Still a Writer

“Pastor” did not top the list of my dream professions as a child, or even into junior high and high school, when the upper-middle class world I grew up in begins encouraging kids to firm up their vocational plans. Broadway star, lawyer, host of a show on National Public Radio about religion and politics: these dominated my fantasy life, my summer school choices, and my AP exam schedule. 

I come from a renaissance sort of family, so my parents never worried about my lack of focus. Ours is an interdisciplinary life – Mom’s in education and theater, Dad’s in ministry – and so they naturally steered me toward an interdisciplinary undergraduate program. It was a fantastic fit: I loved college, loved studying all manner of things. Social science? Humanities? Political Philosophy? I ate them all up. I was happiest when papers came due. 

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that what I wanted more than anything was to write. I’d write about anything, I just wanted to see the ideas come together in phrases, in sentences (preferably those featuring my beloved semi-colon), in essays. 

My parents firmly believe that a post-college poverty period serves a critical developmental role in the life of any young adult. But I wasn’t so sure; I was scared of being broke forever. I looked around at the people whose careers I admired and I saw that they were either experts in something, or they had started as reporters. You just don’t get to be an essayist at twenty-one, at least not a self-supporting one. This appeared to be an incontrovertible fact of life, one that daunted and disappointed me. There were exceptions, of course, but I wasn’t that talented or that driven. 

Subsequently, I took a lot of journalism classes. Got a couple of really fabulous internships, wrote a column for the school paper. And found that – and here I reveal my nerd stripes – I didn’t like any of them very much. I got by-lines, but I wasn’t writing about anything important. My work felt small. Superficial. I was writing about lip gloss and cellulite-reducing pantyhose. I’m a preacher’s kid: I wanted to be making a difference, wanted to be writing something prescriptive and useful. And at twenty-one, I lacked the patience to spend twenty years building toward the distant possibility that I might get to write something that would leave the world a better place for its having been published. 

There was another problem, too. In my callow youth, I had a hell of a time generating story ideas. I had little conflict in my own life, no fabulously interesting upbringing, and no sense of how to find an angle. I wanted to write but, for the most part, I wasn’t really sure what to say. Grad school, I was sure, would help. 

Eventually, another call asserted itself. Sometimes God works in tiny, pragmatic details: it was prevenient grace as best as I can figure that there was scholarship money for M.Div. programs and not the M.A. in Religion. That I found, as I looked for field education placements, that I ended up pastoring churches. That my favorite professor was so supremely committed to the local church. Eventually, I came to see myself as a pastor, and I was ordained, and now I work in churches. 

But here’s the thing. I’m still a writer. And I increasingly find that my pastoral ministry reflects and enhances my work as a writer. Good writers are good readers, and good pastors are good listeners: we grow in grace, wisdom and skill at both as we develop eyes to see and ears to hear. The stories that I encounter in the lives of “my” people inform the way that I understand God, the work of the church, and, obviously, the sermons I preach and the writing I do. 

An example: I sat down to write this very piece a week or so ago, first thing in the morning, when I was fresh and full of energy and had carved out a few hours before diving into my daily tasks. I sat down in my preferred local coffee shop, armed myself with an almond latte, and promptly wrote 250 really crappy words. Now, I don’t want to be too hard on myself: first drafts are always lousy. But I had set aside all this time and I floundered. I wanted to write, and I wanted to write about writing as vocation – and I had nothing. 

I had nothing, that is, until I went to this meeting with a parishioner and her nine-year old daughter at my new church. We talked about the children’s program I’m to lead this fall and our varied experiences with what works to engage the kids and whether to continue to use the same curriculum as last year… and then we chatted about Emma starting in the gifted program in the fall and how her big brother is going to college and how she likes the idea of doing more crafts this year, but also doing some more singing and praying. 

For me, great writers and great pastors alike never fail to inspire awe at the mysterious, holy way in which art and grace come into the world. But years writing and in ministry have also convinced me that it’s not all mystery, that there are some clear ways of ensuring that you’re living into a calling as writer and pastor. Writing that compels, writing that is true, describes and enters into the particular – whether it’s the sensory details of a scene, or the intricacies of individual human lives. Ministry that touches and transforms hearts and minds speaks to the particulars of a given human community, comprised of the questions, hopes and challenges of, again, individual human lives. And just as the whole reality of God is revealed in the particular life of Jesus as the Christ, the closer attention we pay to the particularities of our lives together, the more clearly we will see the universal concerns and experiences that bind us together. 

So, too, are both writing and ministry fed by a pattern of “event and reflection.” Both writers and pastors, especially young ones, seem always to be questioned about whether they’re working hard enough. What do you do all day? When I am not at my best, when I am feeling anxious or questioning myself (read: almost always), I take this question to heart and reactively fill my calendar with meetings and tasks that could better be completed by others. I run around from event to event and fail to leave time for reflection. 

This kills writing and pretty much stifles growth in ministry. The reflection on ministry usually does happen at some point or another, even if it’s when I’m stuck in traffic or in the shower. The writing time is harder to manage; it does not magically come together, and no one – not parent, child, spouse, parishioner or boss – has ever come to me and asked me if I wanted to take a few hours to just get some writing done. That day I met with Emma and her mom? I was so fabulously inspired and then, as they walked out of my office, someone else walked in. Then I got three e-mails I needed to reply to, and felt guilty about a few things I hadn’t finished the day before, and had to prep for a meeting that evening. And then the grocery and dry cleaners and home to my family. All the everyday joys and responsibilities of life. 

Needless to say, I have a lot of marginally useful notes in my journal, and multiple mostly-empty Word documents that contain snappy titles and a few lines. I am working on a better routine, on going back to those starter ideas sooner rather than later. I’m making some progress. 

It’s not an easy thing to juggle multiple vocations. Nobody said the abundant life would be easy. But having too much to say, too many stories to tell in the time I’ve got, too many experiences of grace and love to report on – for the would-be writer who didn’t know what to write about – this is a nice, even a holy, problem to have.

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