National Novel Writing Month with Young Clergywomen

Once upon a time, a group of writers gathered, furnished with journals and fancy pens, or laptops draped in fun stickers. Pastors and chaplains gathered together with church members at coffee shops, trying not to talk too much and thus impede maximum word count. Young clergywomen took their collars off, even if their stories still dripped with biblical allusions and theological questions, and they brought their Google Docs to the library write-in to make a few writer friends and get away from Advent studies cluttering their tables. These clergywomen were making community with other writers to draft a 50,000 word novel in one month. 1,667 words a day through the month of November– you know, that month when we are ramping up for the chaos of Advent in the sacred world and the holiday crush of the secular world. 

It’s called Nanowrimo: National Novel Writing Month. There is a website to connect writers to communities defined by genre or geography and to share a little about the project, but the main point of the site is to log not the writing itself but the daily word count. For those of us young clergywomen Nanowrimo fans, writing is a spiritual practice and a contemplative experience. In a culture that is so focused on hustling, Nanowrimo is an invitation to sit and be still. While it may seem impossible to add something to an already busy life, writing can be a way to remember and to find the Divine. For those of us in pastoral ministry, November can become a time of chaos prepping Advent worship, and we often lose the contemplative preparation we are urging our congregations to engage in during the season. Making time for writing and creativity during the month of November ignites reflection and purpose as we prepare for Advent, the coming of the light to the world.  

There is also something freeing in focusing solely on word count. The words we write don’t necessarily matter during Nanowrimo. What matters is the act of writing itself. Our critical natures can take a back seat because it isn’t about perfection; it’s just about writing. Nanowrimo gives us the place, time, and community to let go of our own expectations and judgments and just create for the sake of creating. After all, this is not just an invitation of creativity: it is an invitation to join in the work of creating with Creator God. In the first creation story in Genesis 1, God speaks and the world comes into being. Throughout Scripture, God keeps speaking, inviting us to repent and change our stories, or to survive and live new stories, or to work with God to write stories of love and grace no one has imagined yet. Yet, too often we forget this invitation to creativity and instead just focus on getting through the next meeting or accomplishing the next task. Nanowrimo whispers of God’s creativity in asking us to explore and discover new worlds, new characters, and new stories. We– as adults, and particularly as women in ministry– don’t give ourselves the permission to engage with our imaginations often enough. 

And for many of us young clergywomen, writing allows us to explore parts of our identity we might forget when caught up in the tyranny of ministry schedules. One of us started writing in the midst of a struggle with infertility because she needed to remind herself of her ability to keep creating even if she couldn’t mother living children. Another of us started Nanowrimo out of loneliness. Nanowrimo gave her a community of other writers online and also helped her connect to her sister too, on whose advice about the plot she ended up relying. Another of us pointed out that Nanowrimo helps her release her drive for control. When she began writing a Nanowrimo novel last year, she wanted to shape it into a particular thing. But the work that took shape was unexpected and what it needed to be as she wrote to release frustration that she was experiencing in ministry. Writing, including fiction, allows us to reflect more deeply on our own reality and identity. 

If you are looking for a new spiritual practice, a new creative outlet, or a community of storytellers, grab your pens or keyboard and try your hand writing a novel this month!

The NaNoWriMo logo, which is a light blue shield with a coffee mug, computer sxcreen, pen, and stack of papers, with a horned viking helmet above the shield.

one hand being held between a pair of other hands

Reclaiming #BLESSED

one hand being held between a pair of other hands


My thumbs move swiftly across my phone screen. One quick search on Instagram for #BLESSED shows over 100 million tags. As I scroll, I see pictures of sculpted bodies, expensive cars, tropical destinations, healthy babies, and shiny accessories. A few posts stand out as having some kind of spiritual message or focus on gratitude. Yet, I feel unsatisfied and uninspired. I’m longing for something grittier, more hopeful, and with more substance from a spiritual word like “blessed.” My role as solo pastor of a small congregation often requires me to wear a lot of hats in ministry as I go from the board meeting to the ICU to the pulpit, and so much more. Not only do I need language that is robust enough to carry through all these spaces, but I also need it to nourish me when I’m able to shift the focus to my own spiritual life.

Jonathan Merritt recently called “blessed” one of the sacred words that needs reclaiming since it has come to be trite, braggy, and materialistic.[1] In a video to promote his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing–and How We Can Revive Them, Merritt takes to the streets of New York City to interview people about the meaning of #BLESSED. As you might expect from its use on social media, most people either struggled to think of what it could mean or had a vague definition connected to gratitude and having good/nice things in life.

To be fair, the word “bless” is kind of a complicated word. It can be a verb that shows divine or human favor, care, endearment, veneration, holiness, permission, or gratitude. It can be a noun and an adjective. We use it to talk about everything from “having my parents’ blessing” to things that are a “blessing in disguise.” For so long, I didn’t realize what I was missing by not reclaiming this word in my life and ministry. As Merritt points out, when we lose spiritual language, we lose both the ability to engage one another in conversation about our spiritual lives and the ability to prevent the language from being co-opted and distorted by politicians, televangelists, advertisers, etc.[2]

Now, of course, I could have told you that “blessed” was not as superficial as pretty pictures, but I had never paid particular attention to the word. If there was a suggestion for a blessing in the liturgy at the end of a service, I conveniently collapsed it into the benediction. I would stretch out my hands, facing the congregation, and would send them out with a charge. I was happy to talk more about grace and gratitude since “blessed” seemed like the domain of the “name it and claim it” preachers or the grocery store checker who always handed me my receipt and told me to “have a blessed day.”

Then one day I went to visit Marlene, a member of my congregation, after a nasty fall that left her with seven broken ribs and the need to enter a living situation that provided more care. As I drove through lonely back roads to get to the hospital, I listened to the audio version of Kate Bowler’s memoir Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. In the book Bowler recounts the personal journey of going from researching and writing about the prosperity gospel tradition in America to being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Read more

The Spiritual Art of Writing Icons

Jonah and the Fish

When I was diagnosed with cancer while in seminary, I started to question my faith and to question whether I was really following God’s call for my life. I knew I needed to find different spiritual practices to keep me grounded. So I started with the practices I knew: I would read the Bible and pray. Still, I felt like something was missing.

The Visitation

During one of my treatments, I noticed that a woman next to me would look at a card and then close her eyes. She and I began to have a conversation, so I asked about the card in her hand. She was holding a picture of an icon of the Virgin Mary and praying for Mary to intercede on her behalf. The icon itself was beautiful! She brought me a picture of The Visitation icon the next time we met, and I kept it inside my Bible. I enjoyed looking at it and being reminded of Mary and Elizabeth, but I used the icon in a different way.

Later, my husband heard of a local woman who taught iconography. He contacted her, found out there was an opening in one of her weeklong classes during the summer, and asked if I would be interested. Read more