Seven Thoughts on Pastors Writing Books
Rewind my life six years and I would tell you that one of my biggest dreams in life is to get a book published. I hoped that someday, somehow, somewhere, for somebody I would be able to write a book. I never dreamt I would have that opportunity so soon and so often. It’s much more than I deserve.
Since 2008, when Why We’re Not Emergent came out, I’ve done a lot of writing and a lot thinking about writing. With Stephen Furtick in the news for his mansion-to-be and Mark Driscoll facing accusations (and some evidence within his ministry) of plagiarism, I thought it would be worthwhile to write down a few thoughts on pastors writing books.
1. Writing for others is a privilege. That someone should listen to me is pretty nice. That someone would take days or weeks to work through something I’ve written is remarkable. That someone would pay money to do so is amazing. Writing is hard work, but authors should never forget that to be read is also a tremendous gift.
2. Writing should be in the service of others. I have no problem with Christian publishing houses trying to make money. They have bills to pay. They can run a business on good will and pious aspirations. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with authors—even pastor authors—being paid for their work (more on this in a moment). It doesn’t even bother me that some authors would write mainly to make a living. But if we are talking about pastors, then surely our writing must be an effort to serve others. If you are in ministry and want to get a book published so you can “arrive” or can be “somebody” or can speak at the top conferences, you better check your heart. And if you are a pastor who is seen as having “arrived” and being “somebody,” that person should check his heart every day.
I think I can honestly say that my desire to write and be published was mostly about a passion to say something worthwhile and a love for writing. I was thrilled when my first book (Freedom and Boundaries) was self-published. This meant my elders could read it, my church could read it, my parents could read it. I wasn’t thinking about anything bigger. I just wanted some of my ideas to get out there. But I also know I have to remind myself of these motives often. It’s easy to start with the best of intentions and end up being an author for all the wrong reasons—because someone tells you it’s time to publish another book, because you want another pay day, because you want to climb the ladder of ministry success. All of us who write must constantly ask the question: am I really doing this to serve others or to serve myself?
3. Writing should be kept in proportion. I’m glad I read Martyn Lloyd-Jones before I ever wrote a book because I can hear the Doctor in the back of my head saying, “The pastor is first of all a preacher and not a writer.” There is nothing wrong with being a writer first, but that’s simply not the calling of a pastor. I need to be a faithful preacher and a caring shepherd before I am a good writer. I’m very fortunate to have a church that values study and supports me in my writing. But I owe it to them, and to my calling as a pastor, to make sure that I do not become an author who pastors a church on the side.
4. Writing should be kept in perspective. Virtually nothing we are publishing today will be read in 20 years, let alone 50 or 100 or 500. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published. It just means authors should not believe their own press clippings (or Facebook likes, or Twitter followers). I cringe every time I see another Christian author talk about his most important book EVER! or his new work that will revolutionize everything about everything. If an older man publishes his magnum opus, let the accolades roll in. But when 30somethings and 40somethings marvel slack-jawed at their own writings—sheesh. It’s embarrassing.
5. Writing should be overseen with accountability. I don’t think there is only one formula for how pastors handle royalties or how they manage writing time “on the clock” or “off the clock.” When I started writing more I asked a number of pastors I respected how they handled royalties. The responses were all over the map. It’s not a simple matter to determine how writing fits into a pastor’s ministry. On the one hand, churches usually benefit from pastors who write. It sharpens their thinking, feeds the congregation, expands the church’s “footprint,” and often enables the pastor to meet new people who become great friends and resources for the church. On the other hand, pastors must be honest that some of their writing (and all that is associated with the release of a book) is bound to take place on church time. More than that, they may sell their books to parishioners, use office staff for book related projects, and devote no small amount of their energies to a task that is not essential to the church’s ministry.
After my first or second book I made a point to set up an oversight committee comprised of three of my elders. I asked them to provide feedback on future projects and to work with me on a financial arrangement that seemed fair. I meet with this committee every few months. They have to approve my travel schedule and my major writing projects. They also get a detailed accounting of my finances every year. Our arrangement is that I give at least 25% of all royalties and honoraria to the church. We revisit this issue annually to see if the arrangement still makes sense. I am an open book with them, and they can ask me whatever they want (also, my salary is voted on by our consistory every year and any member of the church can see every line of my salary and benefits if they want to prior to voting on the budget). It’s been an invaluable process and the men have provided me with invaluable relationships. There is no one way to work with a pastor-author, except that there should be some governing body within his church that encourages, approves, and holds him accountable.
6. Writing should be done by the person whose name is on the cover. Several years ago I was reading through the final theology paper that graduating seminary students in our classis are required to write. As I kept reading I began to notice familiar phrases. Then I saw whole sentences or paragraphs that made me think, “Haven’t I read this before?” And then it dawned on me. I had read these sentences before, because I wrote them. This graduating senior had plagiarized the theology paper I had given to the same classis a few years before. We got together and talked through the issue in person. He was contrite and I chalked up his plagiarism to laziness and ignorance more than to malice. But what he had done was still wrong and a serious infraction (he ended up dropping out of the ordination process).
Whether in sermons or in print, it’s not okay for pastors to take credit for something that is not theirs. Granted, the lines can be blurry. But that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. And just because it feels like the sin of sloth more than the sin of theft doesn’t make it less of an error.
And the same goes for ghostwriting and some research services. Again, I realize there is a place for people to help authors with editing, with research, with tracking down footnotes, with providing information and ideas. Every book is, in some degree, a collaborative process. But the simple fact is that for 99% of the reading public they assume that if your name is on the cover of a book that you wrote the book. If someone took your ideas and worked them into prose, then at least there should be a “with so-and-so.” If someone heavily edited your sermon transcripts into a well-crafted book, they should get some serious mention in the acknowledgements. And if research companies are writing whole chunks of our sermons and our written materials without any attribution, well, this is plain unacceptable. Writers gotta write their own stuff.
7. Writing should be done humbly. Getting published is a funny thing. I speak at conferences and have gotten to meet all sorts of wonderful Christians leaders all over the country and the world because Dave DeWit at Moody Publishers (now at Crossway) really liked the book Ted and I were working on. We got turned down by a bunch of other publishers. One guy liked it. Happened to be the right guy. At the right time. That’s the way the Lord’s providence works. I’m trying to be a good steward of it. But it doesn’t mean I’m a better pastor, let alone a better person, than ten thousand other men who (for whatever inscrutable reasons) haven’t had the opportunities I have.
And one last thought for my fellow authors: let’s err on the side of under-promotion. I get it. I know we want our message to get out there. I know a certain amount of promotion is unavoidable (hey, I made two videos for my last book). But don’t pressure your friends to do you favors. Don’t make your book sound like the greatest thing since the five solas. Don’t pass along all the kudos about your stuff. “Let another praise you, and when they do, go ahead and retweet your awesomeness”—I don’t think that’s what Proverbs had in mind. Better to sell fewer books than to look like a bozo getting to the top of the best sellers list. Writing is a privilege, and that should make us humble not hucksters.