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Pastors should work hard to become clear, competent writers.

That’s the thesis. Here’s the outline: two caveats, three reasons, four suggestions.

Two Caveats

Let’s get the caveats out of the way first.

1. I don’t think all pastors—or even many pastors—need to be writers. This isn’t about getting published or writing with the verve of J. I. Packer or C. S. Lewis. This is about basic clarity and competence.

2. A man could be an excellent pastor without ever writing a word. We have no record of anything Jesus wrote! But I am assuming that the pastor reading this blog works in a context of high literacy where books and papers and emails are readily available and written communication (of various kinds) is expected.

Three Reasons

Isn’t the pastor’s job to preach sermons, do hospital visits, and spend time with the people? Why does writing matter?

1. Writing takes up a lot of the pastor’s time. You may not realize it, but pastors have to write every day. I’m sure every pastor has a love/hate (mostly hate?) relationship with email. There was a day last week when I wrote 53 emails. Many of those were short, but I hope none of them was sloppy. And that’s just the beginning of what a pastor must write. There are newsletters, reports, prayers, studies, sermons, letters, cards, notes, and memos. We work with words; that’s a lot of what we do. So let’s work hard to do it well. Our ministry will be more effective if we can communicate clearly and poignantly through the written word.

2. Good writing promotes better thinking. Yes, there are skills involved in writing well. It takes practice. Few people are born with natural writing ability, and most pastors could be pretty good with the right training and effort. There are tricks of the trade to make our writing less clumsy. And yet, more than not, if our writing is muddled, it’s because our thinking is muddled. C. S. Lewis once said that good writing is simply a matter of knowing exactly what you want to say and then saying it. The problem for many of us is that we don’t really know what we are trying to say. Writing exposes the flawed connections, undeveloped arguments, and presumed logic in our thinking. Write well in order to think well.

3. Writing is essential in defending the truth. Much can be done to promote and defend the faith through oral arguments. But for most of us, there will come a time when the truth will be won or lost by the construction of sentences and paragraphs. When we are knee deep in a doctrinal controversy at church or in the thick of a theological squabble in the denomination, we will have to rely on words. Written words. Those who can write—not professionally, not brilliantly, just clearly—will be heard. Those who cannot, won’t.

Four Suggestions

So what can be done to help pastors write well?

1. Seminaries can insist on better writing. Most students can’t write, at least not at first. Even graduate students are often ill-prepared to write cogently and clearly. That means seminaries must do remedial training. Professors should help students not only learn the material, but also learn how to articulate what they receive. We are in the communication business after all. Students need to understand basic points of grammar, how to structure an argument, and the difference between weak and active verbs.

2. Denominations can insist on better writing. I’ve been a part of student exams where seminarians are given a free pass on writing and speaking because, “He’s just not great at communicating.” Well, that’s kind of what pastors do! Let me repeat: people can learn. Students can improve. We aren’t talking one strike and you’re out. But I’m old-fashioned enough to think future pastors can do better than bullet points on an ordination exam.

3. Pastors can insist on better writing from themselves. When people ask me for writing advice I usually say two things. One, read more. Two, work harder at the the writing you’re already doing. Don’t settle for half-baked Facebook posts or slipshod emails. If you have to write, why not practice doing it better? Get in the habit of editing yourself, no matter the form of written communication. You can’t expect to write well in the study if you practice writing poorly everywhere else.

4. We can ask others to insist on better writing. Notice, I didn’t say the church should badger their pastor to write better. Pastors get enough flak already. But if a pastor wants to grow in this area, he must seek out trustworthy, honest feedback. We are often blind to our own ambiguities and shortcuts as writers. Even the best writers need outside input. Few of us will get the feedback we need if we don’t humbly ask for it.


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12 thoughts on “Why Pastors Should Work Hard to Write Well”

  1. neville briggs says:

    Perhaps Jesus didn’t write much because he was busy serving others, building relationships of reconciliation with the poor in spirit . Instead of writing for His disciples , He washed their feet.

  2. Brian Hammonds says:

    Or perhaps it was because Jesus didn’t have to write it down. He knew His word would endure through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. John 14:25-26…

    “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

  3. Dean says:

    Jesus is God & He is the author of life & the Word. He commanded John to write. Rev 1:11. among other things.God brings clarity to our lives because of the light. Without it things are/become dark & obscure. Writing should do the same in the context of teaching.

    Jesus also fell asleep in a boat with the disciples on the water during the night.

    Psalm 45:1-2. My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer. You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever.

    God esteems all our gifts & graciously enables us to grow in them, even the not so obvious at first ones.

  4. Eric says:

    A good article, and I agree with your main point. I think, however, that reason #2 could have been written better :-). Your reason for writing well is that good writing promotes clear thinking, however, your argument is that clear thinking promotes better writing. Instead of supporting your assertion, you’ve begged the question.

  5. David Z says:

    Good point!

    But I am surprised at point 2 –

    [“2. A man could be an excellent pastor without ever writing a word. We have no record of anything Jesus wrote!’]

    I knew there are leaders who actually thought so, but such “ideas and thoughts” can be misleading.

    Fact – Jesus grew up in Jewish family, with strict observation of the laws and commandments of God.
    Truth – Every Jewish boy need to know all that is written in the Torah. How can a person understand what is written if he cannot write?
    Evident – when Jesus was 12, He was having discussion with doctors of the law at the temple and people were impressed and amazed at His understanding.
    More Evident – in the Gospel of John 8, Jesus wrote on the ground. Few words but powerful.
    Historical evident – Moses received the two tablet written by God, so who wrote it?

    Our writing have a lot to show about our knowledge and understanding of the content and context.

    I believe Jesus is the best writer ever, He was writing the truths of God in our hearts.

    God bless

    David Z

  6. John Myer says:

    I like the differentiation here: learn to be a clear communicator, but if it becomes apparent you have a redeemed passion to communicate through writing, by all means take it to another level. It probably works that way in a lot of other areas as well: doing evangelism versus being an evangelist, teaching versus being a teacher, etc.
    http://www.bareknuckle.org

  7. Grayson Pope says:

    Great article Kevin. Writing is a blind spot for so many pastors and seminaries. I’m a current seminary student at one of the largest SBC seminaries. I emailed the registrar a while back to see what courses they offered for strengthening my writing skills and the answer was none. Yes, there are courses where you write academic papers, and that’s a necessary skill. There are even some courses which help pastors put together sermon outlines. But the truth is that’s a small (but not insignificant) portion of the skill set that’s needed. There are some signs of a turn around. The King’s College in NYC recently launched a journalism program that looks promising, but that’s a niche. Pastors need to know how to write sermons, web content, print pieces, etc. In many churches he pastor will be the only one doing those things. They’ll either be a good writer or a bad writer, but they’ll be a writer nonetheless.

  8. Serving Kids In Japan says:

    4. We can ask others to insist on better writing. … if a pastor wants to grow in this area, he must seek out trustworthy, honest feedback.

    I’ve been giving you that for a while, Kevin. Remember that statement you made in defence of Mahaney? The one with at least two provable falsehoods? Those who noticed have been waiting for a few years now, waiting for you or one of your friends to address that.

    Are you listening to our “honest feedback”? If not, why do you expect other pastors to do so regarding their writing? You aren’t setting a very good example, after all.

  9. What is need is a revolution in the whole concept of Pastors and Church. The scattered church of the first century is needed now more than ever. Pastors need to be as they were in the first century apostolic in nature leading people out into a dark world reflecting Christ to others. Writing and preaching less and going out more as Christ did, as the apostles did, and also the beleivers who followed them. Were we not created to be in Gods image reflecting His nature to a lost world? Announcing and demonstrating that His Kingdom has arrived in our communities. Less writing more doing is what I have tried to do over the past 10 years. Ive done to death the leadership/writing thing, now i do much more doing.

  10. Ken Abbott says:

    Christ and the apostles preached less? Good heavens, Grahame, that was their chief occupation!

  11. Ken you confusing preaching with announcing. Preaching is what we get a lot of today inside 4 walls and a roof to people already saved. Im talking about getting out their and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world through both word and deed. Sure their needs to be teaching and writing…. but much more doing is required. Notice I said previously “Writing and preaching less and going out more as Christ did, as the apostles did, and also the believers who followed them”. Its about balance.

  12. Walt says:

    Great article. Do you have any recommendations on how to get better at writing?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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