Writing is a spiritually transformative act.
How can Christians be more intentional about facilitating spiritual transformation through writing?
Here is the transcript of my interview with Kelly Boyer Sagert about her CHURCH WRITING MINISTRY. My comments are in bold text and her remarks are in normal text.
Note that Kelly has written a very helpful book on this topic. Her book is called Everything to God in Prayer: A Writer's Weekly Devotional . I highly recommend it.
So just remind me of your name and where you are and what church and tell me about your writing project that you are doing with the church.
OK! Sure! I am Kelly Boyer Sagert. I am in Amherst, ...well the church is in Amherst, Ohio. It's Heritage Presbyterian Church. I'm actually in Merino, OH which is adjacent. We're about 30 miles west of Cleveland to kind of orient you to where we are.
Everything has evolved organically I guess. I have been a professional writer now for 26 years. And part of that is over time people started asking me to speak at writers conferences. I really enjoyed doing that. A lot of public speaking and teaching were added to my repertoire.
Maybe, I'm trying to think, maybe about five years ago the Metro parks in our area are really strong and they asked me if I would put on a writers conference. It was not specifically Christian. And so I put on that writer's conference. And then I became known as the person who knows about writer's conferences in this area.
Numerous people would ask me where is the nearest Christian Writing conference. I would say I have no idea. I don't know of any around here. And finally after being asked that for about two years it occurred to me that we should be doing one. And so let's see. We just had our fourth annual. In 2012 I decided we ought to have one. I had no money. I had no nothing. It was just sort of an idea.
So I went to our church and said if I could get speakers to speak for free or somehow figure out how to pay speakers would you be flexible on how we could host a conference here? Our church was really in financial trouble there. Trust me I'm going to do the best I can to make it reasonable for you as well and they said sure . That sounded good.
And then I went to my writer's group. It was not technically a Christian Writer's group although it was run by a former Nun and most people there were strongly Christian. That might not be the technical whatever but in reality they were mostly faithful Christians. So I said to them if I get a free venue or one that is very reasonable in cost would you donate your time to speak at it? And all kinds of people said absolutely and so ultimately we put together a writer's conference. That was 2012 and we had maybe 50 people. We broke even financially and didn't go into debt. It was really well received and so we decided well let's keep doing this. We just had our fourth annual writer's conference in April. In the past it's been one day but this year we added a social event the night before and then it one day so now it's a day and a quarter.
And this upcoming year we are thinking about starting a Christian writer/speaker kind of event as well. I have tentively booked a speaker. I'm not sure how we are going to pay for it and all sorts of things . It's definitely as we expand we are expanding our faith and so far so good. And so maybe a couple of times a year we are going to have a Christian author come and the reason we want to do that is to open it to the community to people who don't necessarily even consider themselves writers because right now the people we are getting are actively writing or want to be. Then we could open it up further to others who don't necessary think of themselves as best selling writers but like to read .. and then in the middle of all this actually during the first year we did this I got seriously ill. I had 9 colon surgeries in 14 months. four of them were great big ones (surgeries) and then five of them smaller. I was very ill for about two years.
Yah, it was pretty wild. During that time obviously I was doing a lot of reading because that is always my default position. If I can't be doing things I'm always reading. I read a book that talked about a Ministry of Words . I had never really thought about what I was doing as a ministry . I thought that was a bit strange when it was a Christian writer's conference. I hadn't thought about it that way. And so I wrote and e-mailed the author and told her how her book had sort of flipped my brain...flipped a switch on in my brain and she said I have a feeling you have a ministry of words too. You just don't know what it is yet. So then from a practical standpoint and from what I learned there when I realized I was stable in my health I thought will I will start doing something every month smaller as a small group ministry that from a practical stand sense would feed right into our writer's conference and from another just a ministry...that people could be ministered to in a small group way. So I talked to our church and we started doing monthly spiritual writing classes. Tonight is the last one. We are finishing year two. And that is a little different in that the writer's conference there are some workshops where people are actually writing but there's a lot of educating. Anywhere from How to get published? Editing. How to create characters? How do you interview people? How do you find sources? There's a lot of practical aspects to the writer's conferences where the spiritual writing is strictly where you kind of delve inside yourself through writing exercises. For example ...and I could send you something that would make this easier to understand. I found scriptures in the Bible that related to water and all the ways it was used and then how the Bible uses rocks and color and all these different things. I would sometimes read a scripture at the beginning and give people an exercise to start free writing and then they would begin free writing on that subject. And then we would go around the circle and if you want to share that would be great and if you don't just say pass that would be ok. We are not going to pressure you. And then we talk about it. We talk about the patterns we see and the insights we gain and that's free.
I do ask people to bring canned food if they can as we live in a very poor city. There's a lot of hungry people. So certainly someone can pay us by bring food to the food pantry and more power to them. We certainly appreciate it. Other than that I pay for everything extra myself to make it happen.
So all this is going on and our church...was without a minister and I had pretty much had to learn to preach and other church leaders had to learn to preach . It was a pretty wild time. We were working with our Presbytery through it and it was several months ago that they sent out that they had some grant funding for ministries that didn't necessary involve a pastor. They wanted to strengthen ministries that are done by lay people. So I thought what the heck . Most of the people on this list of who would decide who got the funding were people I had worked with them when we didn't have a minister. So they know me and know what I do . And so I sent in that what I wanted to do was two, no three fold. One I wanted to create a workbook so that people who wanted to do this in their own churches could do it and that I also wanted to offer training so that people could sit and go through it and see what it was like and all sorts of things . And three because we really live in poor communities I wanted to get some scholarship funding because I know there are people who want to go to a Christian writer's conference and even though it's $20 early -$25 later and you can pay it later some people just don't have that money. So I wrote a grant and I think it was in August I got money to do that. So now I'm in the middle of writing a training manual. I am going to do three training sessions in the Cleveland area. The west side of it and east side of it and Cleveland proper. And we have enough funding I'm making 45 training manuals, 15 each. And I'm buying props. I made some Christian poetry magnets that we can use. There's all kinds of cool things we can do. We are doing our training and then we are turning it into Kindle and any money we get off of Kindle will help continue to fund the Christian writing ministry that we have.
So I'm in the middle of doing that. I think that's the big picture of what I'm doing . That gives you the broad idea of what I'm doing. I can send you the training manual with the understanding it's not quite done.
Wow! That's great. So it's kind of more from teaching a writers class in your church to teaching it in the city. Has it become kind of a Presbytery thing? Well I guess it has since they gave you the grant money.
Yes, they have taken it on as a ministry they do and they actually had me come in to do a leadership training for the Presbytery. One of the options people could take classes from me . I taught three or four in the daytime. did it three or four times . Different people from the leadership of other churches could come. Yes, and that's what kind of sparks people's interest. You can get this funding . I can only go so many times.
I did some outreach. There's an Episcopal priest who came and helped our church with some leadership training when we didn't have any money . She asked me if I would bring this to her church and I personally went and did that . I just saw her Saturday and she said we are ready for you to come back. So that may become a more regular thing.
Also there's a former pastor of mine now works in Hospice and there was a man who was in homebound palliative care and he kept saying to the pastor "I just want to express my stories, I need to get this out before..." whatever so we went to his house and just took it on the road a few ways with Presbytery, the other church and this Hospice thing and it was well received. That's starting to spread.
That's neat. It's kind of one of the things I was thinking about too. I love the story of the Hospice guy's story and I kind of got to thinking I wanted to help people to write their memoirs. So have you had any success stories of someone who came and they went and wrote and they followed through and how did that make them feel?
Probably the biggest one ...and I didn't realize when she first came about two years ago.....Pretty much we put it on a sign and I told the people I knew whoever's coming are coming. It was usually four to ten people . Now this is the monthly workshops I'm talking about . It's clearly a small group ministry and we usually get four to ten. And someone who just happened to be going down the road and saw it came to the first one and someone gave her a ride after awhile because she told me she didn't have transportation and someone started picking her up . Little by little I could tell she had some rough times in her life and not too long ago she said you know when I came the first time, she said I realized I needed to get sober or die and she said there are stories within me I have to tell that will hopefully help other people. She told me just last month you have completely transformed my life which was not me.
She said you never judged me. You always made me feel important to the other people that were there. And I said well you are. That might have been a stretch there but I would say she has said her life is different because she is expressing things she hasn't been able to do before.
That's cool. And so you started this out and maybe it still is once a month just like a writer's training type thing?
Well the yearly writer's conference is a writer's training . Where we teach you: Here's how you can improve your writing , Here's how you can edit, Here's how you network and how you publish. The annual event is clearly a training event and networking too. Whereas the monthly is more tapping into what God is trying to tell you what your ministry maybe should be . Now one of the ways ...well when I send you the workbook you will see what I mean.. but when I was really sick and I realized I was getting better I signed up for this creative writer's class and they told me one of the first things they want you to do is write as if I was a very specific color in the first person. At the time I thought that was bizarre. And so the first color that came to my mind was strawberry pink. And so I wrote as strawberry pink and it told me all kinds of things that I hadn't realized that I was thinking about myself and my family. And so that is one I have used and over and over again people tell me that they get these insights . Things they had never realized about themselves. And other people will say well I knew that about you ..others outside the class . It's more like a gateway to talking about faith and even discovering what it even is . So it is different in that way.
Well that's great. So you are kind of like using the writing as a spiritual director kind of sense.
Yes, a spiritual director. So yes when I started I didn't realize that's what I was doing but now that it has actually become a reality that really is what it is.
Well that's cool. It is. That's kind of like what I was thinking. Here's what I was thinking and I really haven't done anything but I'm really happy to hear about yours and I want to get everything you send me . I don't know I just . . I can't even remember what got me turned on to this whole concept but I was thinking about helping people write their memoirs and helping them publish and I was thinking that would be a great thing to do when I retire. I had read a great article about what to do when you retire. Then I thought why wait until I retire and that got me to thinking about this . Then I was reading and learning all about self publishing and then I got on the whole idea of getting my church to be a self publishing community let's say. So we go around and find stories like I'm getting from you and we write them up in books, something like Chicken Soup for the Soul
Yeah, I've written for that by the way.
Ok . So there you go.
So yes I know what you are talking about.
So I'd like to get stories about the church. Get some good news stories about the church since all we hear is about how it's falling apart...which it is, but there's always the other side. And so I did find a woman in the church who does some transcribing for me. Like this interview. I will probably send this to her and see if she will transcribe it and that's kind of as far as we got in developing this. I kind of wanted to have a production machine or something from different people in the church and that really hasn't happened but have you ever thought of anything about like that? What is your response to that idea? Pros or cons?
You know I really like it . Two things ..these aren't direct answers to you but I thought of it. One of the things I did was ending up writing a book of devotional based on all this, on my experiences with the colon disease and writing with the church. I can send you one . I should be able to send you one of my kindle versions. EVERYTHING TO GOD IN PRAYER, a writer's weekly devotional.
Well I will buy it on Amazon. Tell me your name again. I'm so bad.
No that's alright. My name is Kelly Boyer Sagert.
OK right . Here I go. I'm going to your Amazon page. Oh my goodness you have 1970's, Joe Jackson, that sound right?
Extreme sports, Flappers...
Yep that's me too.
Oh that's cool . I don't see that particular book.
It should be EVERYTHING TO GOD IN PRAYER. It should be in there.
Well ok let me just site it . Here it is.
What I was thinking. Everyone of them have writing prompts and so that might help you with some people. When you say write something a lot of times what stops people is they worry about what will they write about. What will they say? Every one of those has a brief devotional and then it says try writing about this. So that might help people get started
Yeah, that's right.
That could help and the other thing is there's another church and I wrote to them once and they sort of did this on line. I think it was a Baptist church. It was about things ...basically the idea was you would do an awful thing in your life and then you are willing to write about it and help other people. I had a colostomy for eight months and that was the worst thing that happened in my life. So I wrote about how that was the worst and wrote how it spiritually effected me and how I came out on the other side. And so they did it all on line. That's the only other church who are doing kind of, sort of what you are talking about.
Ok, well maybe you will remember then and you can tell me their name.
Yeah. I will have to look in my emails.
Well anything else on this on what you are doing ....I'm going to turn the recording off and continue our conversation. If you've got time. Well I'm going to turn this off then.
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P.S. If you'd like to hear and discuss ideas that work in the church, join my Facebook Group called The Gospel According to Jon.