letters pastoral leadership Teaching/Formation

Wise Letters for Weary Souls

“I read your letters over and over, to help remind me that I am not alone,” said one parishioner during the early months of the pandemic. Another said, “While I love a Sunday sermon, I felt these letters so much more deeply in my heart.”

Summary of my chapter in Wise Church, the book our doctoral cohort published together with Scot McKnight.

That which is sweetest when we meet face to face is afforded by the impress of a friends hand upon his letter.” 

Seneca, 1st Century Roman Philosopher

When Covid hit and most churches were moving services online, I reached for my electronic ink and quill—i.e., my MacBook Pro—and began writing “pastoral letters” to individuals in my congregation. While digital media has enabled us to be connected with more people more often, the quality and depth of our interactions today is steadily diminishing. The most connected people in the history of the human race are also proving to be some of the most lonely and isolated. 

In our digital age of distance learning, disembodied teaching, and impersonal sermons transmitted through a screen, there’s a need for pastors to return to more personal and embodied forms of wisdom and communication. One powerful way pastors have shepherded souls through the ages is through pastoral letter writing. My chapter in Wise Church surveys the rich and enduring legacy of letter writing for the purpose of spiritual formation—from Greco-Roman philosophers, to the New Testament epistles, and into the writings of the Church Fathers. 

More than just conveying ideas or communicating facts, ancient letters mediated ones personal presence. Cicero, the most famous and prolific letter writer of Roman antiquity,  writes, “Though I have nothing to say to you, I write all the same, because I feel as though I were talking to you. Seneca, the Roman Stoic and contemporary of Paul, writes to his disciple Lucilius: “I thank you for writing to me so often; for you are revealing your real self to me in the only way you can. I never receive a letter from you without being in your company forthwith.”

Our days are filled with a continuous stream of emoji-laden text messages and hurried ‘Just-give-me-the-facts’ emails that can sound so tinny compared with the time-consuming, heart-throbbing correspondences of old. Cicero’s letters drip with the emotive intimacy of a deep friendship: “What could give me greater pleasure, failing a face to face talk with you, than either to write to you, or to read a letter of yours?” In his correspondence with his friend Atticus he confides, “I rest only so long as I am writing to you or reading your letters.” In sharp contrast to today’s two-dimensional emails and quickly shot off one-phrase text messages, Cicero could say to his spiritual pen pal, “All of you was revealed to me in your letter.”

How many pastors know their people this well today? How much of themselves are pastors willing to reveal to their congregants? Pastors are at risk of letting more efficient forms of connectivity diminish the personal nature and relational quality of our ministry. Pastors today can broadcast their thoughts all week long through a sermon podcast, blog, and Twitter, but are they finding ways to engage their flock in more personal ways? A megachurch pastor might have 50,000+ anonymous souls downloading their sermons each week, but do they know any of them by name? Many such ear-bud Christians may be, to echo Jesus, confused and helpless, like podcast subscribers without a pastor (cf. Matt 9:36). They are being “fed” weekly but are they truly known by a caring shepherd?

In the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, we see the flowering of pastoral epistolary activity as the great sages such as Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome and Augustine sending their teachings far and wide on the wings of a thousand personal letters. Basil testifies to the power of being ministered to through another bishop’s letters, saying: “If your holiness only knew the greatness of the happiness you cause me whenever you write to me, I know that you would never have let slip any opportunity of sending me a letter; nay, you would have written me many letters on each occasion.” He praises another bishop’s ability to wrap his fatherly arms around a church in need by way of a letter: “You have condescended to minister to us your spiritual gladness, to refresh our souls by your honored letter, and, as it were, to fling the arms of your greatness round the infancy of children.”

These excerpts wonderfully capture the ministry potential of pastoral letters. With some prayerful strokes of the pen or heart-felt clicks on a keyboard, a pastor can encourage the timid, rouse the slumbering, and refresh weary souls.

Instead of just flinging an impersonal sermon out over a nameless crowd each Sunday, a personal pastoral letter can fling a loving shepherd’s arms around a wounded or wandering sheep, refreshing their soul.

A sermon speaks a general word to the masses, while a pastoral letter is a personalized sermon directed at a single heart in need.

Ten years ago, when I began planting the church I now lead, I took an overnight newspaper route to help make ends meet while I invested my day time hours in forming a church. All night long while the rest of the town slept, I drove mailbox to mailbox delivering the Star Tribune and offering up prayers that some of these sleeping households would someday be part of our new church. 

Now, ten years later, I’m driving these streets again, mailbox to mailbox, only this time I’m delivering little parcels of good news to Covid-weary souls. When people open their mailbox and see that brown envelope inside with a little wax seal, I hope they feel how Basil of Caesarea felt when a new letter landed on his doorstep: “When I take your letter into my hand, first of all, I look at its size, and I love it all the more for being so big; then, as I read it, I rejoice over every word I find in it; as I draw near the end I begin to feel sad; so good is every word that I read, in what you write.”

The feedback from my congregation has backed this up. “I read your letters over and over, to help remind me that I am not alone,” said one parishioner during the early months of the pandemic. Another said, “While I love a Sunday sermon, I felt these letters so much more deeply in my heart.”

In our day of shallow connections and increasingly impersonal communication, I invite pastors to retool letter writing for shepherding souls today. Pastoral letters are more than ink on paper; they are the heart and soul—the embodied presence and wisdom—of a caring shepherd reaching out in love to guide his or her sheep. And to the curmudgeon in the congregation who insists the pastor spend the week preparing expository sermons over writing pastoral letters, gently point out the irony that we are expositing a letter and appreciate the enduring quality of these ancient letters that were sufficient for Paul then, and still guiding and nurturing the church today.

Of course, some pastors will need to come out from hiding behind the pulpit, and risk revealing more of themselves through the more vulnerable medium of letters. But I believe a pastor’s impact will grow as he or she opens their own soul up in the presence of the soul’s they are trying to shepherd. So, let us put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and, in the poetic words of John Donne, start mingling souls through the timeless and time-tested art of pastoral letter writing!

Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls. For, thus friends absent speak.” 

John Donne

Reposted from August 2021.

Dr. Jeremy Berg is the founding and Lead Pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Minnetonka Beach, MN, where he has served since 2010. He is an Adjunct Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University, University of Northwestern—St. Paul, North Central University, and Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy earned a doctorate in New Testament Context under Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary (Chicago). He and his wife, Kjerstin, have three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

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