Once a pastor is involved in full-time pastoral ministry it can be challenging to continue learning and growing in God’s word and effective ministry methods. This article from ChurchChina shares the insights of several pastors who participated in a forum on how to continue learning. Due to length, we are posting it in two parts. You can read part one here; this is part two.
Do Pastors Need Further Studies? How？(Continued)
Editor: Let’s talk about writing. One can say that pastors are always writing because they write sermons. On the other hand, one can say that pastors have “given up” writing because they rarely write much other than sermons. Besides sermons, what else do you think pastors should or could write?
Yi En: There are three types of writing for us. The first one is summary writing, which is to summarize and write down what you have read. I personally think that pastors should view both reading and writing as further studies. My mentor told me that I should not read a book unless I was going to at least write a summary for it. Every time you research something you should write something. It summarizes your thoughts and helps you better understand what you read.
The second type is devotional writing. When I have thoughts after reading a Bible passage or praying, I would write a short article of a page or a page-and-a-half and send it to church members to encourage them. I used to do this more often, but honestly speaking, I seldom write those right now.
The last one is argumentative writing, which is very important for pastors as it helps them form better arguments. In seminary, some courses will teach you how to argue well, but you rarely have such opportunities after graduation, and your theological thinking will become weaker and weaker. However, arguments can be practiced through argumentative writings, whether for a theological degree or for daily writings. Theological argumentation can help pastors approach certain topics with critical thinking. Furthermore, you can also post your writings online for people to discuss, which could benefit you a lot.
Shi Ming: I think the most direct benefit of writing is that you don’t need to repeatedly answer some questions. Instead, you can write the answers down for future use. For example, if a church member asks me why we meet again on Sunday afternoon, or why we need an application for communion, I can write a clear, brief, powerful, and biblical argument for him to read, and I can also share this argument with others anytime I want. Today, writing is a kind of blessing. In addition to writing sermons, pastors can consider how we can write down our practice so that it can be passed on. That way, once we leave, people won’t be left not knowing what to do, or have ministry practices disappear for no reason.
And writing is also a process of wrestling with your ideas. Some of your decisions might be made instinctively or emotionally, but if you try to set them down in writing, you will have to think more deeply about them. You may find that you did not have sufficient biblical basis, which means you would now need a clearer argument, or to change your mind, or to admit that it was not a long-term decision. In fact, writing is the process of perfecting our thinking. I encourage every pastor to communicate clearly through writing when possible—whether you write about your pastoral philosophy or your pastoral decisions—to help the church operate better and more steadily.
Editor: What makes good writing? What are some important skills? What are some ways of improving writing?
Shi Ming: First, you need to figure out the purpose of writing. When writing an academic essay, normally you start with defining the topic and what aspects you want to talk about. If you do that, then the article is already halfway to success. For example, if you are going to write an article about church discipline, you need to define discipline first, rather than criticizing other churches for not having church discipline. Without a clear scope, your article will be all over the place and won’t keep the reader’s interest. Therefore, whether writing a sermon or writing an article, you need to start with a thesis statement. Once you ask the main question, the article has structure, and the readers know the purpose of your writing.
Second, you should be open to criticism and different opinions. Chinese people like to say of writers, “All his geese are swans.” Writers like to think that their writing is good. If it’s not good, they won’t show anyone. If it is good, they do not accept any criticism. However, as Christians who are redeemed, we should admit that writing is a process of growth. So, we should welcome criticism to help us grow.
Third, please do not complain. If you think a book or an article is not good, you can write down some of your thoughts to complement it, instead of complaining about why the author didn’t write this or that. If you are not the author, your complaints are just a way of lazily shirking responsibilities.
Lu Cheng: I have a suggestion. When you finish writing, try reading it out loud. Through reading, you will find that a sentence here is ridiculous, or a sentence there does not read smoothly. Reading helps me find the problems in my writing, which I can then revise.
I also suggest you read some works from famous writers, not just theologians, but also literature writers, to see how they paint a picture with their words, how they concisely express themselves. This needs growth. Don’t complain about your Chinese teacher not teaching you well. You can continue growing through reading.
I totally agree with what Shi Ming said just now. Good writing means knowing what you want to write (the purpose) and knowing what circumstances you are writing for. This also affects the style. For example, if you are writing devotional notes, you don’t need a rigorous structure. Just write things down in the order they come to mind.
In addition, devotional writing can also improve your skills of expression. Nowadays, people really emphasize emotions, and think that emotions cannot be explained. However, whether or not we can unite our emotions with our thoughts and express them in words is a kind of discipline. I suggest you start by writing short paragraphs, and you will become more skillful as you practice.
Yi En: I have a few things to add. First, especially for argumentative writing, good writing will describe and summarize the opponent’s views as faithfully as possible. This can be evaluated by whether the other person agrees with your summarization. If they do not even agree, then it is not a good summary of their views.
Second, if possible, do not use strong words. I personally think that writing is a bit like writing e-mails. When I say something in person to a friend, it might be fine. But once I put it in writing in an email, he might understand it differently. For this reason, I try to express my thoughts gently. I think that, in writing, strong words can easily be misunderstood.
Third, when I write an article, I ask for feedback and suggestions from many people. If I have a friend who is more of an expert on certain topics, I would ask him to give me some feedback.
Last, it would be better if you describe things concretely. C.S. Lewis once said if you can choose to describe something in a concrete or an abstract manner, choose the concrete every time. Because abstract statements are easily misunderstood. It means that you need to make each sentence have only one meaning in your writing. If you find a sentence that can have two different meanings, you need to revise it and make it clearer. Furthermore, you also need to make sure that sentences should be connected and related with each other.
Editor: Thank you for participating in our interview. Lastly, do you have any final advice to other pastors and seminarians about further study, reading and writing?
Shi Ming: Don’t spend time arguing online. It doesn’t do anything except to rile up emotions. Nobody’s mind is changed in a group chat. Instead, read good books. If your English is good, you can also do some translating to broaden your mind. English is a great tool for studying.
Lu Cheng: Please read a variety of interesting books, not just spiritual books.
Yi En: Since we are so busy in ministry and it is hard to remember everything, I encourage every pastor to keep a ministry diary and record the main events of each day in two or three sentences. I have started a new method of writing my diary over the past two years. Let’s say I wrote a couple of sentences on January 1, 2020. Then on January 1, 2021, I go back to the same day last year, and write a few sentences below that diary entry. This makes it far easier to review what happened on January 1 last year, two years ago, or even five years ago. This helps me to remember some good examples for sermons, or some cases for ministry, etc.
Moreover, I encourage every pastor to write a 500-word weekly report and share it with others. Whether it is about a book you just read, or reflections on questions you are studying in ministry, writing down your thoughts could really encourage people. And if you persist in doing this, your writing will get better and better.
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