Techniques for great pastoral letters

A strong case for writing personal letters to congregational members and leaders

Victor Pilmoor is treasurer of the British Union Conference in Watford, Hertsfordshire, England.

No letter no lunch! A homebound letter was the prerequisite for Sunday lunch at the boarding schools of my youth. But school routine was not worth mentioning and my extracurricular activities would not have been good for my mother's soul, so my letters along with my penmanship perished, even under the pressure of the lunch-and-letter-writing rule!

Some years ago at a flea market, I came across a small leather-bound volume written by Cardinal John Henry Newman titled Cardiphonia "letters from the heart." They were written to the great and the good of his parish, offering spiritual guidance and wisdom he could offer in no other way.

The New Testament epistles or letters also stand out for their warm, pastoral significance. While we give great respect to the content of these letters, their methodology has become the poor relation of spoken rhetoric. A good sermon reaches those who come out to listen, but letters have the potential to reach people where they are.

If preaching suffers the limitations of temporality, then letters from the heart have the potential to influence in perpetuity. I am reminded that my grandfather's love letters rekindled love in my grandmother's heart for 40 years after his demise and were buried with her for eternity.

In my teaching career, the integration of faith and mathematics demanded all the creativity I could muster. Having now transferred to management, the challenge of integrating faith with receipts, checks, and pay slips is no less fascinating! The fun started for me when I simply began writing Thank-you notes to people who returned tithe to the Conference office. This principle was extended by sharing motivational or spiritual ideas, gleaned from my personal reading, on the foot of monthly pastoral expense summaries.

I thought little of this gesture until I got feedback indicating that these shared thoughts were valued, even planting occasional seed for their sermons. Better still, the quality of my relationship with most pastors was transformed! During the last three years, I have ventured drafting letters of encouragement. Penmanship with a purpose!

The letter is usually based on current events or my experience, woven with insights garnered from my professional and inspirational reading. The concluding motif reinforces mission focus and expresses gratitude for loyalty in service. The letter has no other purpose than pastoral encouragement. There are no hidden agendas, no demands. It allows me to express feelings and perceptions that I might never share face to face, even if I got the opportunity, for fear of being misunderstood.

As I have learned, it contributes to transformational relationships with colleagues that might otherwise be limited to transactional issues. I am conscious that more of us could benefit from meaningful encouragement; this is a contribution toward developing people as a resource, and thus it's a legitimate goal for a treasurer. Far from being a chore, the exercise has proved a blessing to me.

Although not totally familiar with pastoral literature on mail ministry, I am aware of significant fund-raising texts that may have transfer value. The concept of relational resource building in the local church seems particularly appropriate and adaptable to this kind of letter writing.

This could be called relational resourcing, whose definition could go something like this: Relational resourcing is an approach to promoting a cause that centers on the unique and special relationship that an organization, member, or contact has with that cause. The primary consideration is to nurture the bond and do nothing that would undermine it. Every effort is made to let members understand their value to the cause with the effect of keeping the primary mission in focus.

The object here is a lifelong relationship that is mutually beneficial. Letters that demand money, service, or support, or that are motivated by a problem, are often received cynically, especially when received as a "cold call."

Here are some principles distilled from my reading:

1. The sincerity of your tone and honesty of your intent are paramount. The purpose of correspondence is to keep the vision alive and develop the spirit of the readership. Period!

2. As the expected behavior of a friend, letters should be regular. People should not feel singled out or self-servingly targeted. The letter is neither a flash in the pan nor a seasonal ritual, but part of the pastoral curriculum.

3. To be read, the letter should be interesting, memorable, and entertaining, a story written with cheer. People respond to stories that include known actors. It is definitely not a vehicle for theological hobby horses!

4. The letter should be cost or effort efficient. People come to appreciate the inclusiveness of a method that reaches them where they are. The ministry is complementary to pulpit delivery and does not depend on attendance status. It takes less time and is more convenient than home visitation and embraces those who would not normally be visited.

Personal letters are arguably read in a more leisurely and considered context than email; they are also accessible to the wider home circle, being read several times if the content is sufficiently poignant. The letter is sent exclusively to people with whom you have a pastoral or leadership relationship and should not thus be regarded as spam.

5. Lastly, once the skill and custom of letter writing has been developed, letters designed for a variety of identified groups may be the next step. Methods of segmentation could be demographic (letters addressing the needs and styles of the young, old, couples, parents, singles, men, women, retirees, etc.) or based on functional roles (letters addressing the needs of business people, professionals, church officers, small group leaders, and so on).

Where contacts are sufficiently well-known, letters sympathetic to personal value systems could be beneficial. Differentiation between innovators, thinkers, achievers, experimenters, staunch believers, strivers, builders, and strugglers could have significant impact.

Research has shown that trust is the key to organizational commitment, and that the quality of inspirational communication is the strongest factor underpinning that confidence. Letters should thus be concise, unpretentious, and unambiguous. They should avoid unnecessary formality, self-satisfaction, or pomposity. The language used should be that of the people to whom you are writing.

Good writing makes for good reading and is best written while smiling. People may not appear to respond immediately or directly, but with consistency the cogs start turning, and they may be inspired to start a conversation with common ground on their terms at a time of their choosing.

Finally, if in the flow of correspondence the needs of the church are occasionally mentioned, the response can almost be assured. That's treasurer speak!

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Victor Pilmoor is treasurer of the British Union Conference in Watford, Hertsfordshire, England.

May 2005

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