What makes for good Christian writing? According to Marin Copenhaver, identifying traits of bad Christian writing can help provide some clues. “I don’t like pat writing, formulaic writing, writing that ties everything up with a bow,” says Martin. “We don’t need cookbooks for ministry. I like writing that is honest and appreciative, writing that trusts the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.”
Lillian Daniel, the other half of the literary conspiracy that produced the noted book, This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, adds that good Christian writing has a strong point of view. “I don’t like the sort of writing that presents one view, and then another, and then asks a few questions in conclusion. I want to know what the author thinks, and why it matters.” Mainline Christian writers, Lillian observes, often resist speaking with a strong voice. Consequently, their writing easily falls flat.
Martin Copenhaver and Lillian Daniel are both writers and pastors in the United Church of Christ (UCC) who see writing as part of their ministry. When they met fifteen years ago at a gathering of people who shared a dual identity of being both UCC pastors and writers, Lillian and Martin quickly hit it off. Their friendship blossomed into a collaborative partnership, and in 2009 they jointly published This Odd and Wondrous Calling, which has become a popular read for seminarians, pastors, and lay people alike.
In the summers of 2011, 2012, and 2013, Martin and Lillian co-led writing workshops at the Collegeville Institute, designed to help active pastors integrate writing into their vocational lives. We sat down with the pair to talk about their writing during the most recent workshop they facilitated at the Collegeville Institute.
Lillian noted that some years earlier, in 2005, she participated in the Collegeville Institute’s first summer writing workshop. She had been struggling for several years to make progress on her first book manuscript. Participating in the writing workshop gave her the confidence to claim her identity as a pastor-writer and the drive to finish the book. Since then, Lillian has written prolifically, while serving as Senior Minister of First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Lillian is an editor at large for The Christian Century magazine, and a contributing editor at Leadership Journal. Her work has also appeared in numerous periodicals. Her latest book, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God In Surprising Places, Even the Church, was published in 2013.
Martin has also written prolifically over the course of his pastoral career. He is the author or co-author of six books, such as Living Faith While Holding Doubts. Martin writes for several publications, including The Christian Century—where, like Lillian, he serves as an editor at large. Since 1994, Martin has been the Senior Pastor of Village Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts. This summer, he will assume the role of president of Andover Newton Theological School.
Seeking always to engage and respect their readers, Lillian and Martin have both written in a variety of genres, for a variety of audiences. Whether the piece is a satirical op-ed in The Huffington Post (Lillian) or an accessible biblical commentary (Martin), these pastor-writers invariably write for the intended benefit of the church. This Odd and Wondrous Calling, a memoir about pastoral life, is a banner example. Wanting the book to have the feel of a conversation over coffee with an old friend, Martin and Lillian weaved together stories from their lives as pastors with warmth, humor, and palpable affection for the people they have served in ministry. The title of the book was born out of the authors’ desire to embrace the quirkiness of the pastoral vocation. “The pastoral life doesn’t include some odd thing and some wondrous things. Everything in the pastoral life is odd and wondrous. Worship is odd and wondrous, preaching is odd and wondrous, working from a 2,000 year-old book and claiming that it is relevant to our lives today is odd and wondrous,” explains Martin.
Thinking the book’s appeal would be limited mostly to fellow clergy, Martin and Lillian were surprised to discover that lay people, and even folks outside of the church, were reading the book and resonating with the picture of the church it portrayed. “Okay,” Lillian said to herself when she recognized the book’s favorable reception by non-clergy, “my next book is for civilians.” The result was When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. Employing ample doses of snarkiness and sarcasm, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough is essentially a defense of the modern institutionalized church, warts and all. Lillian acknowledges that people who are alienated or angered by the church probably won’t pick up the book, but she hopes that churchgoers will be reminded why it is worth the effort to be part of a community of faith. She also hopes the book will be a compelling read for those on the sidelines of the church who might be interested in more active participation.
Producing compelling writing is high on the list of aspirations for each author. In this respect, “writing for the church isn’t any different from good writing, period,” says Martin. According to him, the church needs basic Christian teaching that is both accessible and holds integrity. Very few writers succeed in this approach. Much of it is pitched too high, and much of it is pitched too low. “I have always wanted to go for simple, but not simplistic. The image I often use is someone taking large denominations of bills and breaking them into change that people can use. It is the same currency. A quarter is not a dumbed down dollar bill.” Writing for the church should be useful to intelligent folks without a strong background in theology.
Lillian sees much current writing for the church as “interesting debate about questions most people aren’t asking.” “People on the outside of the church are tired of us arguing over stupid things,” she concludes. “The church needs to get out of its own head. The endless back-and-forth over doctrine is killing us.” For Lillian, more helpful questions than doctrinal disputes are: “What do we do together, and why does it matter? How do we act? Who do we want to be? What does life mean?”
Writing that addresses these questions is exactly the type of writing Martin and Lillian hoped to encourage as leaders of Collegeville Institute summer writing workshops. Gearing their workshop toward pastors, they aspired for participants to claim the vocation of writing as part of their ministry. Both wanted their writing workshop to offer an alternative to many local pastors’ groups, which tend toward beleaguered conversations circling around difficult parishioners, church politics, or job insecurity.
The workshops for pastors Martin and Lillian facilitated at the Collegeville Institute operated under a different framework. Pastors, they believe, have something important to say. What many of them need is the courage to put their words on paper, and then the added courage to put that paper in front of a reader. Writing—good writing—can be part of ministry. Along the course of their pastoral careers, both Martin and Lillian have been encouraged to write by a series of mentors—among them Frederick Buechner and editors at The Christian Century. In turn, Martin and Lillian aspire to help other pastors embrace the possibility that the church might need them—not just behind the sanctuary pulpit or beside the hospital bed, but also in front of the computer keyboard.