The Gospel Coalition

 

Volume 37 Issue 3
Nov 2012

The Writing Pastor: An Essay on Spiritual Formation

Peter R. Schemm Jr.
Pete Schemm is pastor of Cave Spring Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia and visiting professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

Some of the most valuable and lasting contributions made to the Christian faith have come through Christian scholarship.1 Indeed, the church has a rich heritage of those we may refer to as writing pastors-those who have served the church through the discipline and ministry of writing. They wrote to clarify doctrine, commend the gospel to unbelievers, and deepen the hearts and minds of the faithful. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Bonhoeffer are my favorite writing pastors, each for different reasons. Perhaps no one embodies the spirit of the writing pastor better than Augustine. Reflecting on the importance of writing throughout his life and ministry, Augustine writes, "I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress-by writing." 2

Trained in the disciplines of reading, writing, and contemplation, each of the pastors mentioned above, like Augustine, seem to have written in order to make progress spiritually. Writing is a form of communication and, as such, it can extend and multiply the teaching ministry of a pastor. But that is not all that writing accomplishes. I am suggesting that the great writing pastors of old realized that something more foundational and personal was at stake in their ministries. Perhaps they practiced writing as a discipline-a spiritually formative discipline, even. I think we may safely assume that they did.

None of us will likely have the influence of Augustine or Luther or Bonhoeffer. But our writing still matters. It matters because it can help us to make progress in our own hearts and minds.

So as an exercise in pastoral ministry, we will explore some benefits that come to the soul of a pastor through the discipline of writing. These apply particularly to pastors but are not limited to the vocation of pastor. Each benefit is personal and formative: (1) depth of mind, (2) clarity of thought, (3) pace of life, (4) quiet and solitude, (5) the ministry of words, and (6) a life of prayer.

1. Depth of Mind

In his book The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges, a French theologian and philosopher, presents a way to think about thinking that is profoundly sacred. Sertillanges reflects on the virtues of the life of the mind. And in doing so, he introduces us to the vocation of deep thinking. This pursuit is "a sacred call"-a lifelong vocation. He calls it the "the deepening of the mind" because it "requires penetration and continuity and methodical effort, so as to attain a fullness of development which will correspond to the call of the Spirit, and to the resources that it has pleased Him to bestow on us."3

Pastoral ministry, rightly conceived as a Spirit-led vocation, begins with the personal development of a pastor. The Spirit's vocational assignment for pastors includes the life of the mind. The pastor is first a Christian who is, like any other follower of Jesus Christ, committed to the deepening of the mind. This depth of mind and heart is part of what Jesus was after when he replied to the Pharisee, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment" (Matt 22:37-38; cf. Rom 12:1-2).4

It is also, I believe, what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he instructed Timothy, "think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything" (2 Tim 2:7). Paul told Timothy to think and reflect on his teaching-but not without an important assumption: it is "the Lord [who] will give you understanding in everything." Effective pastoral ministry requires intentionally pursuing deep thinking that totally depends on God.

That's where writing comes in. Writing helps to deepen the mind. Pursuing a deep mind, according to Sertillanges, requires "penetration and continuity and methodical effort." And there is no better tool for intellectual spadework than a pen or pencil or keyboard. Writing, then, is a way to dig-a way to dig deep the well of the mind. Digging a well or excavating a reservoir requires penetration and continuity and methodical effort. Writing is uniquely suited to accomplish this work. When we write, we are excavating one sentence at a time. It may not look like much at first, but after a few days of digging, we begin to notice the depth of progress.

What the church needs today is deeply spiritual leaders. And a writing pastor is most often a deeper man than he would be otherwise. So whether in notes, letters, journal entries, articles, blogs, or sermon manuscripts, a pastor can practice deepening his own mind and soul through writing. This will, in time, deepen the souls of those to whom he ministers.

2. Clarity of Thought

A second way writing contributes to the formation of a pastor's soul is by helping him to think clearly. A friend of mine explains it this way: "Writing helps me to crystallize my thoughts. When I have a hunch about something, it then helps to work it out in writing. The process helps to clarify and refine my thinking." That is a helpful way to put it. When we write, we give definite form to what we have been turning over in our minds, enabling us to carefully investigate our own intuitions.

Francis Bacon captured well the idea of clarity through writing in his essay Of Studies:

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not.5

Writing helps us to think clearly because it forces us to be precise and exact-"and writing an exact man." The discipline of writing and rewriting is an invaluable formative process. As we write, things tend to get clearer. The fog lifts, and shadowy ideas turn bright and crisp.

Pastors ought to write because clarity of mind is a spiritual matter. When we pursue clarity of mind, we are, in a sense, pursuing God himself. We are, as image bearers, seeking to return to the clear state of mind we had before the fall (Gen 1:26-27). Our uniquely reasonable capacities to represent God have been distorted, and we often do not see clearly. We see dimly.

But we may hope to recover our sight through God's own written revelation. One of the most memorable passages in the Psalter describes Scripture as what enlightens the eyes of the mind: "The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes" (Ps 19:8b NIV). Because Scripture is radiant, it enlightens and helps us to see more clearly. The Vulgate helps us here in a way that most English translations do not. The key word is lucidum (Lat.): "The commands of the Lord are clear, giving light to the eyes." One of the effects of the written Word on those who believe is that it enables us to see clearly and not shadowy. A radiant clarity comes from God through Scripture. It dispels the darkness and improves our vision to see the things of God and man.

A pastor cannot afford to be a fuzzy thinker. The discipline of writing not only makes an "exact man," but it also makes a clear man-one in whom the clarity of the Word of God itself becomes increasingly evident.

3. Pace of Life

A third way that writing helps us is by requiring a particular pace of life, one that most of us are in the habit of outrunning. Writing requires a rhythm of life that is remarkably different than today's Google-text-tweet-global pace. Pastors, of all people, ought to consider their pace of life.

A scene from the film The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind. Brooks, the older man who has served for years as the penitentiary's librarian, is finally released from prison. He reticently leaves to reenter the world outside of Shawshank. Stepping off the bus for the first time and seeing automobiles and people moving all about him, he is greatly disturbed. Things have changed. He writes to his friends still in prison, saying, "The whole world went and got itself into a big d--- hurry!" What Brooks had at Shawshank was a rhythm of life and a place in community that had come to define him so much so that he couldn't live without it. He couldn't bear the pace of life outside of Shawshank. This is Red's (Morgan Freeman) point as he reads the suicide note that explains why Brooks decided to take his own life.

There is a pace of life that accords with godliness and that we also cannot live without. Writing helps us to find that particular pace of life. It helps us to find the rhythm of life God intends for us.

God made us to live in a world of days, weeks, months, and seasons-his world of sunrises and sunsets, of laws and rhythms. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. speaks of the biblical idea of wisdom as "the knowledge of God's world and the knack of fitting oneself into it."6 One who is wise has a knack for seeing and fitting into God's design of all things. He sees the rhythms of life and learns to ride them. He sees the deep grains and textures of the world and learns to appreciate the habits of its Maker.

One way to appreciate the habits of our Maker is to cultivate habits of our own. And writing is a particularly good habit. Writing requires rhythm and order; we must abide by certain literary rules and patterns. The ordering of these rules and patterns reflects the ultimate order that exists in God himself. The Word, or Logos, of the eternal God is the one from whom all ordered communication comes. I do not think it is a stretch, then, to say that the habit of writing serves well in the formation of the soul. It is a way of finding the rhythms and patterns of God through written communication.

Writing can be so helpful in finding a suitable pace of life because it slows us down. There is something terribly inefficient about writing. We hardly ever get it right the first time. Good writing takes time, patience, and another draft. It is by nature a humbling exercise. Bestselling author Anne Lamott captures this idea well in her book Bird by Bird.7 In a chapter on "Shoddy First Drafts," Lamott suggests that most good writing begins with poor first efforts.8 It is not until the second or third draft that writing begins to even approach a sense of elegance. To think otherwise, says Lamott, is "the fantasy of the uninitiated." 9

If writing is such an inefficient-and even humbling-exercise for the "uninitiated," why should we spend our time doing it? Because it slows us down. And the practice of slowing is a good practice for busy souls.

There are some things we ought not to be so efficient about. Indeed, there are some things we should be anything but efficient about. We should not seek to worship God efficiently or love our children efficiently, should we?10 If we were to speak in those terms, we would be seen by others as anything but loving-and rightly so. When we practice the habit of writing, we learn to be something other than efficient. We learn to adjust our pace. We learn patience and the value of slowing down.

4. Quiet and Solitude

A fourth benefit that writing brings to the soul relates to peace and quiet, to silence and solitude. Living in a manner that promotes a peaceful and quiet life is a mark of godliness (1 Tim 2:2). Writing well requires both quiet and solitude. For some writers this means silence and solitude. For others it means quiet and solitude. In either case, the discipline of writing brings with it the benefits that come to us through a peaceful and quiet state of mind. To borrow a metaphor from Anselm of Canterbury, writing helps us to enter "the chamber of the mind" and "shut the door" in order to seek God.11 Something happens there in the chamber of the mind that rarely, if ever, happens outside of it.

David McCullough, a respected historian and author of Truman, John Adams, and 1776, appreciates the chamber of the mind. So much does he value it that he has a separate physical place, a chamber so to speak, that he enters for the express purpose of writing. And he goes there daily. McCullough speaks of walking from his house to his backyard writing studio as his daily commute. The writing studio is away from the house intentionally so that his grandchildren do not have to worry about making noise while he writes.12

Choosing to be alone is not easy for many of us, including pastors. We are not used to silence and solitude. We have been trained to fill our own worlds with noise and activity. We can't seem to live without cell phones, iPads, email, and HDTV. Dennis Okholm suggests a reason for this: "Perhaps it is not just the silence itself that frightens us. Perhaps we fill our world with noise because we are really afraid to face ourselves."13 I think Okholm is on to something here. Silence frightens us because we don't know who we are apart from the noise. We would much rather find our identity in the noise or hide behind the noise than allow silence to bring us face to face with God or self.

There is something incredibly restorative about entering the chamber of the mind-about getting alone to think and to write. Something that makes us better shepherds to other busy souls. To be sure, quiet and solitude are requirements for most of us simply to accomplish the task of writing. We need to be alone to focus and clear our minds in order to get something written down in paragraph form. But the point here concerns more than a cogent paragraph, more than getting something on paper. Being quiet and alone restores the soul or at least has great potential to assist in restoring the soul.

This is especially the case when the habit of writing is employed as a means to improve the most foundational of all the spiritual disciplines: Word and prayer. We now turn to these two particular disciplines in order to consider how we may practice and even enhance them through writing.

5. The Ministry of Words

In what way might the practice of writing assist pastors in their own understanding of the Scriptures and even the gospel itself? Notice that we are not asking how writing helps form an effective sermon. Surely writing a sermon manuscript can contribute to a more well-formed, clear, and substantive sermon. But that is not our subject here. Instead, we are interested in the ways in which the discipline of writing personally and privately benefits pastors. Learning the ministry of words privately will eventually find its way to bless the people of God through the public ministry of the Word.14

Ours is a ministry of words. But as pastors, our ministry of words does not begin with preaching. It begins with listening and hearing. It begins with understanding God's ministry of words to us. The Word of God is both learned and conveyed to others in human words. Peter Adam helps us with this idea in his book Hearing God's Words: "From beginning to end the Bible is a book about God who speaks, about people who hear and respond to God's words, and about people speaking those same words to others."15

The Word of the gospel has come near to us: "the word is near you" (Rom 10:8; cf. Deut 30:14). It has come to us in a language that we may understand. God has chosen to reveal himself through the incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ, but not only in this way. He also reveals himself through a sacred book that was written perfectly in conventional human language. This means that, as pastors, we must devote time to understanding the primary means by which God communicates to his people. We ought to be adept in our understanding of, appreciation for, and facility with words. And yet not just any words. Our competency should be in the sacred use of sacred words.

One practice for learning the ministry of words is the simple act of copying the Scriptures. It is an ancient and personal habit that pastors have employed because of its intrinsic value. It is a way of seeing, hearing, and learning God's Word. For example, Luther warns that it is not enough to recite a passage of Scripture a few times and think it now mastered: "[Y]ou should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them."16 He then adds, "His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc., outwardly was not given in vain."17

For Luther the act of writing or copying the Scriptures, along with reading and speaking them, expresses the external Word, apart from which the Spirit does not work within us. The Spirit of God employs the external form of the Word to effect internal change. When it comes to spiritual maturity, then, Luther thinks of these habits that employ the "literal words of the book" as invaluable so much so that he cautions,

And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe.18

Who among us wants to be "untimely fruit"? The way to maturity and ripeness in pastoral ministry comes through regular habits that keep the very words of Scripture in front of us. Writing and rewriting the "literal words of the book" is one such habit. It is a sacred use of words that fosters the ripening of our ministries in biblical and theological maturity.

6. A Life of Prayer

Prayer is another foundational discipline that may be enhanced through writing. So valuable is prayer that some have suggested it is the most important of all spiritual disciplines. I prefer, however, to think of Word and prayer together as the center or core of the devoted life (Acts 6:4). Neither discipline is more important than the other since both Word and prayer are necessarily dependent on each other. Apart from Word and prayer, none of the other spiritual disciplines make much sense.

Donald Bloesch expressed his concern about the devoted life, as practiced among Protestants, over three decades ago: "If anything characterizes modern Protestantism, it is the absence of spiritual disciplines or spiritual exercises. Yet such disciplines form the core of the life of devotion. It is not an exaggeration to state that this is the lost dimension in modern Protestantism."19 What may pastors do to recover this lost dimension of the church's life-to recover the core of a life of devotion?

The answer, it seems to me, begins with a faithful, private life of prayer. When our heavenly Father sees our devotion in secret, perhaps he will reward the life of the church in a more public way. Here are a few ways that the discipline of writing may help pastors in private prayer.

First, writing helps us to see more clearly what it is we ask of God. We need to see how often we come to God asking for stuff or things and even "blessings." Written prayers are one step removed from us since they have made their way outside of us and on the page in front of us. This lends itself to more objectivity about our "needs" and "prayer requests." Taking the time to write longhand a prayer, or copy a psalm as the expression of one's own heart, may remind us that coming to God as suppliants is not the only way to come to God. Nor should it be the way most often taken. We may also come as grateful worshipers hoping for nothing immediate in return.

Second, writing helps us to avoid hollow and mechanical prayers. Pastors are as likely as anyone to "heap up empty phrases" and prattle on in the name of prayer (Matt 6:7). Some pastors begin their public prayers in ways that betray a shallow interior life. They pray the same hollow phrases over and over and over. Taking the time to script a prayer in writing or rehearse a prayer written by someone else helps us to fund the grammar of prayer with substance, gravity, and sobriety.20

Third, writing helps us to remember in the act of prayer and meditation. Sometimes we write in order to capture an idea about God so that we may return to it at a later time. Augustine practiced writing during the act of prayer and meditation for this very reason: "[I] prevent forgetfulness from running away with my meditations by tying them down to paper."21 This discipline of writing-tying meditations down to paper-was for him a way of "trusting in God's mercy" in order to persevere "in all the truths" of which he was sure.22 Significantly, the truth on which Augustine was meditating when he penned the above words was the threefold unity of God. Through prayer and meditation Augustine ended up writing one of his most influential theological works, The Trinity.

Writing in the act of prayer and meditation also helps us to remember in a different sort of way. I do not simply mean that we may look back through a journal and remember that God answered a particular prayer in a remarkable way-though that is certainly an encouragement to my soul. Rather, I mean that there is a relationship between remembering and faith, between remembrance and belief, that is formative. We see this modeled in the psalms again and again: "These things I remember, as I pour out my soul" or "Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart" (Pss 42:4; 77:6; cf. 63:6). So significant were these meditations that they were composed in writing and in song. Written composition that seeks to remember God and his faithfulness is good for the soul.

7. Conclusion: Writing Seems So Comparatively Trivial

Why should we, as busy pastors, take the time to write? Are there not more important things to do? Poverty and social injustice abound. The world is in need. And on top of that, the demands of pastoral ministry seem unending-from budgets and buildings to counseling and crisis-care to missions and church planting, not to mention weekly preparation for the ministry of the Word. How can we spare the time to write while souls are perishing? Writing seems so comparatively trivial.

C.S. Lewis helps us to answer this question with characteristic wisdom. In his address, "Learning in War-Time," he argues that learning and scholarship are not trivial pursuits even during the intensity of war-time.23 Human life has and always will be lived on the edge of a precipice. Lewis's point is that there will never be a suitable moment or a perfect season for learning and reflection. We live in a broken world. "If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."24

The same is true for us as pastors. If we postpone our search-waiting for things to settle down and life to be normal again-we will never begin. Pastoral ministry has never been normal. It never will be. It is precisely for that reason that we make the time to write anyway. We write because, for us, the search has begun. And through writing the search continues. We write because it is a formative discipline for the good of our souls.

[1] It would be a mistake to understand the essay's title, "The Writing Pastor," as "The Publishing Pastor." That is not what I intend. I am not suggesting that every pastor ought to publish journal articles and books. I am suggesting that pastors write. Writing is a spiritual discipline that holds promise for all pastors. This should not, I think, be said of publishing.

[2] Augustine, as cited in Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (New York: Dorset, 1986), 353.

[3] A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, in The Great Tradition (ed. Robert M. Gamble; Wilmington: ISI, 2007), 573.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2011 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[6] Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 115.

[7] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor, 1995).

[8] Lamott's chapter title actually employs a word other than "shoddy," but that is close enough; you get the idea.

[9] Lamott, Bird by Bird, 21.

[10] I am following Eugene Peterson and Ken Myers here. In a chapel lecture, Myers made this insightful observation about the effects of "efficient technology" on the life of the church following Peterson's lead. In particular, he pointed out that we should not seek to worship God efficiently as do many evangelicals today. See Ken Myers, " The Counter-Cultural Imperative for Christian Disciplers" (lecture given at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC, March 26, 2009).

[11] See Anselm, An Address (Proslogion), in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (ed. Eugene R. Fairweather; Library of Christian Classics; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1956), 70.

[12] Bob Hoover, "David McCullough: America's Historian, Pittsburg Son," Pittsburg Post-Gazette, n.p., http://www.post-gazette.com/books/20011230mccullough1230fnp2.asp (accessed April 14, 2009).

[13] Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 40-41.

[14] Of course, pastors should also work hard to improve the effectiveness of their public ministry of the Word. This is not an "either/or" in pastoral ministry. The point here is to remain focused on what has been called the priority of the interior life.

[15] Peter Adam, Hearing God's Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 47. The book is a helpful introduction to the spiritually formative value of hearing God's word as a spiritual discipline.

[16] Martin Luther, "Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther's German Writings," in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings (ed. Timothy F. Lull; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 66 (italics mine).

[17] Ibid. (italics mine).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Donald Bloesch, The Crisis of Piety (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 63.

[20] Other than Scripture itself (especially Psalms), the two collections of prayers that have been most helpful to me are Arthur Bennett, ed.,The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002) and The Book of Common Prayer.

[21] Augustine, The Trinity (trans. Edmund Hill; The Works of St. Augustine; Brooklyn: New City, 1991), 68. Thanks to Brian Daniels, my grading and research assistant, for pointing me to this insight in Augustine.

[22] Ibid.

[23] C. S. Lewis, "Learning in War-Time," in The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 47-63.

[24] Ibid., 49.




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