I’m reading through composition paragraphs from students, and ruminating about what they indicate. This year’s final composition assignment asked students to compare their writing process at the beginning of the term with their writing process at the end of the term; I was inviting students to say, in effect, “This was a total waste of time” or “This helped,” and they did. The exercise also provided a medium for checking their writing skills — they knew I expected them to compose an orderly paragraph with smooth transitions, carefully chosen words, active verbs, and minimal Blank Space.

The papers didn’t surprise me much; most students expressed strong resistance to the premise that they should be devoting class time to improving their writing (some of the better writers suggested that it was a waste of their time, some of the weaker writers suggested that it made them frustrated and ruined their love of writing). Some resisted at first, but reluctantly acknowledged that they could see the benefits of observing their written work for the key characteristics that our class emphasized.

As I read over the papers, I note first of all that they show much more attention to the characteristics I highlighted in class; to that extent, the time spent on writing proved worthwhile, right from the start. I do wish, though, that students felt the improvement as a gain, rather than an unwelcome intrusion. I wonder why students resist devoting time to enhancing a fundamental skill that they’ll use through their careers in ministry. Somewhere along the line, some students of all skill levels got the message that they did not need to improve in a particular area, even though they had to be aware that there was plenty of room for improvement. When I introduce several ways of distinguishing ordinary writing from better writing, students seem to resent the knowledge of how their writing could move toward greater clarity, precision, and persuasiveness.

(For the record, I do not impose inflexible ukases; though I discourage passive constructions, I describe particular circumstances that make passives more appropriate, and I always stress that sometimes excellent writers depart from the patterns that generally characterize the best composition. For someone to mount a coherent case against my approach to writing, they would have to assert that writers ought to use words without regard to readers’ expectations about what those words mean; that abrupt transitions and discontinuous structure improve a composition; that unannounced digressions and extraneous information contribute to essays’ quality; that essays should be written with maximal recourse to passive constructions, and that the verb “is” should be preferred to more specific, more active verbs. Again, I give explicit reasons for choosing words carefully, structuring prose smoothly, eschewing BS, and preferring active, vivid constructions — I didn’t cook up a series of edicts disconnected from practical reality, but I demonstrate ways that practical reality shows the better way of constructing an essay with the characteristics I propose.)

A colleague’s research into effective ministry has observed that one prevalent model of ministry upholds a beloved, “pastoral,” “spiritual,” but generally quite ineffective pastoral leader as a norm, even though observers acknowledge that the congregation down the road has shown unusual growth and vitality during the tenure of a leader whose ministry shows very different characteristics. The knockout slide in their presentation lists the ascribed characteristics of clergy who have (in a discrete process) have been identified as “struggling”: they are sensitive, kind, intelligent, demoralized, vague, boring, and ambiguous, where as the “effective” clergy are clear, consistent, quick, collaborative, confident, decisiove, innovative, energetic, “planful” (ugh), and accommodating (PowerPoint presentation by Dreibelbis and Gortner, linked on the page above). Now, there’s plenty of room for debating particulars of the researchers’ study — but I wondered this morning whether I might be running into some students whose ideal of writing bears comparison to the ideal of ministry that the research depicts: they imagine writing to involve sensitivity and kindness, for example, more than clarity and energy.

Just musing.

Micah said:

It’s been my experience in all the seminaries I’ve been involved with that the students believe there is more than one kind of writing. Of course, there are different purposes for writing, and they all require appropriate vocabulary and tone, but there is only one writing. And as they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

The problem with this mistaken attitude toward seminary writing is that it causes one to disrespect pastoral writing since the writer isn’t as prepared as she or he could be. Parish newsletter columns, editorials and letters to the local paper, invocations at the municipal water board luncheon, and so on are challenging writing tasks and deserve the same care and attention that one would put to exegetical papers (and sometimes more, in the case of some exegetical papers I’ve read).

I am glad that you are attending to the ministry of writing as part of pastoral formation. I hope to do the same (and if supported by my institution, even more) in my own professoriate.

Galen said:
Very neat. With my attention span (short), the best writing is that which can capture an idea or mood in a page or less (or sometimes more). Barbara Brown Taylor’s one-pagers in Christian Century are regular winners. Diana Butler Bass’s brief pieces are very captivating. Keep after those students. Being a sales rep for God and Jesus, even with the backing of the Holy Spirit, takes real skill.


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