Pastors should work hard to become clear, competent writers.
That’s the thesis. Here’s the outline: two caveats, three reasons, four suggestions.
Let’s get the caveats out of the way first.
1. I don’t think all pastors—or even many pastors—need to be writers. This isn’t about getting published or writing with the verve of J. I. Packer or C. S. Lewis. This is about basic clarity and competence.
2. A man could be an excellent pastor without ever writing a word. We have no record of anything Jesus wrote! But I am assuming that the pastor reading this blog works in a context of high literacy where books and papers and emails are readily available and written communication (of various kinds) is expected.
Isn’t the pastor’s job to preach sermons, do hospital visits, and spend time with the people? Why does writing matter?
1. Writing takes up a lot of the pastor’s time. You may not realize it, but pastors have to write every day. I’m sure every pastor has a love/hate (mostly hate?) relationship with email. There was a day last week when I wrote 53 emails. Many of those were short, but I hope none of them was sloppy. And that’s just the beginning of what a pastor must write. There are newsletters, reports, prayers, studies, sermons, letters, cards, notes, and memos. We work with words; that’s a lot of what we do. So let’s work hard to do it well. Our ministry will be more effective if we can communicate clearly and poignantly through the written word.
2. Good writing promotes better thinking. Yes, there are skills involved in writing well. It takes practice. Few people are born with natural writing ability, and most pastors could be pretty good with the right training and effort. There are tricks of the trade to make our writing less clumsy. And yet, more than not, if our writing is muddled, it’s because our thinking is muddled. C. S. Lewis once said that good writing is simply a matter of knowing exactly what you want to say and then saying it. The problem for many of us is that we don’t really know what we are trying to say. Writing exposes the flawed connections, undeveloped arguments, and presumed logic in our thinking. Write well in order to think well.
3. Writing is essential in defending the truth. Much can be done to promote and defend the faith through oral arguments. But for most of us, there will come a time when the truth will be won or lost by the construction of sentences and paragraphs. When we are knee deep in a doctrinal controversy at church or in the thick of a theological squabble in the denomination, we will have to rely on words. Written words. Those who can write—not professionally, not brilliantly, just clearly—will be heard. Those who cannot, won’t.
So what can be done to help pastors write well?
1. Seminaries can insist on better writing. Most students can’t write, at least not at first. Even graduate students are often ill-prepared to write cogently and clearly. That means seminaries must do remedial training. Professors should help students not only learn the material, but also learn how to articulate what they receive. We are in the communication business after all. Students need to understand basic points of grammar, how to structure an argument, and the difference between weak and active verbs.
2. Denominations can insist on better writing. I’ve been a part of student exams where seminarians are given a free pass on writing and speaking because, “He’s just not great at communicating.” Well, that’s kind of what pastors do! Let me repeat: people can learn. Students can improve. We aren’t talking one strike and you’re out. But I’m old-fashioned enough to think future pastors can do better than bullet points on an ordination exam.
3. Pastors can insist on better writing from themselves. When people ask me for writing advice I usually say two things. One, read more. Two, work harder at the the writing you’re already doing. Don’t settle for half-baked Facebook posts or slipshod emails. If you have to write, why not practice doing it better? Get in the habit of editing yourself, no matter the form of written communication. You can’t expect to write well in the study if you practice writing poorly everywhere else.
4. We can ask others to insist on better writing. Notice, I didn’t say the church should badger their pastor to write better. Pastors get enough flak already. But if a pastor wants to grow in this area, he must seek out trustworthy, honest feedback. We are often blind to our own ambiguities and shortcuts as writers. Even the best writers need outside input. Few of us will get the feedback we need if we don’t humbly ask for it.