As summer approaches, another wave of seminary graduates prepare to fly the nest. With degrees in hand, this eclectic bunch are thrilled to trade in their status as students for the seemingly more prestigious, “alum.” Each is invariably buoyed at the prospect of beginning a new ministry post. And so, with bags packed and engine running, each traverses the graduation stage with a cadence of excited anticipation.
So, as these graduates head on their way, what might be my parting piece of advice? Assuming each one has grasped the rudimentary principles of local church ministry—the priority of expository preaching, the responsibility to evangelize, counsel, train, etc.—towards which supplementary endeavors might I exhort the enthusiastic pastor? Answer: I will encourage him to write. I will suggest that amidst the busyness of his new life in the trenches of local church ministry, with whatever responsibilities he will accumulate along the way, that he makes writing a priority.
The reason for this is at least twofold. First, writing—more than any other discipline—serves to order, clarify, and strengthen one’s thoughts on a particular issue. Second, writing is an inestimably powerful tool by which to influence other people’s thinking. I will explain each of these in turn.
Regarding the effect of writing on the author, the impression it makes on your mind is difficult to overstate. In large measure, this is because writing well is an incredibly arduous task. Indeed, I do not know of another discipline (that falls within the bounds of pastoral ministry) that is so demanding. When I write, I can feel my brain cry out, “More calories please.” After a day of writing, I have little left to offer anyone. Good writing involves that you invoke the full spectrum of your acquired vocabulary (for the average adult, approximately 30,000 words give or take a few hapax legomena). Good writing demands that you select the right set of words, in the correct order, for every single sentence. Good writing requires that you skillfully employ a range of synonyms to avoid repetition, without forfeiting your argument. Good writing necessitates precision of thought as it relates to the order of your work. Your logic must be exemplary, your sequence of claims without error. Good writing demands imagination at the micro and macro levels. Each word, sentence, and paragraph must work together to form a composite whole whose argument is self-evident and persuasive. The act of writing requires all of these skills, simultaneously. And the process can only begin after countless hours of reading and thinking on your chosen topic.
It is for this reason that good writing is so beneficial. Because it is difficult, it yields a rich harvest. (Who ever found a task that was easy, and worthwhile?) Forming articulate, compelling prose demands the very best you have to give. Penning sentence after sentence requires, unavoidably, that you turn your topic inside out and upside-down hundreds of times. It necessitates that you think, deeply, about your argument. There is no escape. This is the process for everyone who desires to produce something worth reading.
And so, after every word has been reconsidered, every sentence re-written, every paragraph revised, the author himself is a different person.
His mind has been refined by his efforts. He has attained new levels of clarity on his subject. He now knows what he believes. More than that, he is able to defend his views. Having flogged his mind to produce a cohesive set of thoughts on paper, he readily articulates the same ideas, verbally. For this reason, Francis Bacon deserves a retweet: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
So, as the seminary graduate arrives at his new station with credentials in hand, writing offers to him the best means of preserving and advancing his education. Though he bears the battle wounds of the M.Div., the convictions handed down during seminary have yet to crystallize in his mind. By committing himself to writing, he will obtain clarity. He will grow in confidence: coming to terms with what he believes and why he believes it.
At this point, it is important to note that the kind of writing for which I am advocating is unique amongst ministry labors. It is not the same as writing another seminary paper. Nor should it be compared to sermon preparation. For both of these endeavors, the audience is, essentially, a captive bunch. The professor will read your submission because that’s his job. The flock will come to church because they want to be fed. The former will exercise mercy and patience, understanding that you are a work in progress. The latter will overlook your deficiencies if something said along the way is life-giving.
By contrast, no one is committed to reading your prose. Your article is not preceded by a contractual obligation, binding your audience to pay attention. Your blog post ranks low on the list of priorities for the accountant and soccer mom alike. You must win them. You must keep them. Clarity, persuasion, precision, and accuracy: all of a sudden, you need to master these qualities if you desire even a modicum of success.
The venue for your efforts need not be spectacular. Very few in the graduating class will publish. Yet, some accountability is important. Perhaps your church has a blog. Perhaps you can avail yourself of a parachurch magazine. Any opportunity that demands quality prose for real readers will suffice. If you are disciplined to seek out such an opportunity and to contribute regularly, writing will begin to have its refining effect on your mind.
If this were the only benefit of composition, I would stand by my exhortation. “We love you, we will miss you, don’t forget to write.”
However, there is a second reason why the graduate should prioritize putting pen to paper. A corollary reality to the impact on the author is the influence he has over his audience. Simply stated, writing is a highly effective mechanism with which the pastor can lead his congregation in right thinking.
In saying this, I do not mean to detract from the power of the sermon. Church history testifies to the efficacy of expository preaching: to save the sinner and redeem the saint. As men and women have died to defend the centrality of the Word in the life of the church, I also want to affirm this reality. The Sunday sermon must be a priority for the pastor. Therein rests his greatest point of influence over the flock.
Writing, then, is a supplemental ministry. It appends the labors of the pulpit. But it does so powerfully. When a pastor regularly writes for his congregation, they are shaped according to his thoughts.
Indeed, insomuch as your prose serves as a partial reflection of your mind, the act of reading signals the willingness of your people to think like you.
The reason for this, perhaps, is because the reception of a text requires a reciprocal process to the one followed in its production. The writer forged a path of thoughts, a carefully constructed argument. The reader must discover this path. He too must exert energy to find and to follow his pastor’s line of reasoning. He must be willing to think similar thoughts in order to comprehend. Then, if the author has been persuasive, his reader can affirm the argument and make it his own.
The certainty of this process is increased by the time taken to read. The blog post, the article, the book, these entities require sustained attention. They ask for a commitment. Texting, chit-chat, and emails must stop if the written piece is to be taken seriously. Thus, each unit of prose possesses an authority inherent to its form. It towers above lesser forms of communication. And it comes with a health warning: “I intend to consume.”
This phenomenon of possessing the reader is further augmented through the possibility of multiple readings. The carefully crafted essay isn’t going anywhere. The ink on the page is indelible. As such, the written word presents a unique opportunity for the congregant to return, ad infinitum, to the sequence of ideas. He may “be consumed,” as often as he desires, by the same argument. And every time he reads, he submits himself afresh to the thoughts of his pastor, agreeing to imitate the patterns of his mind.
Evidently, writing is a responsibility. But it is also an opportunity. As each graduate labors to conform God’s people to the image of the Son, he should avail himself of every means possible. To neglect the practice of writing is to overlook a vista of influence that might otherwise yield significant fruit in our social-media age. Good writing is not the same as a Facebook post, nor a “ministry selfie.” It simultaneously asks for and effects a degree of like-mindedness between the author and his reader. If the newly qualified alum underestimates its power, he does so to his folly.
This May, as many graduates leave our midst and head for the giddy heights of pastoral ministry, much wisdom will be dispensed: some final words from a professor, a crucial nugget of advice from the pastor. As for me, my exhortation will be simply this: dear graduate, please write.