Friday, July 27, 2012

Paul and the Pastoral Practice of Writing Letters


I have been working on 1 Thessalonians 1 all week for a commentary I am writing. As I was writing the application section I was struck by the fact that one aspect of Paul’s ministry was letter writing. The following are some thoughts about the pastoral practice of writing letters. I would be interested in hearing what others have to say. Do you write letters as a pastor? If so, what is their purpose? If not, why not?

Letter writing is a lost art form. It is unusual to get a typed, let alone handwritten, letter anymore. In the electronic age we rarely take the time to sit down, pull our thoughts together and put them down with pen and paper. Instead we have become experts at sending strings of abbreviations through the air via email and text or we post them on social media. But what is lost is a sense of history, of story. 

One way that historians are able to access the past is through letters. It is common to read a biography on a famous person that has a substantial amount of information gleaned from letters that they wrote and received. It is the same with much of the New Testament. All of Paul’s letters represent his personal contact and communication with members of the communities he founded. Because of Paul’s letters we know the story of the Thessalonian church.

Traditionally 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are those letters which we designate as the “Pastoral Epistles.” But this is misleading since all of Paul’s letters are by their very nature pastoral letters. They reveal the heart of a pastor for people. Paul wrote to keep in contact with those he cared for even when he couldn’t be there. He used letters as a way to maintain fellowship with them. And even though they weren’t written to us they have enduring value to us.

It’s easy to underestimate the value of letter writing for pastoral ministry in the electronic age.  But when a pastor takes time to write a letter (even if via email) to a person under their care it creates a connection. I asked a pastor friend of mine, now retired, to share his thoughts/experiences of writing letters as a pastor. Here’s what he said:

I wrote a lot of personal notes to people during my years as pastor as one of several ways that I used to acknowledge and encourage people. Rarely did I use a hand written communication for instruction or correction as Paul did. My letter writing as a pastor was much more relational and rarely confrontational. I'd scan the newspaper every day for any pictures of church people, clip the article, and send it with a brief personal hand written note, and thank them for their involvement as a follower of Christ in the life of the community. I also wrote notes to encourage people in their ministry and their walk with the Lord. In the late 1990s the Holy Spirit prompted me to write an "I'm praying for you" message over a period of time to every family in the church. I designed a postcard that I called a Prayer-a-gram. I wrote a personal hand written prayer message on each card saying that I was praying for them and their family, and as a part of my prayer I was praying for them the dynamic biblical prayer of Eph. 3:16-21. I also asked them to pray that prayer for me. I tried to write about ten cards a day. When I had the cards for the day done and ready to mail, I'd lay my hands on the cards and pray that Ephesians prayer over the people the cards represented. Many, many people thanked me for the prayer cards, and quite a few said that it came at "just the right time" in their lives. Several people have kept those cards in their Bibles for years.

Pastors are busy people and asking them to take time to sit-down and write ten letters a day might be asking a lot. But I do think it is a practice worth making room for. We forget sometimes that the point of church is not the buildings and the programs, but the people who live and worship together in the context of community. Although technology may alter how we do it today, a note from a pastor provides an opportunity to remind the recipient of the work of God in their lives. It is a chance to strengthen their relationship with the church and, as in the ministry of my pastor friend, those letters often become part of the Christian’s story and connection with both the pastor and the community. We adopt many pastoral practices from things we read and observe in the New Testament. The practice of letter writing is one that might be worth reviving.

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  1. I cherish the letters written by family members, now gone, that share ordinary moments of their lives, their love and their deep and abiding faith. These are more precious to me than any family heirloom. For this reason, I have been writing a journal for each of my grand children since the moment I heard of their being. I want them to see their Nana's handwriting, know her heart and how much she adored them.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this and thanks for breakfast this morning. Our friendship is very meaningful to me. I'm praying for you as you continue and complete this particular writing aspect of your ministry.

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