Lillian Daniel: Pastors writing badly

I don’t aspire to write like Paul in every newsletter, but I am humbled that 2,000 years later, we know him by his letters.

Why do pastors write so poorly for their own church newsletters?

The front page, saved for the pastor, is often wasted on a throw away paragraph, a canned story from the Internet, or a few sentences from a reference book (“The Webster’s dictionary defines ‘stewardship’ as …”)

The pastors whose monthly missives cross my desk are not people who are writing impaired. Many of them have grown their churches on the strength of fine preaching. They are people whose reverence for the Word keeps them up late in the night wrestling with images for Sunday morning.

So what happens to those words when they are required to grace that all important front page of publications with names like “The Squire,” “The Pilgrim,” and “The Parish Post?” It is as if these same wordsmiths suddenly become illiterate.

In fact, their lack of content is sometimes even the subject of the article itself. (“I didn’t really know what I was going to write about this week, and then my sister from Orlando emailed me this story about a little crippled boy whose father wanted him to play baseball…”) Or worse still, the tossed off paragraph that begins with a statistic (“Did you know 90% of Americans say they believe in God…”) and goes nowhere (“Well, I don’t know what those statistics mean, but I just thought I’d share them with you.”)

As a minister, I know exactly where this goes wrong. We get busy. We do the many things ministers do, and then pour our creativity into that weekly sermon, and sometimes at the end of all that, another 250 words for the newsletter is more than we can scrape from an empty jar.

But the reality is that churches and clergy will be remembered historically not through their sermons, but through those dreaded pastor’s pages. Fifty years from now, our sermons may or not exist, but I guarantee you that in churches large and small, a volunteer archivist will have piles of newsletters organized by date over the decades. Newer, web-based newsletters are going to have an even longer shelf life than the paper ones. Even worse, they will forever be associated with your name in a search engine.

Pastors tired of writing newsletters would do well to remember that most Sunday worship attracts a fraction of our members. That means that more people may be touched by that newsletter than by our worship. The newsletter may be the only connection a home bound and elderly member has to the church. Just when I am convinced no one reads the newsletter, I hear a story about an article that truly turned someone’s attention back to God at a crucial moment.

And for good or bad, they have a wicked long shelf life. They lie on people’s kitchen counters for a neighbor to pick up, they get sent off or emailed to relatives if a child’s name is mentioned within, and they are even perused by petty clergy colleagues with an axe to grind.

I do have an axe to grind, and it is this. As much as I appreciate the minister’s workload, I want to suggest that even in the busiest week, we prioritize. As long as the newsletter is an afterthought, we miss an opportunity for ministry.

Lastly, sloppy newsletter articles are, in their frequency and practice, a rejection of one of Christianity’s historical treasures -- the well-written epistle. We are a religion in which we gather to worship, to hear the gospel, the prophecies, the songs, and then, as odd as it may seem, a letter. A letter from a pastoral leader to a church.

I don’t aspire to write like Paul in every issue of the Pilgrim newsletter, but I am humbled to note that 2,000 years later, we know him by his letters, and not his preaching.  We also know those churches. And in their struggles, in their arguments, and in their growth, they had a leader who wrote to them carefully, critically, lovingly and with all he had. It’s time to reclaim the pastoral epistle at the local level, move the newsletter article higher up the list and take it seriously again.