It’s no secret: pastors like books. We read them, we quote them, we give them away. After all, the foundation for our entire ministry is the written Word of God himself. Take away that book and we have no ministry.
But what about the writing of books? How should pastors think about putting words on paper for publication? I sought answers from Jared Wilson, pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown, Vermont, and the author of many books, such as Gospel Wakefulness, Gospel Deeps, The Pastor’s Justification, and Otherworld, a supernatural thriller.
Should a pastor write? Is writing a valid part of pastoral ministry, or does it distract us from the people we’re called to care for?
Every pastor should write, even if he does not pursue publication, because besides the weekly exercise of composing a sermon, writing in a journal, writing letters, writing pieces for a church blog or newsletter or other internal resources helps a pastor develop his own voice for the sermon and other teaching. Writing is a great impetus for learning and research, as well as critical thinking and creativity. It would be helpful for pastors to exercise those muscles regularly, even if they don’t think of themselves as “writers” per se.
A young pastor comes to you wanting to be a published writer like you are. What advice do you give him? How should a pastor evaluate and pursue a call to write?
I try not to be too cynical. But I think many younger pastors want to be published today not as a way of working out creative giftings or love of writing but mainly to achieve a platform or a certain level of notoriety. It appears to be the “next step” in the pastoral career trajectory. This kind of thinking, which pastors themselves are not entirely responsible for, has done great harm to the literary culture within the church.
But if a pastor is a gifted writer and interested in the craft and feels called to pursue wider readership, I would want to make sure this is something he’s been doing for a while, that he’s put real work over a period of years into it. There are very few overnight successes. So I would encourage endurance and perseverance. I would coach him on how to receive criticism. And of course I’d give him practical tips on pursuing publication.
Writing for publication brings a measure of national attention. How does a published pastor resist temptations to pride and cultivate humility?
It’s imperative to have people close to you—fellow pastors/elders, but anyone a pastor would consider a trusted friend—who are authorized to speak the truth into your life, who can tell you when you’re being an idiot. It’s also good to trust those who “knew you when.” One reason I have committed to stay at my rural church in Vermont for as long as God will give them the grace to keep me is because they wanted me before I had any books published or any speaking engagements booked. This history means I know they wanted me. I can trust them. They love the unpublished me, the “unknown” me. The temptation to pride is succumbed to and humility is lost when a pastor building a platform begins surrounding himself only with “yes men” and begins only listening to the “important” people.
What caused you to pursue writing as a part of your ministry?
I’ve never known a time when I didn’t write. And I’ve wanted to be a published author since the first grade. I’ve loved books since before I could read, and I’ve just grown up with this impulse to put words together to say interesting or engaging or creative or meaningful things. I was writing little books in grade school, adventure stories and the like, and binding them and making copies to hand out. I wanted to be a writer before God called me into vocational ministry, so when that call came—in my junior high years—I just assumed writing would go along with it. I can’t not write.
In his book Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue, Andreas Köstenberger says, “Writing never just happens. If you are called to write, you must actively plan for it and doggedly persevere in it.” Take us into your writing routine. How do you actively plan for and doggedly persevere in the writing task?
My routine is not very disciplined, but only because I don’t usually have to make myself write. Every week, throughout the week, I’m writing something. Of course, this process becomes problematic for me when I have deadlines from publishers or editors, so when I have something big due, I am usually scheduling time closer to the deadline to get that specific project finished. But week to week, my only day set aside primarily for writing is Wednesday, which is actually when I am mostly working on my Sunday sermon. But that day also gets used for working on bits of books that are due or going over edits. When I’m in full-on “get the book done” mode, I also tend to use up several evenings during the week and Friday and Sunday afternoons. But in terms of a disciplined routine week to week for writing, I’m a pretty poor example.
Are there any practices or disciplines that have helped you develop skill as a writer?
The best practice is reading and reading widely. I’ve listened to all kinds of people say they’d like to write a book, but it becomes apparent that they don’t really know how a book is organized, which just confuses me, because if you’ve read enough books, you know how they’re structured and organized. I don’t trust published writers who don’t read—or who don’t read good books. And pastors who want to write non-fiction should nevertheless read lots of fiction. They should read good fiction, literary fiction. And they should read non-fiction written by writers with a literary sensibility. We don’t get much of that sensibility in modern books, but lots of the old theological works have it, because those old dead guys could flat-out write. We don’t need any more Christian living books that sound like fortune cookies or theological books that sound like toaster manuals.
So read, read, read. Lots of little things have helped me along the way. I had great English and creative writing teachers, and I had great professors in college who pushed me to pursue publication and reviewed my work for me, and I’ve read lots of books on the craft of writing. I think blogging for the last 11 years has helped me keep the writing muscle developing and improving, but the absolutely most helpful practice I’ve engaged in to help my writing is having been a reader of books nearly all my life.