This is the second part of a 2-part excerpt from an essay for anyone interested. I apologize that my footnotes didn’t transfer.
The Benefits and Suitability of Pastoral Letter Writing
For many reasons, pastoral letter writing is a natural extension of already existing ministry, and most pastors already have the skills developed to thrive at it.
First, pastors are already trained in the “word business,” as Eugene Peterson calls it. Like poets, pastors are “caretakers of language, the shepherds of words, keeping them from harm, exploitation, misuse.” What better way to ply the art of “word work” than through letters?
Second, letters have an enduring quality that sermons and face to face conversations lack. I may put 20 hours into a sermon that people won’t recall two days later. On the other hand, a member of my church recently told me she came across an email I sent her six years ago, and expressed how much the words ministered to her again a second time. (I spent less than an hour on it, compared to the hundreds of hours I’ve spent on sermons she’ll never revisit.) Similarly, while face to face conversations over coffee are great, they can lack the permanent quality of a written exchange a person can return to again and again.
Third, I am not the most articulate and insightful when offering pastoral wisdom in passing or off-the-cuff. My counsel is more thoughtful and precise if I take time to reflect, pray and search the Scriptures in response to a person’s situation. My pastoral writing also tends to include more Scriptural quotations than face to face conversations, as citing chapter and verse is more difficult on the spot.
Fourth, pastoral letter writing allows us to “be with” and minister to people whose busy schedules make it difficult to meet in person. I have spent many years decrying our culture’s “busyness” and trying to get people to slow down and show up for worship, small group, and other ministry gatherings. While I am not ready to give up the fight for face-to-face discipleship, why not avail ourselves of this other means of getting into another’s heart and home through writing?
While it often takes two or three weeks to meet up with a parishioner, even the busiest people in my church usually find time to read an email from me and respond within a day or two (and often within the hour!). If letters have the power to bring two people together while physically apart, and if the people in our churches are run ragged from hectic schedules and too emotionally drained to “show up” (but also feeling increasingly lonely and isolated as they lie at home binging Netflix), why not sneak our way into their living room through an encouraging email they can ponder on the couch in between episodes?
Fifth, letter writing can be a life-giving and emotionally sustainable practice for pastors who are relationally exhausted and emotionally overextended from too many meetings and long hours of ministry. Pastors often find weeknight ministry meetings competing with their own family time. Do we miss a third night in a row of reading and tucking our kids into bed in order to meet Bill for coffee to discuss his failing marriage? Perhaps, this time our pastoral presence and care can be extended through an encouraging email we send from home after we’ve tucked our kids into bed.
Sixth, pastoral letter-writing can be a much needed refuge and invigorating playground for introverted pastors trying to survive an extroverted church culture. Adam McHugh’s book Introverts in the Church, is a love letter to introverts like me who continually wonder if there is a place in pastoral ministry for my “monastic” personality and temperament. Our extroverted church age favors warm and gregarious pastoral personalities and has excelled at drawing crowds, launching ministries and mobilizing people into action. Yet, we continually bemoan the shallow faith of many church attenders today.
The church needs contemplatives and mystics, intellectuals and poets, to harness the power of the pastoral pen and get busy doing the “word work” that can foster deeper formation among our people. The church needs to embrace the pastoral gift/role of “spiritual writing” as enthusiastically it celebrates the gift of public speaking. A church might add a “Writing Pastor” to their staff to teach and exhort people all week long through writing, and have an impact equal to (or greater than) the preaching pastor through her weekly sermon that many will not show up to hear.
Finally, pastor burnout rates continue to be very high and one key factor is a sense of loneliness and isolation. Peter Drucker once said that the four hardest jobs in America (and not necessarily in order) are the President of the United States, a university president, a CEO of a hospital, and a pastor. As full time professional encouragers, pastors are often starving for some encouragement themselves. Interestingly, the vast majority of the letters of Augustine, Basil, and others were collegial letters from one clergy to another filled with affirmation and mutual encouragement in their shared calling. Pastors who struggle to get together often enough with peers would be wise to imitate our letter-writing forefathers and find a pastoral pen pal for mutual encouragement.
Summary and Conclusion
In this essay we explored the art of ancient letter writing as one potentially fruitful way pastors can mediate their presence and personality to the people under their care. Throughout history, letters have been a primary—even preeminent—means of moral formation and pastoral guidance. Letters help deepen the relational bond between a teacher and pupil even from a distance. Letters have the power to bring two people virtually into the same room to enjoy each other’s company.
In our day of shallow connections and increasingly impersonal communication, pastors should consider recovering the lost art of letter writing and repurposing it as a means of pastorally engaging their flock in a more personal and impactful way. So, let us put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and, in the poetic words of Donne, start mingling souls!
“Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls. For, thus friends absent speak.” —John Donne