I bought before my move four years ago but never read and books I read but am unlikely to re-read. I am more likely to add books than bookshelves at this point in my life, so this is like recycling. It has to happen to make space for what is new. 

On my Christmas wish list: 

Envelope Poems (a collection of Emily Dickinson’s work)
Upstream, essays by Mary Oliver

Poets are good for me. I keep their books forever. 

Faithfully,
Martha Spong
marthaspong.com

Dear Pastor Bookworm,

I don’t envy you having to cull your collection of books.  I dread the day when I will have to do the same!

Pay attention to the books you find yourself re-visiting for ideas and comfort. Some of my books are bristling with post-its from tagging passages I might use while preparing to preach.  I’d think twice about getting rid of any of those. 

I find that I would at this stage want to keep my best scholarly commentaries (I really like the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, which throws in some good preaching ideas with the commentary).  I would keep all my books of stories, at least the non-cheesy story collections.  I would keep a large selection of poetry, especially the Mary Oliver, Rumi, Hafiz and Wendell Berry poems.  I would keep my volume of Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings (A Testament of Hope). 

Less urgent but still important: I would keep my Kierkegaard, Bonehoeffer, John Dominic Crossan, Walter Bruggemann, Marcus Borg, Huston Smith, Catherine Keller, and John Cobb; and let the other theologians go.  [Which theologians formed you and nurture you?  Keep those. Even if you don’t consult them all that frequently.]  I’d keep the works of my favorite fiction writers (for me, Margaret Atwood and Wendell Berry–how about you?)

The books I would find easiest to let go are the technique books about how to be/govern a church.  Often useful in the moment, but they have a more definite “shelf life”. 

Books are things, but they are also old friends and markers of our history.  Take as many with you as you can! 

Peace and blessings on your move–
Dee Eisenhauer
Eagle Harbor Congregational UCC, Bainbridge Island, WA

How about you, dear reader? Have you ever done a book purge? What got you through it? Leave your comments below.

Do you have a question or ministry dilemma for our Matriarchs? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com.


Rev. Sharon Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor in Nashville TN.  She is a contributor to the RevGals book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” and blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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4 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Books, Books, Books!

  1. I am in the delightful situation of having floor to ceiling bookcases built-in in my office at the church. I have greatly culled my personal books at home – down to only one bookcase! At church I have a harder time because people gave me many of my books. I feel like if I cull the Greek and Hebrew texts which I haven’t opened since seminary over a decade ago, then maybe that would leave my credibility lacking. Then there are all those books I haven’t read, but might someday.

    I would definitely keep commentaries and worship resources. I would keep works that inspire my preaching – Ann Seems, Tom Long, Buechner, BBT. I would donate or sell all the ones I have yet to read that former pastors have gifted me through the years. I would also get rid of seminary text books and books about how to be a pastor. I hope I know how to do that by now! Not that there isn’t always room for improvement.

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  2. I’m moving internationally so culling must happen. The problem is that the vicarage to which I’m going has a whole wall of bookshelves so after my culling there will be many empty shelves. I am keeping most of my inspirational books, even those still in the category of “might read”. Everything by Nouwen remains. Giving away my Barclay as they are very old and tatty and presuming I can replace them where I’m going. My bigger problem is all the books belonging to my daughter and husband who operate on the principle of never getting rid of any book!

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  3. Something I was told about clearing out, though have not yet done myself. You should apparently ask yourself 3 questions: “Is it useful ?” – is this a book that I refer to reguarly and that I find reliable and helpful, “Is is beautiful ?” – the answer to question 1 was “no” but this book feeds my soul – “is it of sentimental value ?” the answers to 1 and 2 are no, but it was given to you by someone you love, or you bought it on a special day.

    All else needs to go.

    But I admit that this is pure theory. My house is full of books…

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