Jason Byassee is a former assistant editor with Christian Century and currently executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. He writes for and edits Duke’s Faith and Leadership online journal and its “Call and Response” blog. He earned his master of divinity and doctorate degrees from Duke.
At the Disciples’ upcoming General Assembly in Indianapolis, Jason will share his advice on writing theologically for a broad audience during a resource group on Theology and Writing, on Friday, July 31 from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m.
Rebecca Woods, DisciplesWorld news and website editor, spoke with Jason Byassee in June.
RW: So you’re leading a General Assembly resource group on theology and writing. What will you cover?
JB: I’ll encourage pastors and others to think about themselves as writers. It’s not hard [at least for pastors] because every pastor is already writing sermons. But I want to encourage them to think about having a more expansive audience.
Many pastors write for their church newsletters. I suggest that they do this with as much care as they take with their sermons; and from there, to consider writing for a broader audience — religious publications and secular settings.
This has been made easier because of the Internet, but it’s harder than ever to make any money at it. So…there’s not necessarily a reward for this type of writing. It has to be seen as part of a pastoral lifestyle.
The question isn’t whether a pastor is going to be a writer…it’s the kind of care that they’re going to take in writing. And not only every pastor, but every Christian. Writing is a way of transforming feeling into thought.
RW: How does this type of writing fit into the pastor’s role?
JB: I’m convinced that this kind of broader writing changes the way a congregation views its pastor. I remember when my own pastor started publishing. Suddenly he had a new authority — I listened to him with a different set of ears.
Some may think, if you do that kind of broader writing, it takes away from the local parish. It may do that in the short run, but in the long run, it changes the way people listen.
RW: What sources from the Christian tradition do you draw on to make your case for pastor-as-writer?
JB: I really love some of the sources from the ancient church, about learning how to discern Christ in surprising places, and learning how to pay attention to Jesus in strange forms. I draw on a number of ancient and modern sources — from Simone Weil and Annie Dillard, to Augustine and the Desert Fathers.
RW: So what are some of the obstacles to writing that pastors face?
JB: There’s something every writer has to get over — the discipline of clearing space to write regularly. Because as important as it is, it isn’t urgent. Nobody is saying “You have to get this to me by Thursday.” So you have to clear space for it, even though nobody can see what you‘re doing. Later they may see the value, but maybe not right away.
And then there’s the mystification of the publishing process. I want them to know that people on ‘that side of the curtain’ are always looking for newer and better writers. And pastors are involved in things we editors can’t see. They’re involved in day-to-day things that we want to honor.
The tasks that go along with being a pastor contribute to being a writer. For example, noticing is a kind of pastoral activity. Noticing is also a crucial writing activity. I’m fascinated by the overlap.
Also, being a writer is not just about publishing your sermons. Often sermons don’t translate well to print. There are ambiguities [in sermons]…it can be done, but it has to be done with real care.
RW: How did you become interested in helping pastors to develop as writers?
JB: I was doing doctoral work, and I was frustrated. I wasn’t sure if I dropped dead that anyone would notice. I couldn’t figure out how I was helping anyone.
Then I became a local pastor. I was pastoring a rural church in North Carolina with about 80 people in it. And I knew that whatever else I might do during the week, I had done something on Sunday that mattered.
So I had this desire to be in between academia and pastoral work. At the Christian Century, I could pay attention to what was going on in the academy, but I could also pay attention on behalf of pastors.
RW: How did you end up working at the Christian Century?
JB: I was at a conference and the editor of the Century told me he was having a hard time getting people to write about movies. So I started there, and then the job came up [as assistant editor] and they hired me. Even when I was writing for them from the parish, I would never have thought it would become a job. Yet, I worked for the Century from 2004 to 2008, and I’m still a contributing editor there.
RW: So why did you move on to what you’re doing now?
JB: What led me back to Duke? While at the Century, I was adjunct teaching. I was thinking about how the academy is good at saying, “Here’s something new that you weren’t already thinking about,”…and asking critical questions about it. I did a lot of thinking about the distance between the academy and the parish.
And at the Century, I reviewed other people’s stuff. In a sense, I passed grades on it. [Christian writer] Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, says Christians shouldn’t be just evaluating other people’s creative works, they should be creating their own.
So I’m back at Duke, and I get to teach the kind of writing that I do. Really, there’s not a big emphasis on this kind of writing in most places in theological education. And Duke is the place that taught me to care about this stuff… [professors and writers] Lauren Winner, David Steinmetz, and Greg Jones are now my colleagues.
I also have a minor administrative post called special assistant to the dean. In an informal role, I am advising students and faculty on how to publish more broadly.
And I’m editing this new website at the Divinity School. We call it a publication — Faith and Leadership magazine.
RW: What was the first thing you ever wrote that was published?
JB: It was a piece on Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, published in the Christian Century back in 2003.
RW: What are you working on now?
JB: I have a book coming out next year. It’s about the theology of the small church, and Abingdon is the publisher. It’s partly theology, and partly rooted in the pastoral experiences I had in the small church. It’s tentatively called The Gift of the Small Church.
RW: Any advice for writers?
JB: You’ve got to read what you want to write. There’s a famous writing book — Reading Like a Writer. There’s a great deal of overlap between reading and the writing life.
RW: So what are you reading?
JB: I’ve spent some time lately with a book by Christine Pohl — Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. And there’s a new book by David Hart, called Atheist Delusions. And Dana Robert’s Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion.
I’ve also been reading a novel called Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, about a mission hospital in Ethiopia. It’s about a family’s life serving in this place.
RW: Do you have a favorite writer?
JB: Flannery O’Connor is probably my favorite author, from the 20th century. Augustine is the great one for all time.
Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own is another good one.
I like paying attention to people who are sort of writing not on their home field — theological writers who are writing in some other vein. For example, David Steinmetz writes editorials in places like USA Today.
I like Marilynne Robinson, her novels and essays. And Andy Crouch — I stop what I’m doing when I see his name.