The Pastor as Writer
Six reasons to sharpen your writing skills
In eighth grade, I took a class on digital journalism. The internet was brand new, and at least one of our middle school teachers recognized the value of introducing us to the technology. I’m not sure anyone read our articles, but we wrote them.
During my tenure as a middle school journalist, I received an assignment to cover the funeral of our state’s governor, who had died in a plane crash. Two days after I turned in my story, I received it back with a simple phrase handwritten in the top margin: “Too maudlin.” The teacher decided not to run it.
Of course, I had no idea what “maudlin” meant. When I asked for clarification, she suggested I look it up. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she was working from a much kinder dictionary. Mine offered this definition: “stupidly sentimental, self-pityingly, often through drunkenness.”
Though I had worked hard on the assignment, my teacher’s judgment wasn’t that upsetting. I simply came to a logical conclusion: Apparently, I’m not a writer.
I later took up high school speech and debate, and soon felt a call to pastoral ministry. That solidified it in my mind. I figured I was a speaker, not a writer.
Today, I’m not sure that distinction is such an easy one to make. Here are six reasons why I think ministers should also consider writing:
1. Speaking begins with writing. Through Bible college and seminary, I worked to become a better preacher. As was the trend, I attempted to do it with fewer notes, but I kept running into a problem. While preaching, I would make a point, and when I didn’t get the response I was hoping for, I would become insecure and try to make the same point again. I kept finding myself searching for the right way to say it while I was saying it.
To remedy this, I started devoting more time to writing out my thoughts. Writing forced me deeper into them. It made me think carefully about what I actually wanted to say. My outlines grew more complex, until I was producing fully edited manuscripts. I began to love the process of writing. Finding the right way to say something became as integral to the work as actually saying it.
I think all good speakers come to value the craft of writing. Presidents employ teams of professional speechwriters. I once heard a famous comedian explain that he spends six months writing a single routine. Charles Spurgeon left behind volumes of sermon notes, manuscripts and outlines. He was famous for his carefully crafted image illustrations.
For seven years, I’ve been writing sermon manuscripts. Usually, they are around 3,000 words. That means every week, I get to produce the equivalent of a chapter in a book. I estimate I’ve now written over a million words and more than 5,000 pages. Most of those pages aren’t worth publishing, but the commitment to practice writing, week after week, has made me not only a better writer but also a better preacher and pastor.
I have no aspiration — and probably no likelihood — of being the next Lewis or Chesterton, but the more time and attention I give to writing, the more central it is to my conception of the pastor’s work. Little of it has to do with grammar or vocabulary. For me, writing has become a spiritual discipline, a way of being a pastor, a way of leading and growing.
2. There is a close relationship between reading and writing skills. For years, my dad was a basketball referee. He always thought the best refs were the ones who had played the game. Good players understood the flow, and that’s critical in making calls.
Writing provides distance and the opportunity for editing — both of which are necessary for embracing the voice God has given you.
I love to watch baseball, and though I was terrible at playing it, even my poor performance produced a greater appreciation for what the professionals do.
Likewise, even modest accomplishments in writing will help you appreciate those who do it masterfully.
Pastors are readers, and writing has fundamentally changed the way I read. It has made reading not only more enjoyable but also more helpful and interesting. We shouldn’t forget that God used writers to produce the Bible, and reading it well is one of the pastor’s first callings.
You don’t have to be a writer to read, but immersing yourself in the craft of writing can cultivate a deeper appreciation for reading.
3. Writing reveals your voice. It’s often easy to recognize which ministers young preachers have been listening to. Most of us start off clumsily mimicking what has inspired us. It can take hundreds of sermons to feel like you have finally found your own voice.
I first began to find my voice in my writing. Looking at my words in writing makes it easier to recognize mimicry. It’s also easier to recognize something that feels genuinely honest.
Finding your voice is ultimately an act of faith. It takes faith to trust who God has created you to be and how He has shaped your experiences to produce your perspective. Writing provides distance and the opportunity for editing — both of which are necessary for embracing the voice God has given you.
4. Writing brings clarity. An editor I know likes to say, “Good writing is good thinking.” As a pastor, the sermons come at you relentlessly. Some pastors still bear the responsibility of preaching three sermons a week. It can feel like you’re able to handle only a fraction of what is in the passage. Often, my writing helps me explore topics I may not be able to cover fully in my sermons.
Writing uncovers gaps in my thinking, pinpoints unanswered questions, and helps me clarify the most critical points. Writing allows me to dig deeper and share additional thoughts with the congregation. As Francis Bacon observed, reading makes one full, but writing makes one precise.
5. Writing promotes self-awareness. There is a risk in writing. Writing exposes your thinking, your motives, your intentions and your insecurities. That can also be a gift.
Write for personal discovery, but be slow to publish. Write to be honest with yourself. Write to clarify what you really think.
Our culture promotes knee-jerk reactions and 30-second sound bites. As pastors, we spend most of our days talking: leading meetings, advising congregants, and discussing plans. That stream of words receives remarkably little editing. It’s easy to say things you don’t actually believe or haven’t actually considered.
Writing allows you to slow things down and deal with more than just your initial thoughts. And remember, no one reads your writing; they read your editing. You don’t have to publish it. If you get it wrong, no one needs to know. But you will learn through the process.
6. Writing can be prayer. The Bible is filled with written prayers. There’s a reason the Psalms have served as the prayer book of the Church for centuries.
Like prayer, writing allows us to search for expressions of things deep within us. It allows us to bear the full range of human emotions and experiences in ways we might not have discovered.
Author Eugene Peterson described this as “heuristic writing.” He explained it as “writing to explore and discover what I didn’t know. Writing as a way of entering into language and letting language enter me, words connecting with words and creating what had previously been inarticulate or unnoticed or hidden. Writing as a way of paying attention. Writing as an act of prayer.”
That kind of writing feels like what a pastor does at his or her best — recognizing what God is doing and finding the words to welcome His people into it.