Driving the Words Across the Page: The True Work of Ministry

I like to have a clue what I’m going to write about; it makes the process considerably easier. Usually, when I sit down to write, I have, if not some place toward which I’m headed, then at least some place to begin.

Not today.

I don’t know where I’m going. I only know that driving the words across the page is important. That is to say, if there’s anything I’ve learned about writing, it’s that moving the cursor is always the place to begin.

Sitting at the computer is not writing.

Thinking is not writing.

Checking Facebook is not writing.

Looking up references and copying urls is not writing.

Going to the coffee shop with a laptop is not writing.

Checking word counts is not writing.

Reading about the art of writing is not writing.

Listening to podcasts where writers talk about writing is not writing.

Outlining is not writing.

Writer-ishness is not writing (i.e., the act of visualizing yourself as a writer).

Writing is writing.

I know that sounds overly simplistic, but I’m amazed at how many times I fool myself into thinking that some activity unrelated to manually stamping out words on the screen constitutes writing. I’m not saying that any of those things are necessarily bad. In fact, some of them are crucial activities that support writing. But supporting writing isn’t writing.

Writing is writing.

If words strung together in a coherent manner for others to read is the goal, it ought to be the thing that gets the most time and attention.  Writers, as has been noted by countless others, write.

It’s easy to like the idea of writing, without ever being inconvenienced to drive the words across the page.

What’s the Goal?

I find that congregations often have the same problem distinguishing between the goal and the means of achieving the goal.

Take meetings … please. (Rim shot)

I’m amazed at how often congregations think that meetings amount to ministry. Churches love meetings. In the absence of clarity about what constitutes ministry, congregations often fool themselves into thinking that meetings are ministry.

And so we have meetings. And meetings. And meetings.

Don’t get me wrong, meetings are important.

  • Meetings allow for strategic thinking about the direction ministry needs to take.
  • Meetings offer an opportunity to plan ministry.
  • Meetings can provide space to check the temperature of the community as it responds to ministry.
  • Meetings present the chance to identify course corrections for ministry.
  • Meetings can create a communal environment that makes ministry more or less possible.

However …

Meetings are not ministry.

Meetings create the appearance of ministry. Congregations often mistake a full slate of meetings and a flurry of activity for ministry.

Meetings are not ministry.

Ministry is ministry.

An Interlude about Real Driving

Think about Nascar.[1] What is the purpose of Nascar?

To drive a car a long way, faster than everybody else. Simple really.

Is the racing continuous?

No. Every so often, the cars pull off to the side of the track. These breaks in the action are called pit stops.

Pit stops allow the car to be maintained–tires changed, fuel pumped, or a brief rest for the driver, etc. Pit stops are essential. You can’t drive a car that hard for 500 miles and not have a series of them. The car (and perhaps the driver) would break down.

Pit stops support cars going a long way faster than everyone else. They are not, however, racing.

Racing is racing.

Every time a pit stop is made, racing ceases. Now, it is often vitally important that racing ceases to attend to the race car and its driver. The point of the pit stop, though, is to maintain the car while spending as little time as possible not racing.

So, good Nascar teams put a lot of effort into pit stops. They practice making them faster and more directed. There are only a handful of things that get done in a pit stop, and they must be done ever more efficiently, in order to get the car back on the road in the shortest time as possible.

In Nascar there is a very clear understanding of what function pit stops play in supporting racing. On a good Nascar team everybody knows what’s going to happen and how long it should take … before the car ever pulls off the track. A good pit crew understands that its work is not the point; its work is necessary so that the real work can get done–that is, driving a long way faster than everyone else.

Congregations often confuse pit stops for racing.

Ask a Minister

Pull a random minister aside sometime. Ask a simple question: What do you do?

“I’m a minister?”

But what do you do?

“What does that mean? I do things ministers do.”

What kinds of things do ministers do?

“Easy. Write sermons, visit people in the hospital, do weddings and funerals. Ministers write newsletter articles and make sure the contract for the copier gets renewed. You know, minister things.”

Where do you spend most of your time?

(At this point, ministers will get cagey.) “Oh, you know, this and that.”


If they’re really honest, most ministers will say when asked what they do:

“I go to meetings and answer email.”

If you’re a minister and someone asks you about the ministry, about what you do, and you say, “I go to meetings and answer email,” then even the ministry isn’t ministry anymore.[2]

Don’t be fooled. Ministry is ministry.

Drive the car; quit lingering in the pit stop.

Drive the words across the page; quit checking Facebook.

Be clear about what the work is.  Plan for it.  Then . . .

Do the work.

  1. I am indebted to Al Pittampalli’s book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting for the metaphor of racing and pit stops as a way to distinguish between work and meetings.  ↩
  2. Keep an eye out for a post about the scourge of email and the church.  ↩
This entry was posted in Christianity, ministry and tagged , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

4 thoughts on “Driving the Words Across the Page: The True Work of Ministry

  1. Pingback: Embracing Failure: Why the Church Needs to Quit Worrying about Dying « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. It is when you write that you are writing.
    It is when you minister (not administer) that you are ministering.

    Writing at its least is self-expression.
    Writing at its best is an act of communication.
    Is it not the same for ministering?
    Communication is when a relationship of messages is established between two or more people.
    Communion is when a relationship of love and grace, justice and compassion, generosity and hospitality is established between two or more people.

    Justice is rehabilitation, restoration and reintegration.
    Compassion is to quench, feed, clothe, heal, visit, welcome, etc. as part of a healthy relationship.

    Love and grace are the norm for the Kingdom of God.
    Justice and compassion are the norm for communal living.
    Generosity and hospitality are the norm for personal living.

  3. Pingback: Tingling Masses of Availability: Changing Congregational Expectations | [D]mergent

  4. Pingback: Why the Church Should Be More Like Apple and Less Like Microsoft | [D]mergent

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