The hallway has rooms on both sides, each door with an author’s name on it. The carpet is worn from the trips that I have made knocking on doors. The visits began in childhood, but as time passed, my visits became more intentional.
In early adulthood, I found the doors of Hermann Hesse, Willa Cather, Wendell Berry, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, and a thousand more. During my college years, I visited the pre-Socratic philosophers, then Plato and Augustine. Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Nietzsche followed. At every stage, I read—religiously, intentionally, and intrinsically.
When someone asks me, “What must I do to become a writer?” I answer, “Read, read, read.” Can any professional excel in what they do without reading? Carl Rogers, psychologist and writer, thinks not: “I’d rather have someone who reads widely and deeply in literature or physics, than to have someone who has always majored in psychology in order to become a therapist.”1
This is equally true for the parish pastor or church professional. Exegeses, counseling, and spiritual direction are necessary disciplines, but deep reading seasons these vocations.
Reading is essential to ministry and requires time. We often hear how important it is to take time for solitude, prayer, and meditation. True enough. But it is reading that has influenced my ministry more than have all the others. The visits to authors inform my thinking, teaching, preaching, and daily conversations in a variety of ways.
Reading brings with it inspiration. Authors’ insights inform sermons and teaching material. Pastoral ministry becomes flavorful, seasoned with stories and experiences. When a presenter has salt in herself, even a passing conversation becomes more interesting.
I recently thumbed through a stack of old sermons to find one where I did not use a story or example from my reading. I found none. Sermons may be didactic on occasion, but the best sermons engage listeners and stimulate thinking. Stories, parables, and personal experiences open the ears and minds of listeners. Reading supplies that. I may preach from a given text, but my sermons are filled with examples that worshipers identify with. Reading becomes the mother of invention. A sermon based on factual material is rarely remembered. But one with a story provides a hook on which to hang one’s thoughts.
Is it possible to write in a way that invites the nonreligious to hear the message? Can a pastor or church professional write in a way that provides a more universal truth?
Dark horses—email, Facebook, text messages, Twitter—prance alongside us each day, demanding our attention. They are not bad horses in themselves. But too often, they set the pace. We use smartphones and numerous electronic devices to make life easier and our time more efficient. Dark horses are fast, but the pace they set is often a blur.
Pastors need to be up to date when it comes to technology. But today, the need is to let go of the electronic pacifier and listen to the soft wings of the Spirit. Without time for thoughtfulness and silence, how deep can we get? If we pace ourselves by soundbites and texting, how long will it be before we lose the capacity for patient reflection and thoughtful writing? In the words of T. S. Eliot: “Where shall the word be found, Where will the word / Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.”2
There are times when leaders in the church must slow down and pay attention to the white horses of thoughtfulness, silence, and patient writing. When we do, our sermons, classes, and conversations will engage the people we serve.
Left and right brains
Author Lewis Carroll is of particular interest to those who preach weekly sermons. Preaching requires that the speaker address people who favor both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. How many left-brain, or analytic, listeners tune out when I begin to tell stories or read poetry? How many others’ eyes glaze over if I become overly didactic and rely on facts and statistics? A balance is needed.
I have learned that as a minister, I can, as the apostle Paul suggests, try to be “all things to all people.” I can do careful, scholarly research to address those who look for information in my sermons. At the same time, I can bring the magical world of parables, metaphors, stories, and art to the ears of those who listen with the right brain.
Both of the worlds of scholarship and storytelling begin in my study. My study is a small room lined with bookshelves. But on the walls are prints by the artist J. Blake Burgess, who painted scenes from the wonderful stories of Willa Cather. In the study, scholarship and storytelling come together. Though I am primarily a right-brained person, thinking in story and parable, the books open on my desk are often more exegetical, ancient history and psychology. Spending time away from sound bites and fast-paced answers allows me to step away and listen to the voices necessary to be a good pastor and thoughtful writer.
There are times in public ministry when you are overt concerning your profession. There may be other times when you are covert, perhaps for the sake of appealing to a nonbeliever. Many people will not pick up a book or magazine that is termed religious. Is it possible to write in a way that invites the nonreligious to hear the message? Can a pastor or church professional write in a way that provides a more universal truth? As a pastor, I may wear a clerical collar or a badge that reads, “Chaplain”—I may also wear shorts and a T-shirt and still be the same person.
I went to meet a family at the hospital. I wore a suitcoat with nothing to identify me as a clergyman; but there is something more defining than your outer garb. I walked into the waiting room to find the family. A woman sitting opposite the doorway said, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you?”
I quickly looked at my coat and shoes to see if there was an identifying tag or badge that gave me away. There was not. I wondered how she knew. Perhaps sometimes it just shows.
A gentleness of spirit may also come through in our writing, one that does not turn people away. I sometimes write anonymously. The truth I wish to convey will come through whether I identify myself or not. Indeed, it may reach a larger audience if I do not. At times, it is best to remember the instructions of an old pastor who said, “The preacher is one who so holds up the Word of God that his (or her) fingertips cannot be seen.” The preacher is a voice that strives to remain invisible so the message may be heard. The writer may point to the reality that is there but then move out of the way.
Indeed, the carpet is worn from the ceaseless trips that I make to the doors of these writers. The books that I read have become part of my newsletters, personal correspondence, devotional writing, children’s stories, face-to-face talks, and sermons. Whether the preparation is for public ministry or private consultation, it has the same purpose: writing is incarnational. Through it, words are made flesh.
- Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 133.
- McEntyre, 133.