When Arianne Lehn, Lori Raible, Sarah Scherschligt, Deborah Lewis, and Brooke Heerwald Steiner met in the Collegeville Institute summer writing workshop Writing Pastors, Working Pastors in 2013, they discovered a kindred love of writing. Lori explained it this way, “By the time we made our way here, nervous and unsure about what we would find, we were relieved to find each other. We recognized in each other some similarities about the way we thought about writing. I wouldn’t have expected our group to have formed and stuck.”
But stick it has. Highly motivated to continue working together, they landed a grant offered through Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which allowed the five of them, who live in four different states, to get together a couple of times a year and to continue meeting with Marge Barrett, who was the writing coach at their workshop. When the five writers sat down for this interview with Betsy Johnson-Miller at the Collegeville Institute, it was their last time getting together with the funding from the Austin grant. They were ending where it all began.
Sarah: This is our last time getting together, and part of what’s next for us is who is going to fund us next?
So, it’s not even if you’re going to keep going—
Sarah: It’s how. How can we get more money to keep going? How much money do we need to do what we want to do next together and support each other? We’ll find something. We’ll look under rocks and stones if we have to.
Is being in the same space important? Couldn’t it just be done by computer?
Deborah: We live in four different states and stay in touch on Skype and through phone calls and email, but there’s something about being in the same space at the same time. There’s something about just being able to write together, or to write and then read something the same night when we’re on retreat. Also, in terms of our lives as pastors and parents, it has been helpful to have time away from the regular grind. The fact that it takes a lot of doing for us to get together means that when we’re here, we’re here.
Does this act of getting together offer you a sense of renewal? Is it sacred?
Brooke: When we arrive, we arrive in a mental place defined by anxiety about what we’ve been experiencing at home, or how crazy work was when we left. It takes a day or so to move into a different space. We get into a different rhythm, which in itself brings renewal. We feed off of each other a lot. The energy and the perspectives we share with each other invigorate me and give me a new perspective. As for the sacredness of it, the act of writing is sacred for us. All of us are pastors, and we probably wouldn’t keep writing sermons if we didn’t think there was sacredness in that. But the relationships themselves, the time we spend together, and the stuff we keep coming up with in our writing—those are sacred, too.
Lori: We all want to write. Over the course of the three years we’ve been getting together, we’ve all become more comfortable with claiming writer as part of our identity. While we write many things within the context of our vocations, there’s something that is sacred about claiming the title of writer. To allow those identities to work together is important to me and affects my ministry. There will have been five babies birthed within our three years together, so motherhood and parenthood is also a part of our group. Our time together over the past three years has been a journey of identity for me that I hope bears fruit for the church.
Sarah: For me, renewal is connected with the freedom I find in this group. So much of my writing as a pastor ends up feeling like a chore I have to complete on deadline. The newsletter, the sermon. Since I was little, I’ve always loved to write for no purpose. We’re writing for the church, and we’re also writing for publication, hopefully, but we’re also writing because it’s enjoyable and it’s fun to play with words and experiment. There’s been this re-delighting—is that a word?—and renewing of my love of writing for no purpose except writing. Nobody is ever going to see most of what I’ve written when we’ve been together except these people here, and it’s been worth it.
Say more about being a writer and being a pastor. Do you feel called to both?
Deborah: Something we’ve talked about a lot over the course of the years is that it’s okay to double dip—to take something you might have used for a newsletter or a sermon and develop it into something else, or vice versa, to take something you’ve been working on in a piece of writing and develop it in a sermon or a newsletter item. That’s one way that the two are literally tied together. But when we first got together at Collegeville, and then when we formed this smaller group, we were constantly apologizing for what we didn’t get done because we had six funerals or a new baby or whatever. We tended to talk about it as a trade-off—we did these things, or these things happened, and so we weren’t able to do other things, and we felt we had to apologize. One of the most valuable things we’ve come to recognize is that our vocations are complex, and the various parts are more intertwined certainly than I had thought they were. So we don’t apologize as much anymore. This group has helped us see that our lives as a whole are what count. That includes the vocation of being a writer and a pastor and a mother and all the other things that we are and all the things we respond to—some expected, and some not.
Arianne: When I started writing more, and became accountable to this group, I became a better pastor, because the purposes of writing and ministry overlap. Writing is an act of integration. The act of writing puts me together, connecting the different parts of myself. I often operate in such a segmented and compartmentalized way. Writing is an act that helps bring me together and be whole. That’s also what I feel called to do as a pastor—to lead people into their wholeness—to being truly alive.
Brooke: One thing that Marge Barrett, our writing coach, has encouraged us to do is to think of writing as expanding how we can pastor to people who aren’t in churches. She keeps saying to us, “What you’re doing is so important. Keep doing it. The world needs to hear your voices. Don’t just submit to religious publications. Get your stuff out there so that the world can hear your voice.” Ideally, hopefully, writing can get me to interact with a community wider than just my specific congregation.
This is part one of a two-part interview with the Wholly Writers. Click here to read part two.